The revolution that began here two years ago with calls for justice and freedom has become a rout by Islamist forces that have racked up victory upon victory at the polls. But within Egypt and across the region, the real source of fears that the country is careening toward theocracy lies in an unlikely place: the ancient stone corridors of al-Azhar, a Cairo mosque and university complex that has long been known as a respected beacon of moderation. This month, the Muslim Brotherhood held funerals at al-Azhar mosque for members who were killed in clashes with secular demonstrators. That reputation is under threat, as far more hard-line elements of Egypt’s Islamic mosaic stage a rear-guard action for control. It is a battle that will gain newfound urgency on Saturday, when voters are expected to approve a draft constitution that gives al-Azhar extraordinary power to pass judgment on the religious merits of the nation’s laws. Al-Azhar leaders say they didn’t want the role but were pressured to accept it by adherents to a puritanical, Saudiinfluenced school of Islam known as Salafism, whose clout has surged in Egypt’s newly democratic era. “The Salafis want to make Azhar a part of the political system, which we are against,” said Abdel Dayem-Nossair, an adviser to al-Azhar’s grand sheik and a member of the assembly that wrote the new constitution. “We don’t like to put the law in terms of a religious dogma that says ‘ This is right’ or ‘ This is wrong.’ ” But under the new constitution, that is exactly what the millennium-old institution will soon be doing. Dayem-Nossair said he believes the Salafis insisted on the provision because “they think they’ll take over al-Azhar.” The fight over al-Azhar’s nature and role is one with profound implications for Egypt, but also far beyond. As much as anything, the Arab Spring uprisings and the tumult that followed have turned on the question of where Islam fits in society and who gets to interpret Islam. Al-Azhar has played a venerated role in that debate for centuries. It is widely considered the most distinguished center of Sunni Islamic thought, and it annually educates millions of students, many of whom travel here from across the globe.Numerous earlier posts have covered the changing nature of Al-Azhar:
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- A post from last November reported on a speech given by Global Muslim Brotherhood leader Youssef Qaradawi before Friday prayers at the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, his first speech ever at Al-Azhar and where he called for Arabs and Muslims to unite In confrontation With Israel.
- A post from October reported that Salah Soltan, a notorious anti-Semite and formerly part of the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood,, had been appointed as Secretary General of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (SCIF) attached to the Egyptian Ministry of Waqf. The appointment was made by the Minister Dr. Talaat Mohamed Afify Salem who has been described as a member of the Salafist movement in Egypt and as an “ally” of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Ministry of Waqf (Islamic Endowment) is reported to have influence over Al-Azhar.
- A post from May reported on what was describef as a “first-of-its-kind” meeting between Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Azhar leaders.
- A post from Npvember 2011reported that a Muslim Brotherhood rally in Cairo held at the Al Azhar Mosque was a “venomous anti-Israel protest” that featured calls to “kill all the Jews.
- In March 2010, a post reported on the appointment of Sheikh Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed al-Tayeb as head of Al-Azhar, replacing Mohammed Sayed Tantawi who had died recently on a trip to Saudi Arabia.
- In October 2008, posts reported on the election of Qaradawi to the Islamic Research Council of Al-Azhar.