Egypt’s al-Azhar amidst a poisoned political atmosphere

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

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Egypt's al-Azhar institution is more than a thousand years old. Sunnis, Shiites, Ottomans and European rulers fought over it. Napoleon claimed to be a follower of Islam and sought to rule Egypt through the institution. And history repeats itself today. The struggle reached its peak when Ahmadinejad insisted to enter al-Azhar as the first Iranian president allowed to do so. Al-Azhar custodians were subsequently angered by him and warned him not to interfere or spread Shiism in Egypt.

Al-Azhar represents Islamic moderation. It is an educational lighthouse and a prominent religious point of reference. After the judiciary, the security and the media, Egypt’s struggle reached al-Azhar’s fences

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Al-Azhar represents Islamic moderation. It is an educational lighthouse and a prominent religious point of reference. After the judiciary, the security and the media, Egypt’s struggle reached al-Azhar’s fences. The struggle reached an extent we have not known before, regarding the exchange of conspiracies over this religious institution. There have been accusations of poisoning, coups and conspiring. These accusations divided Egyptians. The Salafis stood against their ally, the Brotherhood, and threatened it, warning its members not to insult them. And the Christian Copts supported the Islamists against the Brotherhood.

A poisoned political atmosphere

When hundreds of students were admitted to a hospital for food poisoning, it was said that someone wants to accuse al-Azhar’s sheikh of failure in order to dismiss him. The poisoning of students could have been nothing more than the result of an unclean kitchen, especially since poisoning has occurred twice before. The Brotherhood and the university’s principal have nothing to do with it. Since the political atmosphere is poisoned, the incident was enough for each party to make accusations and voice suspicions. It was clear since the beginning that the toppled regime of Mubarak had nothing to do with the explosion at al-Qiddissin (Saints) Church. The former regime’s remnants and security forces also had nothing to do with the murder of more than 70 people at the Port Said arena. The incident was the result of sports riots that occurred at a time when security was weak, its prestige was broken and its hands were tied.

Religious legitimacy

The Brotherhood want to take over al-Azhar because it knows that it has more legitimacy if it does. If it controls al-Azhar, it will be crowned with the religious legitimacy it failed to attain when it was in the opposition speaking in the name of Islam. Addtionally, what is more important than possessing the legitimacy of association with al-Azhar is the Muslim Brotherhood’s desire to prevent any party from allying with al-Azhar against it, such as the parties of the military, Salafist or any other party that opposes it.

When extremist Muslims attacked Copts two days ago because of graffiti, some Coptic figures said the Brotherhood carried out the attack because it wanted to punish the Copts for supporting al-Azhar against the ruling party. This sentiment was strengthened by Brotherhood figures’ statements that made the insulting graffiti an acceptable excuse, they said that clashes cannot be prevented with the presence of such graffiti. To be fair, when the incident happened, President Mursi took a good decisive stance when he announced that he considers the attack against the church as an attack against him, that is the presidency.

Doctor Sheikh Osama al-Qowasi accuses the Brotherhood with the statement: “For decades, it has had a scheme aiming to infiltrate all state institutions by establishing unions and syndicates… The religious institution represented by al-Azhar is the first of these institutions that it wants to infiltrate.”

The significance of al-Azhar lies in the fact that wars with other countries can be announced through it. It can be used to eliminate political parties by accusing them of betrayal. It can also adopt certain references and ignore others. The importance of al-Azhar was made clear through its stances which are sometimes critical and sometimes reject the Brotherhood’s cabinet’s actions. For example, it objected on issuing contracts that mortgage state property to get loans. Al-Azhar rejected these contracts because the cabinet called them “Islamic contracts.” Al-Azhar said there is property that cannot be mortgaged because it is prohibited religiously. The battle over the contracts is ongoing.

Although the Brotherhood presents itself as an Islamic group, many really look at it as a political group using religion to enforce its authority and control the people. Its religious value has become weak because of the emergence of religious parties that compete with it over religion and politics, like the Salafis, or influential figures who defected from it, like Doctor Abu al-Fotouh.


Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

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