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A More Democratic Islam in Egypt?

February 17, 2011

Al-Azhar University

News stories discuss the influence of Egypt’s pro-democracy protests in Tahrir Square on the rest of the Muslim world outside Egypt. But what about the rest of Egyptian society? Specifically, what about al-Azhar?

Should the leader of the world’s chief center for Arabic literature and Sunni Islamic learning be democratically elected?

Yes, says its current head, Ahmad at-Tayyib, according to a Feb. 15 article by Walid Abdul-Rahman in the Saudi-owned London-based Asharq al-Awsat daily newspaper.

In the spirit of the new democratic reforms being sought in Egypt, at-Tayib told the newspaper that “if the current government calls for the election of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar this morning, then I will surely be the first one to support it.”

The Sheikh of Al-Azhar has usually been appointed by the government, in part to ensure that the university would not make pronouncemetns against the actions of the regime.

The current sheikh was appointed by the Mubarak regime after the death of his long time predecessor Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy in March of last year.

According to the newspaper, at-Tayib told his senior cleric colleagues “I do not mind the election of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar instead of his nomination. This has always been my demand and it has always been one of my priorities. However, I have been waiting for the right time to make that announcement…” The right time, apparently, is on the heels of successful pro-democratic uprisings.

Doctor Abdul-Rahman al-Berr, a professor at Al-Azhar University and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, said he would support elections by Egypt’s most distinguished clerics “provided they are based on clear and proper principles.” He said the senior cleric of al-Azhar should be elected by an ” independent committee that has no ties with the state and is not subjected to any partisan influence…”

Not everyone was so supportive. Dr. Abdullah al-Najjar warned that if the sheikh of Al-Azhar is elected, all the senior clerics will become rivals jockeying for the prize. ” This situation will create anarchy…”

And Dr. Abdul-Mohti Bayyoumi, a prominent member in the Al-Azhar Research Center said that rether than elections or government appointment, the sheikh should be chosen strictly by seniority.”

There are real risks and rewards in this kind of change. On the one hand, it frees the Sheikh of Al-Azhar from being a mere mouthpiece for the state in matters of doctrine and morals. On the other hand, it opens the possibility for the emergence of leaders less moderate in their pronouncements on the world.

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