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A clash of former allies: Al-Sisi and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Cairo, Egypt on 2 June 2018 [ Egyptian President Office/Apaimages]
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Cairo, Egypt on 2 June 2018 [Egyptian President Office/Apaimages]

The venerable University of Al-Azhar in Cairo organised a two-day international conference on Islamic thought and practice at the end of January. Senior Egyptian and international scholars and politicians were invited to deliberate over the issue in a modern world.

Sources within Al-Azhar said that the conference was organised under the auspices of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi; participants were chosen carefully to ensure a result which would not be opposed by the President. At the very least, it would not contradict his attempts to reduce the impact of Islamic teachings on Egyptian life and, some observers believe, on the life of Muslims around the world.

Al-Azhar is regarded by many Sunni Muslims as the most prestigious religious institution and source of reference. The conference was intended by Al-Sisi to help extend his control over the institution after several botched previous attempts.

The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, had other ideas, though. He undermined Al-Sisi’s plan and turned the conference into a resounding religious and political victory over his one-time ally.

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After the Egyptian revolution of 23 July 1952, in which the army overthrew the monarchy, Al-Azhar became a tool in the hands of the military rulers. After the 2010 death of Al-Tayyeb’s predecessor, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, the then President Hosni Mubarak appointed the current Grand Imam, who was a member of his National Democratic Party’s Policies Committee. Mubarak took this measure in order to strengthen his grip over the Islamic institution.

Image of ousted Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak [TG Post/Facebook]

Former Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak [TG Post/Facebook]

In the wake of the 25 January 2011 Revolution, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) led a transitional government between 11 February 2011 and 30 June 2012, when Mohamed Morsi took office as Egypt’s first democratically-elected President. During this period, SCAF granted full independence to Al-Azhar in order to block any penetration by the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, Al-Tayyeb was able to choose his own aides and holders of other senior positions without the usual checks and approval of the political authorities.

The Muslim Brotherhood was a religious and political opponent of Sheikh Al-Tayyeb, who inherited the leadership of the Sufi tariqa of Al-Imam Al-Junaid, which is popular across Upper Egypt. Though the Muslim Brotherhood is also regarded as a Sufi movement, according to its founder Imam Hassan Al-Banna, it rejects what it believes are heretical aspects inserted into Islam and not legitimised by the faith’s main sources, the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah — example — of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.

Hence, Sufis in Egypt and beyond consider the Brotherhood members to be religious opponents, which is the source of the hostility between Al-Tayyeb and the movement. Politically, as a member of Mubarak’s party he also opposed the Brotherhood on that level.

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Knowing that the Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate group which could easily get into Al-Azhar and gain a platform to reach out to Muslims around the world, Al-Tayyeb pledged not to turn it into a centre for the activities of the movement. He also opposed its election as the ruling party. That is why the Grand Imam supported Al-Sisi’s military coup against Morsi on 3 July 2013.

This made many Egyptians and Muslims look at Al-Azhar in a different light. Al-Tayyeb was unperturbed when Al-Sisi cracked down on opponents of the coup. Five days after ousting Morsi, the Egyptian army killed 51 anti-coup protesters, for example, and wounded 435 others in front of the palace where Morsi was being held.

A man holds a poster of the late former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi during a protest in New York, US on 2 March 2019 [Atılgan Özdil/Anadolu Agency]

A man holds a poster of the late former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi during a protest in New York, US on 2 March 2019 [Atılgan Özdil/Anadolu Agency]

The situation went from bad to worse; more than 250 protesters were killed before the Egyptian army killed thousands more in the protest camps in Rabaa Al-Adawiyya and Al-Nahda Squares in Cairo. Such violence against unarmed protesters pushed the Grand Imam to denounce the bloodshed and call for the authorities to reveal the truth, after reports in the state-run media claimed that pro-Brotherhood protesters had attacked the army.

Al-Tayyeb threatened to remove his support for Morsi’s ousting. “I might be forced to enter into a retreat in my home until everyone takes responsibility for protecting the sanctity of blood and preventing the country from falling into a civil war,” he said on Egyptian state television.

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Al-Sisi ignored him and insisted on getting rid of the opponents of his military coup by continuing his violent crackdown. Following the massacres in Rabaa and Al-Nahda Squares, and with tens of thousands of protesters in prison, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar went into self-imposed exile at his home in Luxor.

When Al-Sisi became the President of Egypt, he purged government institutions of senior generals, judges, public prosecutors, independent-minded individuals, parties and Salafi Muslims. Backed by the Arab dictatorships in the Middle East and Western democracies, he portrayed himself as the saviour of Egypt from the “reactionary” Muslim Brotherhood which wanted to “take the country back” 1,400 years to the age of Prophet Muhammad. The war against Islam had begun. This brought Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb back into the arena.

The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar neither befriended Al-Sisi nor treated him with hostility. On several very public occasions, he saluted him and referred to him as the President of the Republic, but he also responded to Al-Sisi’s heretical opinions about Islam and Islamic heritage. Thus, the senior official at Al-Azhar emerged as a defender of the faith against attacks by Al-Sisi and his lackeys in the media, government and universities.

Hence, when Al-Sisi attempted to change the rules of divorce; reduce the role of the Sunnah in Muslim life; change the syllabus of Al-Azhar University and schools; and control the Friday sermons across the country, Al-Tayyeb and the courageous scholars around him stood firm and won their case against the Egyptian President.

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When the latter put pressure on Al-Azhar to take a position against the Islamic traditions in relation to Daesh, he asked for a fatwa — religious opinion — saying that the movement is outside the fold of Islam. However, Al-Tayyeb rejected such a blanket move and instead insisted that any individual who is involved in the violence associated with Daesh is out of the faith.

The Grand Imam then went further, and rejected the recommendation of an Islamic conference held in Grozny in 2016 under the auspices of Al-Sisi and the UAE which said that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis are not Sunni Muslims. Furthermore, Al-Tayyeb rejected Al-Sisi’s attempt to hand over some Chinese Muslim students to the government in Beijing.

The differences between the President of Egypt and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar are more than political. The former believes that he is the only one able to solve all of Egypt’s problems and those in Muslim countries, while the latter sees himself as having the duty to protect the sanctity and role of arguably the most senior religious position in the Muslim world.

Worshippers gather at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt [File photo]

Worshippers gather at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt [File photo]

When Al-Sisi decided that it was time to remove Ahmad Al-Tayyeb from his position as Grand Imam, he launched a fierce media campaign against him and the institution of Al-Azhar. The compliant media and journalists would not give Al-Tayyeb a right of reply.

Al-Sisi then dismissed the most well-known and trusted aides of Al-Tayyeb, including Sheikh Abbas Shoman and the former legal advisor of Al-Azhar, Mohammed Abdul Salam. Nevertheless, Al-Tayyeb succeeded in restoring the status of Al-Azhar and its Grand Imam within and beyond Egypt. This has undermined Al-Sisi’s ability to challenge him.

It hasn’t helped the Egyptian President that Al-Tayyeb maintains a good relationship with the UAE, one of Al-Sisi’s main regional allies. As far as the government in Abu Dhabi is concerned, Al-Tayyeb and his institution is a major counterweight to the influence of the Wahhabis, Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood affiliates. According to Mada Misr news website, it is this relationship with the UAE which puts pressure on Al-Sisi to avoid undermining the role of the Grand Imam.

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At the aforementioned conference last month, several Muslim scholars adopted Al-Sisi’s ideas and insisted that Islamic heritage is not appropriate for any civilisation in the modern world. One of these was Professor Othman Al-Khisht, the President of Cairo University, who holds the same scientific degree as Al-Tayyeb. Prof. Al-Khisht is known to be very close to Al-Sisi and severely criticised Islamic heritage, insisting that it needs a thorough overhaul to match the zeitgeist of today’s world. He likened Islamic heritage to the old house of his father, which he must leave behind to build a new house; he then asked Al-Tayyeb to comment on his speech.

The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar refuted all of Al-Khisht’s ideas one by one and insisted that Islamic heritage must be the foundation of civilisation. “You need to repair your father’s house, not to desert it,” he told the Cairo University head, “because deserting it is disowning it and this way you would have ignored your father’s heritage.”

Al-Tayyeb provided several examples of how the unchangeable bases of Islam have kept Islamic identity unchanged, while also inspiring scientific revolutions that became the bases of all of today’s civilisations. He pointed out succinctly that Islam turned ignorant Arab tribes into the rulers of the world within 80 years.

Meanwhile, he said, the Muslim world has been using European teaching methodologies for about 100 years, with Euro-centric sciences in its universities and schools, but Muslim countries have not, for example, produced tyres like the Europeans. He insisted that the problem is not with Islamic heritage, but with those Muslims who ignore their history and are thus disconnected from the intellectual prosperity that their Muslim grandfathers spread to every corner of the world.

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Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb’s comments were applauded warmly and Al-Khisht was embarrassed; his annoyance was palpable. Social media has been buzzing with praise for Al-Tayyeb, not only from Egyptians, but also Muslims around the world who hope and pray that he has repented for backing Al-Sisi’s military coup.

The state-controlled media in Egypt, meanwhile, has called Sheikh Al-Tayyeb’s speech a coup against Al-Sisi and has called for his dismissal and exclusion from public life. Some commentators and Islamic scholars think that this could be a real possibility, such is Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s insecurity about any criticism of himself and his regime. In this clash of former allies, there may only be one winner in a country where justice is a scarce commodity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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