That reputation is under threat, as far more hardline elements of Egypt’s Islamic mosaic stage a rear-guard action for control. It is a battle that will gain newfound urgency on Saturday, when voters are expected to approve a draft constitution that gives al-Azhar extraordinary power to pass judgment on the religious merits of the nation’s laws.
Al-Azhar leaders say they didn’t want the role but were pressured to accept it by adherents to a puritanical, Saudi-influenced school of Islam known as Salafism, whose clout has surged in Egypt’s newly democratic era.
“The Salafis want to make Azhar a part of the political system, which we are against,” said Abdel Dayem-Nossair, an adviser to al-Azhar’s grand sheikh and a member of the assembly that wrote the new constitution. “We don’t like to put the law in terms of a religious dogma that says ‘this is right’ or ‘this is wrong.’ ”
But under the new constitution, that is exactly what the millennium-old mosque and university complex will soon be doing. Dayem-Nossair said he believes the Salafis insisted on the provision because “they think they’ll take over al-Azhar.”
The fight over al-Azhar’s nature and role is one with profound implications for Egypt, but also far beyond. As much as anything, the Arab Spring uprisings and the tumult that followed have turned on the question of where Islam fits in society and who gets to interpret Islam.
Al-Azhar has played a venerated role in that debate for centuries. It is widely considered the most distinguished center of Sunni Islamic thought, and it annually educates millions of students, many of whom travel here from across the globe.
At a time when more austere and intolerant forms of Islam are ascendant, al-Azhar has offered an antidote, preaching pluralism, respect for non-Islamic cultures and rights for women and minorities.
Many secular and Christian Egyptians worry that a turn toward hardline ideology by al-Azhar could lead to a more rigid interpretation of Islamic law, known as sharia, which under both the old and new constitutions forms the basis of Egyptian legislation. That in turn could mean fewer freedoms for Egyptian artists and academics, restricted rights for women in their homes and at work, and increased blasphemy prosecutions for perceived insults against Islam.
The struggle over the direction of al-Azhar is being nervously watched by moderate Arab leaders across the Middle East. Even government officials who have been sympathetic with the goals of last year’s Arab Spring protests said they worried about the potential power of a more doctrinaire al-Azhar to stir up opposition to secular governments and institutions.