Grand Imam of al-Azhar ( Photo via Al-Azhar)
Last Friday, the head of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, Ahmed Hosny, was sacked after only three months in the position, after labelling Muslim reformer and TV host Islam Al-Beheiry an apostate. This may seem good news in a country where accusations of blasphemy are showered casually on anyone who dares to challenge the orthodox interpretation of Islamic texts. However, the incident is just one episode in an on-going battle to modernize religious thought in Egypt, and it is unclear whether progressiveness can prevail over orthodoxy within Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s oldest seat of learning.
This sacking is another chapter in the confrontation between Islam Beheiry and Al-Azhar. Beheiry is a controversial figure in Egypt, mainly because of his candid views and biting criticism of what he describes as the unchallenged Islamic heritage passed on since medieval times, which is still used to justify many regressive practices.
In 2015, the privately owned Egyptian satellite channel Al-Qaherah wal Nas decided to pull Beheiry’s program after Al-Azhar filed a lawsuit demanding its cancellation. The decision also followed the airing of a long, heated TV debate between Islam Beheiry and two mainstream Islamic scholars (one from Al-Azhar) on another TV channel (CBC TV), in which various contentious issues regarding Islamic theology were discussed for the first time on such a forum. Later, in December 2015, Beheiry was sentenced to one year in prison on charges of religious contempt. In November 2016, Egyptian President Sisi pardoned Islam Beheiry, among others. Beheiry is now free to say what he likes.
Many sceptical observers, however, fear that the sacking of the head of Al-Azhar University, Ahmed Hosny, is just a tactical move from an institution that is increasingly feeling the pressure of people outraged by its perceived soft stance toward ISIS, particularly following ISIS’s recent attacks on Palm Sunday. Compounding this anger is Al-Azhar’s tough stance against reformers such as Beheiry.
In his latest article, Egyptian writer Osama Ibrahim Saraya aptly describes how the core problem with Al-Azhar is twofold: The first is the sanctification of many medieval and modern scholars and explanations of Islamic texts without genuine renewal that is consistent with the evolving reality of our world. Saraya contends that hard-core orthodox scholars have transformed Islam from a monotheistic religion into one full of idols that should not be criticized or challenged. The second part of the problem is that while current scholars are unwilling to excommunicate anyone, including barbarians such as ISIS men, they happily accuse anyone daring to interpret Islamic theology in a modern way of blasphemy.
Saraya expresses the hope that the Hosny episode will signal a new beginning of confronting the uncompromising and medieval interpretations of Islamic texts.
I doubt it.
Ahmed Hosny is possibly a scapegoat for an institution that is willing to sacrifice the reputation of one of its senior members instead of accepting responsibility for tainting its own prestige and power. Modernising Al-Azhar is a colossal task that requires a total revolution of Al-Azhar’s outlook and way of teaching. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, however, is savvy and clever, but not revolutionary.
Nonetheless, I hope I am wrong. The early founders of Islam happily welcomed challenges from ordinary Muslim men and women, and were willing to change their views. It is worth remembering how a woman dared to challenge Caliph Umar, the fiercest Caliph, by reminding him of a verse in the Quran he ignored. Caliph Umar conceded and told the woman his famous quote: “You have better knowledge than Umar,” a quote radical scholars emphatically dismiss. Nonetheless, I hope the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar acknowledges the story, and embarks on the serious task of modernizing Sunni Islam’s oldest seat of learning.