Islamic scholars at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, the preeminent seat of Sunni Muslim learning in the Arab world, have declared a U.S. attack on Iraq would threaten all Arabs and Muslims and urged a jihad to defend their interests.

The statement, published in Egyptian newspapers today, said the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf region in preparation for a likely invasion of Iraq is part of a new "crusade," a highly emotive word in the Arab world, where the medieval Crusades still frame relations with the West.

"According to Islamic law, if the enemy steps on Muslims' land, jihad becomes a duty on every male and female Muslim," said the statement by the Islamic Research Academy, the center of religious scholarship at the 1,000-year-old university. It calls upon "Arabs and Muslims throughout the world to be ready to defend themselves and their faith."

Although commonly translated as "holy war," jihad has a far broader meaning in Islamic law. While it can serve as a call to arms, and is often articulated that way, it is also commonly used to invoke a more spiritual, inward-looking devotion. In that light, some scholars said the statement was not necessarily advocating violence.

"The meaning of jihad means a lot of things, not just fighting," said Abbas Ahmed, a spokesman for Al-Azhar. "It's not necessarily war." But he added that any attack on Iraq would, in fact, "be a strike on Islam."

Whatever the interpretation, the statement seemed likely to reverberate across the Arab world given Al-Azhar's prestige as a source of spiritual guidance and Egypt's role as a U.S. ally.

Fears have arisen throughout the region that a U.S. invasion of Iraq could unleash tumult, and from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, the expected war is increasingly framed as targeting Islam. The statement by scholars at Al-Azhar, seen as a beacon by many orthodox Sunni Muslims, joined a chorus of Islamic voices urging resistance to a U.S. attack.

In a sermon last week, Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, a popular Islamic cleric who is often seen as a moderate voice in the Arab world, warned Persian Gulf nations against providing facilities to U.S. forces and urged Muslims to be prepared to fight them "if the Iraqis fail to drive them out." In the past, he has equated the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf with an occupation.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, which has participated in elections through its mainstream political arm, the Islamic Action Front, called on the government last week to expel U.S. troops, saying an attack on Iraq would be aggression against Jordan.

That call was echoed in the statement today by the Al-Azhar scholars. "Our Arab and Islamic nation, and even our faith, are a main target for all these military build-ups," it said.

"The demand now is to stop the violence, to stop the war," said Tariq Bishri, a leading Islamic intellectual in Cairo. "But if the violence begins, nobody can tell how it will end. We will see and the United States will see."

The statement was signed by the Islamic Research Academy's secretary general, Sayyed Wafa Abu Aggour. But Nabil Osman, an Egyptian government spokesman, said it would have carried more weight if issued by the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, recognized by many as the paramount scholar in Sunni Islam.

"This is not the highest authority in Al-Azhar. The highest authority is the sheik himself," Osman said in an interview. "The grand imam is one thing, and an academic research center is another."

But by serving as the scholarly voice of Al-Azhar, the academy has assumed an increasingly prominent role in Egypt's intellectual and cultural life. For years, it has pushed the Egyptian Culture Ministry to give it purview over Arabic literature, film and books as a way to guard against vices, a move that raised cries of protest from Egypt's more secular intellectuals.

Many have also noticed a more conservative turn in the academy's political pronouncements.

Founded in 969, Al-Azhar was long the undisputed seat of scholarship for Sunni Islam. But under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian government brought it under its sway, somewhat diminishing its religious authority. That loss of influence mirrored the rise of other seats of scholarship throughout the Muslim world and the growing prominence of Islamic movements, many led by secular-educated activists who bypassed Al-Azhar, in articulating frustrations in the Muslim world.

Some analysts have argued that by taking a hard line on certain issues, the university has kept itself within an Islamic mainstream that has become increasingly radicalized.