“Before, al-Azhar was covered by dust,” said Yasser Abdel Monen, 32, beaming in the shadow of the building’s towering minarets. “Now we have removed the dust to show what it is truly made of.”
But to others, that Friday sermon late last month was proof of something more ominous: the perverse outcome of a revolution built on a thirst for freedom but overtaken by a hunger for hard-line religious dogma.
More than a year after an uprising that deposed longtime president Hosni Mubarak, just about everything in Egypt feels up for grabs. Yet the struggle for the soul of al-Azhar carries a special resonance here and across the Islamic world. At a time when the Middle East boils with debate over the proper role of religion in public life, al-Azhar is poised to wield vast influence over how political Islam is implemented regionwide.
Now, forces from across Egypt’s political and religious spectrum — including a group preaching a puritanical, Saudi-style doctrine of Islam — are maneuvering to influence al-Azhar.
Since its founding in the 10th century, al-Azhar has been an unrivaled touchstone of Islamic thinking, guiding the devout in their understanding of the faith and educating millions through its distinguished university and education system. In modern times, it has been a moderate bulwark against more extreme interpretations of Islam, condemning terrorist attacks, sanctioning broader rights for women and building bonds with Egypt’s Christian minority.
But in recent decades, al-Azhar has also been sullied by its affiliation with a string of Egyptian leaders who used the institution’s good name to give their policies a religious blessing. Since 1961, al-Azhar’s top official — the grand sheik — has been appointed directly by Egypt’s president. For many Egyptians, al-Azhar became just one more tool of state control.
In the aftermath of the revolution, there is widespread agreement among politicians in Egypt that al-Azhar needs greater independence. The question is whether that also means a lurch toward a more rigid and less tolerant school of Islam to match the increasingly doctrinaire mood of the Egyptian people.
There is evidence that such a shift is underway and that it could go much further.
Members of Egypt’s two main Islamist groups — the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Nour party — control between them an overwhelming majority in Egypt’s new parliament. Seated in January, they are already working on legislation that would strip the grand sheik of his lifetime appointment and that could give them a major say in picking a successor.