Cairo – Al-Azhar University in Cairo is one of the oldest and most respected Sunni religious institutions in the world. It works hard to uphold the image of Islam by supporting tolerance, urging Muslims to avoid extremism and rendering edicts on the proper behaviour for Muslims—such as respect for one’s neighbours and the need to practice charity towards anyone in need. It also teaches the basic principles of coexistence that are entrenched in Islamic ideology and practice.
Egyptians have respected Al-Azhar scholars since the founding of the institution over 1,000 years ago; its Grand Imams have been honourable and trusted figures in society. Since Dr. Mohammed Sayed Tantawi became Grand Imam in 1996, however, Egyptians have come to distrust Al-Azhar, judging Tantawi to be more concerned with upholding the current regime than religious principles.
Despite this widespread sentiment, however, many of us were shocked to hear that Tantawi had forced a 13-year-old student to take off her niqab, an outfit that covers the female body, face and hands, and upbraided her for wearing it while he was visiting one of Al-Azhar’s institutes in Cairo.
The vast majority of Egyptians espouse moderate religious values, including tolerance for other points of view within Islam. Most of us don’t feel that wearing niqab, is a woman’s Islamic duty. But we do feel that those who wish to wear it should be able to.
This move has therefore made Tantawi a target of widespread criticism – not only from those who support wearing niqab but, surprisingly, from those who oppose it also. The criticism has become even more widespread since it spurred the Minister of High Education to subsequently ban students who wear niqab from entering the university’s residences.
Criticism has come from Egyptian human rights organisations, activists and secular writers as well as from members of political Islamic movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and the association of Al-Azhar Scholars Front, a group of Al-Azhar scholars who have formed their own organisation.
There was also a significant online debate about the issue: bloggers, Facebook users, YouTube visitors and various forums’ members joined people on the streets and delved into discussion and debate about the legitimacy of Tantawi’s action.
Given the furore, local and international media are covering developments around the uproar, and the legal actions that some lawyers and students have taken against Tantawi and the Minister of High Education. Women have actively protested against the Minister of High Education’s decision to ban the niqab. Beyond the lawsuit against Tantawi, there have also been inquiries from the Egyptian parliament, and calls for Tantawi to be removed from his position.
The Grand Imam has tried to defend himself from public outrage by saying that while he respects the decision to wear the niqab, he finds it unnecessary inside a classroom where the students and teachers are all females.
But an opinion emerging from the public debate is that the move to ban the niqab is symbolic of the government’s influence on and manipulation of Al-Azhar, rather than a decision stemming from religious jurisprudence.
Some media personalities have opined that Al-Azhar is worried about its waning influence as it is continuously countered by the Saudi-funded Salafi movement in Egypt, which supports a narrow interpretation of Islam and has been known to exacerbate sectarian tensions in other societies, including Pakistan and Azerbaijan. I, in fact, believe that it is this movement’s influence that has resulted in increased extremism and terrorism in Egypt in the last few years.
Others believe that Al-Azhar, which receives financial support from the Egyptian government, is toeing the government line and adopting a stance that the government favours – because the Egyptian government is also keen to counter the Saudi-influenced movement.
Whether acting independently on at the behest of the government, the implications of Al-Azhar’s stance are obvious in Egypt: women who don the niqab are usually very conservative. Many of them live in poorer areas, where the influence of political Islamic groups is most notable. Thus rightly or wrongly, many believe that the government is trying to limit how these women are involved in mainstream society—they must enter schools and other public institutions on terms defined by the state. Moreover, many see the state as trying to limit the reach of political Islamic groups by banning the attire that the state associates with them.
If limiting such groups is the aim, however, the move has backfired. The ban has provided conservative Salafi sheikhs, satellite television channels, websites and followers with the opportunity to spread their word more widely, gain sympathy and conjure more support from the public.
There is a way, however, for Al-Azhar to regain its leading role in upholding mainstream Muslim values: the state should empower it as an independent institution and allow its scholars to elect the Grand Imam, rather than appoint him itself. This move would renew public trust in Al-Azhar and allow its influence to return, helping continue its work to defeat extremist ideas. But it can only happen if the government is prepared to draw a clear line separating religion from politics.
* Yasser Khalil is an Egyptian researcher and journalist. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 27 October 2009,