Throughout its history, al-Azhar boasted including diverse Islamic currents. But it also strongly rejected other currents, including most recently the Baha’is and the Quranists. Al-Azhar also opposed Islamic radicals and took the side of the state in its fight against violent Islamist groups.
Despite its post-Mubarak overtures to Salafis, al-Azhar and Dar al-Ifta’ remain opposed to the hardliner interpretation of Islam adopted by mainstream Salafist groups, especially the Salafist Calling, also known as the Salafists of Alexandria.
The 2011 has seen a series of unprecedented meetings of the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar and Salafi scholars to ameliorate religious tensions. Al-Azhar has also sought to establish links with the Muslim Brothers, Salafists, and Jihadists in order generate an influence on public religious discourse (Sayed, 2006).
In May, 2011, Ahmed El-Tayyeb received a delegation from the Muslim Brothers, headed by the group’s Supreme Guide Mohamed Badei’. This meeting was the first of its kind in the history of Al-Azhar and the Muslim Brotherhood. According to the Muslim Brotherhood’s website, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Azhar, together with the Ministry of Endowments, are collaborating to form a committee to visit mosques and speak to the people to clarify the message of Islam and its values of moderation, tolerance, and peace.
This effort came at the backdrop of violent religious confrontations among Muslim and Copts in Imbaba, Atfih, and other places in Egypt. The agreement, according to the website, came after weeks of unprecedented meetings between Bedei’, El-Tayyeb, and a delegation from the Ministry of Endowments.
Not only the Muslim Brotherhood, but El-Tayyeb also received Mohamed Hassan, the famous Salafi preacher, on May 10, 2011. The reason could be its desire to strengthen its role as the center of Islamic scholarship and knowledge, or a feeling of the inability of al-Azhar to act alone in the post-Mubarak regime.
In their meeting in the Grand Imam’s office in al-Azhar, one topic that attracted newsreporting was the discussion of religious tensions between Muslims and Christians and the need for coordination among the different Islamic trends and groups in order to end these tensions. In addition, El-Tayyeb said that he is sure that the true Salafi trend is innocent from the violent religious confrontations that took place in Imbaba.
The relationship between al-Azhar and the Salafists has been antagonistic. The foundations of this antagonism could be dated to the time when Ibrahim Pasha (1789-1848), son of Egypt’s ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha, destroyed the capital of the Wahhabists in the Arabian Peninsula in 1818 and captured its Saudi rulers and Wahabi scholars.
Some were sent into exile in Egypt, and others were sent to the Ottoman capital of Istanbul. In the 1930s, al-Azhar teachers expelled Abdallah Al-Qusaymi, a Saudi student, for Wahhabist inclinations and criticism of one of al-Azhar’s scholars. Until the 1970s, there were few Salafist scholars teaching at al-Azhar University.
There have been recent signs of intensified antagonism between Al-Azhar and Salafism, particularly since Ahmed El-Tayyeb assumed the position of Grand Sheikh. In a TV interview, El-Tayyeb equated the threat of posed by Salafism on Islam to the danger posed by secularism, Marxism, and Christian missionaries. El-Tayyeb declared a campaign against Salafism, which he considered to be based on Wahhabism. He deemed Salafism alien to Egypt and funded by foreign countries.
He noted that the spread of Salafism resulted from the weakening of the role of al-Azhar, and that the spread of these Salafism and other “foreign sects” led to the spread of Saudi fiqh (religious jurisprudence) at the expense of moderate fiqh. El-Tayyeb also criticized the insistence of the Salafis on minimalist interpreting Islam, stressing that Muslims have recognized a plurality of trends as correct for hundreds of years. He accused Salafis of putting too much focus on appearance, which should not be the priority of a Muslim.
These comments fueled counter arguments and criticisms on Salafist internet forums in Egypt. The forum titled Forsan al-Haq (Knights of the Truth) included angry remarks and outright disgust at the Grand Sheikh’s equation of Salafism with Marxism, secularism, and Christian missionaries.
The remarks included references to the Sufi inclinations of the Grand Sheikh, and accusations that El-Tayyeb and Ali Gomaa, the Grand Sheikh encourage Sufism, which has a dwindling popularity in Egypt compared to the rising popularity of Salafism.
Al-Azhar has taken the side of the government throughout the latter’s struggle with Islamists. Signposts, the revolutionary book by Sayyed Qutb, was described as “abominable” and Qutb was denounced as a “deviant” and a “Kharijite” by Al-Azhar scholars. The Islamic institution provided Sadat with a justification for signing peace with Israel, although in 1956 it had produced a fatwaopposing peace with Israel.
Jad Al-Haq Ali Jad Al-Haq, the late Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, argued that those who use violence against the state were not Muslims since they attacked the Muslim community. The Grand Imam went as far as recommending Qur’anic punishments against them, such as amputation.
His statements referred mainly to Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiyya, Al-Jihad, and the Vanguards of Conquest (Barraclough, 1998). In the post-Mubarak era relations are becoming stronger as formerly militant groups seek means for legitimate political participation. In addition to the Muslim Brothers and Salafis, on May 11, 2011, El-Tayyeb met leaders from Al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya, Kram Zohdy, President of the Shura Council of Al-Jama’a, and his deputy Nageh Ibrahim.
In a public statement, al-Jama’a announced reaching an agreement with Al-Azhar for the former to communicate with the street and reform the language of the Islamic discourse. Nageh Ibrahim said that Al-Jama’a is pleased to work under the flag of Al-Azhar. He also stressed that Al-Azhar functions as a point of reference (marji’iyya) and does not negate the presence of other Islamic currents and trends.
Founded by Al-Azhar scholar Ahmed Sobhy Mansour, and also known as Ahl Al-Quran (People of the Quran), the Quranists promote a vision of Islam as a belief system committed to liberal values and democracy. Their premise is that the compilation of Sunna has been tainted by many inaccurate hadiths and is therefore not a reliable source for understanding Islam. The Quranists have been calling for a secular democratic state and supported an amendment of Article 2 of the Constitution.
Quranists do not only criticize Hadith and Sunna as fluid sources of Islam, but they also criticize Al-Azhar institution and many of its scholars. As may be expected, Quranists have faced direct criticisms and rejection from mainstream scholars in addition to outright harassment and persecution by security services.
According to reporting by Karim El-Khashab in Al-Ahram Weekly in 2011, Al-Azhar has criticized the Quranists and declared them apostates. Mohamed Said Tantawy, former Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, said that those who call for relying only on the Quran are ignorant of Islamic religious rules because Sunna, according to Tantawy and the mainstream, explains and clarifies the rules mention as in the Holy Quran.
After arrests of a number of Quranist scholars and activists in 2007, the late Tantawy, said that the State Security had every right to arrest anyone who tarnished the image of Islam. According to the article by Karim El-Khashab mentioned above, when asked whether this position fit with the values of freedom of speech, he replied, “We respect freedom of speech but the law clearly places limitations on matters of faith.”