February 17, 2011
What Were the Ulama Doing in Tahrir Square? Al-Azhar and the Narrative of Resistance to Oppression
— Malika Zeghal
Over the course of the Egyptian uprising, religious scholars in and beyond Egypt have taken positions against or in favor of the revolution. The dividing line between their views depends on the relationship of the ulama with state authorities in the region, which echoes a classical contention in the tradition of Sunni Islam.
The ulama of Sunni Islam have had an ambiguous partnership with the men governing them. The ideal religious scholar is portrayed as a courageous man of learning and piety who denounces injustice and dares to speak truth to tyrants. Nonetheless, pragmatism has also been at the core of the Sunni ulama’s relationship with political powers, along with a deep pessimism about the grim realities of politics, which they often hoped to escape. In the Middle East, modern politics has redefined the ulama’s place in society, causing them to submit to the state and nationalizing their institutions into state bureaucracies.
For example, al-Azhar was nationalized in 1961 by Egyptian president Gamal Abd al-Nasser. Al-Azhar is officially represented by its Grand Imam, who has the rank of minister, is appointed by the president of the Republic and reports directly to him. Given this status, the official ulama usually follow the directives of the regime and have narrow margins of maneuver. Critiques of the regime by Grand Imams are rare and often expressed with enough subtlety so as not to generate controversy. However the domestication of al-Azhar by the state has not prevented less official ulama from playing a significant public role nationally and beyond.
Azharites, recognizable by their white and red tarbushes, white collars, and long gray robes, gathered in Tahrir Square in small groups during the protests, reminding us of the sociological and political diversity of al-Azhar as an academic and religious institution. One day before the resignation of Mubarak, Shaykh Muhammad Jebril, who studied at al-Azhar, led the Friday prayer in Tahrir Square. The Azharite presence, as well as the images of Muslims and Copts protecting each other during prayers, calls to mind the narrative of the 1919 revolution. That revolution was one of the last great public protests in which Azharites participated as a significant body alongside more secular groups, representing al-Azhar as a popular and national institution.
Shaykh Ahmad al-Tayyib, Grand Imam of al-Azhar since 2010, has been cautious in his statements regarding the protests, calling for restraint on the parts of the demonstrators and the regime. He asked demonstrators to go home after Mubarak’s departure, adding that protest is “illegitimate in Islam.” His line of reasoning echoed a classic position in Sunni Islam: namely, that obedience to the state, even to a tyrant, is better than fitna, or dissension.
On the other hand, Muhammad Rafi al-Tahtawi, the official spokesperson for al-Azhar, resigned in order to join the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. When a Saudi Mufti issued a fatwa condemning the Egyptian demonstrators, some Azharites denounced it. They argued that it was irrelevant because it was ordered by the Saudi government and was therefore “tainted by politics” (musayyasa). For their part, the Egyptian “Ulama’s Front” (jabhat al-ulama), a small group of Azharites whose history goes back to the 1940s, launched verbal attacks during the protests against the head of al-Azhar and the Mufti of Egypt, because they appeared to be too close to Mubarak’s regime. This mix of positions shows that al-Azhar is not a homogenous institution, but rather reflects the range of Egyptian politics.
The anti-regime voices are those of “peripheral ulama,” those Azharite graduates who do not necessarily work in the religious institution but for whom their own identity as Azharites is crucial. One of the most famous of these figures is Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, a graduate of al-Azhar who resides in Qatar. He has gained an international reputation and audience through his television show on al-Jazeera “Sharia and Life.”
Al-Qaradhawi appeared on al-Jazeera early on in the Tunisian crisis. Showing sensitivity to the plight of Muhammad Bouazizi, he declared that self-immolation and suicide in general are contrary to Islam, but that given the circumstances, those who had committed this type of suicide should not be condemned. He encouraged the Tunisian protesters to continue their fight. Later, he made the same appeal to the Egyptian demonstrators, urging them to oust Mubarak. After the fall of Mubarak, Shaykh Ahmed al-Tayyeb declared that he wanted the Grand Imam to be elected by a committee of ulama, and that the independence of al-Azhar should be a constitutional principle.
Religious state and non-state authorities have entered into a discussion about the legitimacy of political resistance. Al-Azhar, through the presence of some of its members in Tahrir Square, as well as through its more peripheral voices and the Grand Imam’s call for al-Azhar’s independence, has shown its relevance to the recent political mobilization and has asserted its role in shaping a narrative of hope, empowerment, and resistance against tyranny.
Malika Zeghal is Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor in Contemporary Islamic Thought and Life at Harvard University.