ANALYSIS: Is Egypt’s al-Azhar ‘secularizing’ its scientific schools?

Sonia Farid
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For the first time in its 1000-year-old history, al-Azhar, the world’s leading institution on Sunni Islam, accepted a Christian student. Abanoub Girgis Naeim, a graduate of a private university in the Upper Egyptian city of Beni Suef, sent an application for his one-year-residency to the School of Dentistry at al-Azhar and was admitted.

Because most private universities in Egypt do not offer residencies, which are mandatory for the completion of a dentistry degree, students apply to state universities. What is peculiar about Naeim’s case is that he chose to apply to al-Azhar, which only accepts Muslims including in non-theological schools, and that he was actually accepted. Naem’s case raised speculations about whether al-Azhar is on its way to open its scientific schools to all Egyptians and whether this is the first step towards a long-awaited reform of an institution that is regarded as responsible for religious discourse in Egypt.

Khaled Seddiq, dean of the School of Dentistry at al-Azhar University branch in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Assiout, where Naeim applied, received five residency applications, four Muslims and one Christian: “I accepted them all without looking at religion,” he said. “These are the principles we learn at al-Azhar.” Seddiq noted that most patients who are treated by dental students in the Assiout branch are Christian anyway, in reference to the large Christian population in the governorate. According to Seddiq, Naeim said that he will encourage his Christian colleagues to apply for their residences at the same school.

“And I will accept them as long as they are qualified,” he said. “I was also in a meeting with al-Azhar grand imam and he praised such a step as representative of the values of moderation promoted by al-Azhar.” However, Seddiq made it clear that Naeim is only spending a one-year residency at al-Azhar, which is similar to being part of a training program, and is not enrolled as a full-time student. “Christians have taken part in training programs in al-Azhar before, but there are different rules for becoming a student at one of al-Azhar’s schools.”

Al-Azhar spokesman Abbas Shouman had earlier clarified that there is no rule that stops Christians from becoming students at al-Azhar, but enrollment requirements normally apply to Muslims only. “Applicants for example have to have learnt the Quran by heart and I doubt that Christians would do that,” he said. “Also, why would Christians want to enroll in a university where they have to take religious courses throughout their years of study?” Shouman was referring to the fact that all Azhar students, including those who enroll in scientific schools, have to study jurisprudence, theology, Islamic law, and Quranic studies. “The same would apply to Muslims who wouldn’t want to study in a church- affiliated college.” Shouman’s statements came in response to a draft law submitted by MP Mohamed Abu Hamed in which he called for the separation of theological and scientific schools al-Azhar so that students of the latter would not have to take religious courses, hence encouraging Christians to enroll.

Journalist Ahmed Fouad noted that Seddiq’s statement about other Christian students who received training at al-Azhar’s scientific schools was news to everyone. “And if this is the case, why did al-Azhar choose to publicize Naeim’s story in particular so that it sounded like the first of its kind?” Fouad interviewed T.Y., a doctor who graduated from al-Azhar and who said that the timing is quite sensitive since al-Azhar has been recently accused of discriminating against Christians and it wanted to prove the opposite.

“Al-Azhar may have actually accepted Naeim to make this point,” he quoted T.Y. as saying. “Also Naeim’s decision to apply to al-Azhar showed that he was not intimidated by continuous criticism of its policies and was not concerned about being rejected for his religion,” Fouad argues that al-Azhar might have seen in Naeim’s case an opportunity to refute claims of its intolerance, especially those implied in the new draft law submitted by MP Mohamed Abu Hamed, who called for the full secularization of non-theological schools at al-Azhar, as well as criticism levelled against the institution’s “sectarian” curricula by journalists like Ibrahim Eissa and Islamic scholars like Islam Beheiri.

Proving its critics wrong

Before Naiem’s admission, al-Azhar had already been engaged in an initiative to prove its critics wrong especially as far as the sectarianism of its curricula is concerned. In April 2017, an article was published on the Azhar portal stating examples of parts from its school and university curricula about Christians. “After terrorists started targeting Christians, many accused al-Azhar of inciting violence against Christians through the material taught to its students,” wrote Hassan Mustafa, the author of the article.

“Here is what al-Azhar curricula say about Christians.” Mustafa cites examples from books taught in Azhar middle schools, especially theology courses that stress that importance of tolerance between Muslims and non-Muslims.

“The same applies to Azhar high schools where the Islamic Culture course contains an entire chapter on citizenship,” he added. “At the same stage, students also study all sayings by the prophet that call for establishing good relations with non-Muslims and the importance of respecting those who belong to other religions.” Mustafa notes that the same principles are taught in more detail at the university level through the life of Prophet Muhammad and his relations with non-Muslims, different stages of Islamic history that set a clear example for peaceful co-existence, and the relationship between Islam and the rest of the world. “Students at non-theological schools also study similar courses.”

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