Tuesday, 23 March 2010


Sheikh Ahmad El-Tayyeb to succeed Sheikh Tantawy as Grand Sheikh and Imam of Al-Azhar

  • Tuesday, 23 March 2010
  • Fouad GM
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  • As if it wasn't enough that the head of the state in Egypt "appoints" the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Egypt has "chosen" a member of the ruling National Democratic Party's Political Bureau (headed by Gamal Mubarak) as Grand Sheikh for the highest Islamic authority in Egypt and one of a handful of its kind in the Muslim World - at least the Sunni Muslim world.

    Asharq Al-Awsat carried a piece by Hussein Shobokshi narrating the intellectual and scholarly merits of Al-Azhar's new Grand Imam, Sheikh Ahmad El-Tayyeb. In his piece, Shobokshi writes "It was a pleasant surprise when Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb was announced as the next Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar. Personally speaking, if I were to classify contemporary sheikhs in terms of their rhetoric and the depth of their wisdom, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb would undoubtedly be at the top of the list."

    Shobokshi adds "Sheikh al-Tayeb specializes in Islamic doctrine, and he is one of the most prominent figures to discuss the most serious and sensitive situation in line with a moderate Islamic outlook. Disagreements over juristic and ideological issues have continually represented a ready platform for the leveling of accusations of [religious] heresy and dissent, however al-Tayeb is a strong figure and is able to deal with such thorny issues, and he deliberates disagreements over such issues carefully and judiciously."

    Shobokshi then commends El-Tayyed for his dialogue skills and suggests thet might be a natural outcome of the French education which Al-Azhar's new Grand Imam received aided by his vast knowledge of western culture and philosophy - as if the oldest educational institution in the history of Islamdom, and which pre-dated any of its European counterparts, needed a French-educated Grand Imam.

    What concerns me the most however, was not Shobokshi's inferiority complexes, oriental worldviews or his rather superficial praise of El-Tayyeb. After all, Shobokshi himself is a businessman and a "global leader of tomorrow" as he was branded by the World Economic Forum.

    As for me, I know too little about El-Tayyeb to pass a judgement on the scholarly and managerial credentials of Al-Azhar's new Grand Imam, and I'm certainly in no place to pass an ill-informed judgement on an Al-Azhar scholar. However, the political stance and positions of Sheikh Ahmad El-Tayyeb concern me the most here.

    On the one hand, his role in carrying out crucially important changes to the university's syllabus and infrastructure is commendable - although questionable in the way they carve out the heart of Al-Azhar University and reduce it to another non-European institution of higher education aspiring to meet European benchmarks, achieve European recognition and follow European research methods. More importantly was Sheikh El-Tayyeb's response to the rise of so-called "student militias" who carried out provocative action and who were allegedly sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood.

    But on the other hand, it remains a fact that Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayyeb is a member of the ruling National Democratic Party's Political Bureau, itself headed by Gamal Mubarak - the controversial son and perceived heir of his father's 30-year presidency.

    Ironically, Shobokshi praises El-Tayyeb for rejecting the politicization of religion. An article run by Al-Masry Al-Youm however refers to El-Tayyeb's comments on Mona El-Shazli's popular TV show "Ten PM" where Al-Azhar's new Grand Imam asserts to his audience that there is no contradiction between the post of Sheikh Al-Azhar and his membership of the Political Bureau of the National Democratic Party. According to El-Tayyeb "the National Party needs Al-Azhar and vice versa". BBC Arabic's article on the appointment of Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayyeb as Grand Imam of Al-Azhar made similar remarks noting that "El-Tayyeb is known for his opposition to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the largest political force in opposition [to Mubarak]."

    The fact remains, Egypt has nationalised its religious institutions, religious endowments and men of religion. In the eternal battle between the state and society, the Egyptian state has assigned itself guardianship and superiority over the various institutions of civil, religious and traditional societies in Egypt. Albeit a nominal ratification of the institutional choice, or election, of its head, the Egyptian president has reserved the right to "appoint" the head of the Al-Azhar since 1961 - as has been the case with the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and the Holy See of Saint Mark, the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and of All Africa.

    For centuries, and certainly in its modern republican history, the Egyptian state has portrayed itself as sovereign, even over its two supreme religious institutions. In effect however, it has only co-opted them and maintains a delicate and dangerous relationship with them - a relationship that has harmed the credibility of Al-Azhar on the one hand, and allowed the Coptic Patriarchate the ability to expand its role in the communal affairs of the Coptic community. This balance has, at times, proven too dangerous - as was the case with late president Sadat during his confrontation with Pope Shenouda III in the late 1970s.

    Today, the overtake of the state and its institutions by a business tycoons and entrepreneurs has seeped into the Egyptian religious institution of Al-Azhar through the appointment of Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayyeb. His membership of the Political Bureau of the ruling NDP and the inevitable relationship that suggests between him and Gamal Mubarak raises the critical question of whether Al-Azhar will become another spear in the NDP's war against all forms of opposition to its grip on power and the expanding hegemony of the entrepreneurs and tycoons that have formed the so-called "new guard" of the NDP? Will the pulpits of Al-Azhar be used to illegitimate opposition to Mubarak? Will it be used to give his successor, whoever he may be, a seal of religious and clerical approval? Is this part of Mubarak's rearrangement of the dossiers of whomever he's preparing for his succession?

    Shobokshi might have wished Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayyeb the best of luck in leading Al-Azhar in his article, but I wish Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayyeb and Al-Azhar the best of luck in regaining and maintaining their independence and autonomy from the state and Egypt's business class - for the sake of Azhari scholarly inquiry, religious freedom, moderation, secularism and for everyone's sake.

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