By Ahmad Hafez
Developments at al-Azhar suggest the institution is changing its skin, independent of governmental or parliamentary pressure, and projecting a new image of a religious institution adapting to the times.
Even the biggest optimists could not imagine that the picture of an unveiled woman would appear on the cover of Voice of al-Azhar, al-Azhar’s official magazine, because it was forbidden. Allowing so-called liberated women to publish opinion articles in al-Azhar’s magazines discussing controversial social issues was, until recently, inconceivable.
However, that is what happened when al-Azhar initiated a campaign against sexual harassment. Al-Azhar said a woman’s outfit was no justification for violating her chastity, verbally or physically. Al-Azhar’s stance was understood as supporting a woman’s freedom to wear what she likes, a stance indicating that the institution is changing its traditional position about sartorial modesty. The institution went as far as accepting that the hijab and the Niqab were not required by Sharia.
Observers of al-Azhar’s religious discourse can sense the extent of its change on social issues in general, such as allowing spending Zakat revenues on non-Muslims. Also, for the first time, a college of physical education for girls was recently created at al-Azhar University. The venerable institution came out against non-consensual marriages, in favour of women working outside the home and against transferring female teachers between al-Azhar schools without their consent.
Al-Azhar and its ulema had been intransigent concerning those issues and many others. Lately, however, they seem unable to withstand the attacks and criticism from intellectuals, thinkers, writers and parliament members. So, al-Azhar responded positively to pressing social issues.
Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb dismissed Sheikh Abbas Shoman, al-Azhar deputy who was regarded as Tayeb’s right-hand man, after pressure from several quarters to not reappoint him. Tayeb earlier dismissed Mohammed Amara, member of the Council of Senior Scholars. Shoman and Amara were dogged by accusations of sympathising with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The changes took place in a dramatic sequence and in a short period of time, which led some to equate the developments to a revolution in al-Azhar in terms of flexibility in its positions, its willingness to adapt to social and political trends and its defence of women.
Some observers said al-Azhar’s attempts to improve its image were pre-emptive steps to avoid having ruling circles control it through fait accompli policies.
It is true that there is a connection between the dismissal of Shoman and the changes in the way the organisation is engaging with societal issues that it previously was not decisive on. However, those developments are nominal unless al-Azhar undertakes deeper reforms on other issues.
Those who look positively at the changes in al-Azhar should not be too optimistic about radical changes inside the venerable institution. The changes that have occurred concern social issues only. Al-Azhar is far from making fundamental changes that touch on religious dogma, revising the intellectual heritage and tradition, implementing structural changes in its institutions, purging those institutions of extremist elements and removing scholars who follow and defend Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood doctrines.
It seems that, through appearing to resolve controversial social issues, al-Azhar is trying to suggest it is revolutionising and renewing religious discourse, which is the same role played by Egypt’s Ministry of Endowments and Dar al-Ifta. This implies that the institution is trying to remain at the centre of the religious scene in Egypt through the window of social issues.
Al-Azhar fears new clashes with government circles, clashes that would threaten its spiritual influence, which has declined with the rising role of the Ministry of Endowments and Dar al-Ifta. So the religious institution took bold positions to address society and the authorities. By doing so, it hopes to silence voices calling for its restructuring through revision of its legal statutes that would undermine its independence and power.
Mohammed Abu Hamed, a member of the Egyptian parliament and sponsor of new legislation regarding al-Azhar, said the institution’s recent moves were to build a popular base cutting across different layers of society. This base would serve as al-Azhar’s popular backbone and would enable it to withstand pressure for it to evolve. Deep down, however, al-Azhar will not budge an inch to implement changes required of it regarding dogma and knowledge.
Abu Hamed, who is also a researcher in religions, said al-Azhar’s changes are part of political manoeuvring rather than genuine scientific reform. The latter would require fundamental changes. Al-Azhar is striving to prove that it is in favour of women’s issues but did nothing to remove those religious lessons from its curricula that cultivate contempt and discrimination against women and interfere in the minutest details of their lives.
“If al-Azhar really wants to side with women, it must move immediately to appoint female scholars to its Senior Scholars Council. This, of course, would be impossible because al-Azhar rejects the idea that a woman may issue Fatwas and participate in religious decision-making. The problem with al-Azhar is that it has become like a political party, seeking popular support through populist and sentimental discourse but with no action on the ground,” Abu Hamed said.
Al-Azhar’s supporters say the institution’s moves are a step towards reforming the institution and could lead to a real change in the religious discourse in addition to purging al-Azhar curricula of extremism and fundamentalism. They agree that radical change is difficult to achieve quickly.
Ahmad Hafez is an Egyptian writer.