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Profile: Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut, the reformist head of Al-Azhar University

April 23, 2020 at 10:25 am

Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut, the reformist head of Al-Azhar University [Wikipedia]

Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut was a renowned Muslim scholar, reformer and rector of the esteemed Al-Azhar University in Cairo who was notable for seeking to bridge the gap in the Sunni-Shia divide and modernising Al-Azhar’s establishment. From humble beginnings, he was born on 23 April 1893 in a farming village in the Buhayra Governorate of Lower Egypt.

In 1906, having memorised the Qur’an by heart, the teenage Shaltut was enrolled for his primary and secondary education at the new Religious Institute of Alexandria, which was affiliated to Al-Azhar, where he was consistently top of his class. Twelve years later he graduated from the prestigious institution in the capital with his Alimiyah degree, obtaining the highest marks in his year group. The following year, he was appointed to teach at the Alexandria Institute, where he was also active in publishing articles on the religious sciences. It was in 1927, aged 34, that he was transferred to a teaching post at Al-Azhar’s Higher Division.

Decline of Egypt’s religious institutions

In order to appreciate Sheikh Shaltut’s achievements in his later career, it is important to have some historical context. During the early 19th century, the Egyptian Ulema (Islamic scholars) and their institutions fell into economic neglect and social irrelevance due in part to measures introduced by Ottoman governor Muhammad Ali who imposed a tax on the waqf (religious endowment) revenues administered by the Ulema. Al-Azhar also fell into a state of decline during this period. This led to the emergence to prominence of an intellectual class of modernist Muslim thinkers. Having managed to survive these challenges, as other institutions ceased to exist, Al-Azhar and its Ulema became the centralised religious establishment, before developing into a modern university.

After the defeat and disintegration of the Ottoman Empire — the Islamic Caliphate — following World War One, Ottoman Ulema were no longer the highest authority in the Sunni Muslim world. This void would be filled by Al-Azhar, largely unchallenged until the mid-20th century when the Wahhabi establishment in Saudi Arabia gained more prominence and influence, spread with the support of the Kingdom’s oil wealth. Competition in religious leadership in the wider Islamic world would also emerge after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Shia-majority Iran.

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Appointment as Sheikh of Al-Azhar

Sheikh Shaltut was keen on reformist ideas and was said to be a disciple of the prominent Muslim modernist intellectuals of his era, Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida, both of whom would have had an influence on him. One of Shaltut’s predecessors as Grand Imam — or Sheikh of Al-Azhar — was Sheikh Mustafa Al-Maraghi, who was appointed to the position in 1928, a year after Shaltut became a teacher at the Higher Division. Maraghi was also a proponent of reform at Al-Azhar and Shaltut was openly supportive of him. However, his ideas were seen as too radical and faced opposition; Maraghi resigned after a year. Due to his own reformist inclinations, Shaltut himself was dismissed along with several others in 1931. He then worked as a lawyer in the Shari’ah courts, while also publishing his views.

Upon Maraghi’s return to the position as head of Al-Azhar in 1935, Shaltut was made Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Law, before working his way up to higher positions. Following a presidential decree, he was appointed to the position of Vice-Rector in 1957, becoming Sheikh of Al-Azhar on 9 November 1958. He was 65 years old.

Educational Reform

It wasn’t long after Sheikh Shaltut’s appointment as head of Al-Azhar that he announced his vision for reform. He believed that Islamic law was compatible with contemporary times and was also determined to see Al-Azhar shift away from state control. A monumental achievement of his was to work towards having the Reform Law passed in 1961. This piece of legislation ensured that the Al-Azhar would no longer be just a theological institution, but also a modern university in its own right integrated into the wider field of higher education in Egypt.

Image of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt on 1st July 2011 [Daniel Mayer/Wikipedia]

Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt on 1st July 2011 [Daniel Mayer/Wikipedia]

As Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Shaltut was involved in several academic committees, including those which dealt with the secular sciences. As a precursor to contemporary Islamic Q&A television programmes and websites, his morning radio broadcasts, during which he answered questions on religious topics from the public, proved to be highly popular and enhanced his reputation.

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Era of tolerance and the “Shia Fatwa”

Sheikh Shaltut was active in intra-faith dialogue, having corresponded with many prominent contemporary Shia Ulema such as Muhammad Al-Husayn Al-Kashif Al-Ghita from Iraq, Sharaf Al-Din Al-Musawi in Lebanon and Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Hossein Borujerdi.

Back in 1948 Shaltut and other scholars were involved in the founding of Jamat Al-Taqrib Bayna Al-Madhahib (The Society for Bringing Together the Schools of Law) in reference to the main Islamic schools of jurisprudence; he was a leading scholar of the Hanafi School. The idea behind the initiative was to bring the Sunni and Shia Muslims together, and increase mutual understanding and tolerance in order to counter religious fanaticism.

This undoubtedly reached its zenith with Shaltut’s 1959 fatwa (religious opinion) declaring that the Shia Ja’fari School was “religiously correct” to follow, along with the four main Sunni schools of jurisprudence: Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki and Hanbali. He added that Muslims ought to refrain from “unjust prejudice to any particular school of thought, since the religion of Allah and His Divine Law (Shari’ah) was never restricted to a particular school of thought.”

Over subsequent decades, the growing religious ideological influence from Saudi Arabia was accelerated after the ouster of late President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 with the emergence of the Salafi Noor Party in Egypt. Sheikh Shaltut’s tolerant attitudes appeared to have been reversed at Al-Azhar and across Egyptian society. Even though current Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb called for more tolerance several years ago, the Egyptian courts recently ruled in favour of closing down all Shia-affiliated websites and TV stations.


Towards the end of his life, Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut suffered from ill health and was confined to a wheelchair. The move of his office to his house in 1962 was attributed not only to his failing health but also his disillusionment with governmental interference in Al-Azhar’s affairs. On 25 November 1963, at the age of 70, he was admitted to Cairo’s Al-Agouza Hospital. His condition deteriorated and he died of a heart attack on 13 December. His funeral was held the following day after the Friday prayer at Al-Azhar Mosque before a burial in a private cemetery nearby. He was succeeded by Sheikh Hassan Mamoun.

Shaltut’s legacy was one of significant reform that helped to reverse the intellectual decline of Al-Azhar University, propelling it to even greater heights. He is also remembered for playing a key role in eradicating sectarianism and promoting mutual understanding and respect between Muslims across the spectrum of Islamic thought.

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