The traveler who walks the streets of Cairo notices the many simple bookstands that proliferate all over the city. However, he may fail to observe the titles that top the hit parade of those numerous Arab streets. There are three: Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf; the forgery the Tsar’s secret service peddled on the world under the title of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion; and the works of the Great Sheikh of Al-Azhar University, Mohammad Sayed al-Tantawi.
Al-Azhar University is the oldest of all universities in the Moslem world. It was established in 971 A.D. by the Fatimid (Shiite) dynasty that had taken over the whole of Northern Africa and was challenging the orthodox Sunni Caliphate of Abbasid Baghdad. In antiquity, Al-Azhar stood supreme. But its prestige is founded upon more. Al-Azhar has an Academy of Islamic Research whose fatwas are authoritative in the Sunni world. It boasts of fourteen faculties (departments) in Cairo itself, and thirteen elsewhere in Egypt. It even has eight faculties for girls. Several tens of thousands of students study there; five to six thousand professors teach at Al-Azhar. In brief, it is a center of the Sunni Moslem world, and, even more, of the Arab world.
Given the lack of centralization in the Sunni world, Al-Azhar is not a Vatican since it is not possessed of any executive authority. But the extraordinary prestige of the institution lends its views and opinions an exceptional degree of influence. Even though the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized Al-Azhar in 1961 and made civil servants of its entire staff, the aura of the university did not pale. It is a tradition in the Sunni world that Al-Azhar and its Great Sheikh, nowadays, do not prostrate themselves so much in the direction of the Egyptian presidential palace as in the twin directions of Saudi money and Saudi power. Al-Azhar and its Great Sheikh have been purchased by the Saudi regime and its Wahhabi creed.
Starting in 1962 with the establishment by the Saudi regime of the World Muslim League (WML) as one of its principal vehicles of penetration in the Muslim world, and with a swift acceleration after the 1973-74 oil crisis, the Saudi royal family obtained financial means they would not have dreamt of previously. As a result, Al-Azhar professors were approached more and more systematically by Saudi envoys. Offers were made that were difficult to refuse of sabbatical sojourns in the Kingdom. In six months, those holding doctorates would earn the equivalent of twenty years of their meager salary (then US$40!). Next, the Saudi stipend would turn into a habit as the WML endowed chairs and funded whole departments. Toward the end of the 1990s, it was hard to find an Azhari who had not enjoyed Saudi largesse.
Several individual cases are enlightening. In 1981 an Azhari professor who had often railed at the obscurantism of the Wahhabi creed received the US$200,000 King-Faisal Prize for “services rendered to Islam” and another US$850,000 from the King-Fahd-Prize. He thereupon published a pro-Wahhabi tome entitled The Saudis and the Islamic Solution. One of the most famous of all Azharis, Sheikh Mohamad Metawali Sharawi, who died in 1998 at the age of 87, had become the first tele-islamic star; the estimated audience of his shows was as high as seventy million. Heavily subsidized by Saudi Arabia, Sharawi boasted that he had not read a book save the Quran since 1943. This cleric, who had composed poetry praising King Faruq, glorifying Nasser, and extolling Sadat, made numerous, protracted sojourns to King-Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia. He had also been a founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. This ensured a direct connection with the hundreds of Brothers who flocked to the protection of the Saudi regime when their conflict with the Egyptian regime become too hot.
In the year 2000, Al-Azhar as an institution received the “King-Faisal Prize for services rendered to Islam.” The award was intended to “salute the importance of the role it played in safeguarding the Arab and Islamic legacy in confrontation against the Westernizing trends, and in propagating Islam and the Arabic tongue.”
To appreciate fully the flavor of this Saudi encomium, it should be remembered that it was Egyptian troops, at the behest of the Istanbul Sultan, who mercilessly hunted down and destroyed the first Saudi empire and that it was the same Egyptian forces, sent by their ruler Mehmet Ali, who humiliated the Wahhabis and sent them back to the dunes of the Nedj desert in the 1820s and 1830s.
The Great Sheikh al-Tantawi himself has demonstrated just how thorough and self-abasing the Azhari capitulation to the Wahhabi Kingdom of Ignorance was. In a long interview he granted in June of 2000 to the semi-official Saudi daily Ain al-Yaqeen, the Sheikh responded as follows:
Ain-al-Yaqeen: You followed the fierce campaign which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been subjected to under the claim that it does not protect human rights. What are the targets of this campaign?
Mohammad al-Tantawi: Fighting Islam is the main target of this campaign. It is an unjust campaign. This country leads the world in protecting human rights as it preserves them according to God’s Sharia. For example, punishment of somebody who commits a crime is one of the rules of Sharia, as God says:
“O ye who believe! The law of equality is prescribed to you in cases of murder. The free for the free, the slave for the slave, the woman for the woman. But if any remission is made by the brother of the slain, then grant any reasonable demand, and compensate him with handsome gratitude. This is a concession and a mercy from your Lord. After this, whoever exceeds the limits shall be in grave chastisement”(Verse 178 of Sura Al Baqara, English translation of the meanings of the Holy Quraan; King Fahd Holy Quraan Printing Complex).
So whoever says that the death sentence is against human rights would be unjust and unfair to the victim. If Saudi Arabia does not apply the Sharia Laws, the victim’s family would despise the state and would themselves take their revenge. It is well known that Saudi Arabia tops the list of the countries that apply human rights in Islam, in an objective and just way, without aggression or taking sides. Justice is the base for protecting the nation.
Ain-al-Yaqeen: Some people believe that Al Azhar does not maintain the same position in relation with decision making.
Mohammad al-Tantawi: This is not true, we say the truth, whatever the price is. Doubting has always existed; there are people who doubt God’s unity and the messages of the prophets. Life has trained us to handle such matters and at the end, the right prevails.
Ain-al-Yaqeen: The developments of the century need to be continuously and closely followed up by the Ulamahs. What should be done in this context?
Mohammad al-Tantawi: We are now going through an era of specialization, we are going through an era where sciences with all their aspects are prevailing. If we do not follow up and participate in the scientific advances we will miss the boat. We should follow up these advances and adopt from them what is compatible with Islam and serves the Muslim Umah.
Ain-al-Yaqeen: In this field, is there any cooperation between Al Azhar and the Organisation of the Eminent Ulamah in Saudi Arabia?
Mohammad al-Tantawi: Cooperation exists between us. This does not exclude the existence of some differences in minor issues, but there are no differences in the major issues relating to the basis of Islam on which we agree. We hope that in the future we would cooperate on the present developments.
Ain-al-Yaqeen: How was your relationship with the General Mufti of Saudi Arabia, the late Sheikh Abdul Aziz Ibn Baz [the mainstay of the most extreme and backward form of Wahhabism in the kingdom – LM]?
Mohammad al-Tantawi: His Eminence Sheikh Abdul Aziz Ibn Baz God bless his soul was the subject of our respect. We pray God to place us with him in the higher places of Paradise. I used to meet with him in all my visits to Saudi Arabia. We used to discuss matters, and he used to express his admiration for some matters and criticize others. I always accepted his opinions and explained to him some issues and events that happened in Egypt and the causes behind the decision. God Bless his soul and place him in Heaven.
Besides the obsequious seal of approval extended to Saudi institutions, mores and dignitaries, what is most striking and significant in the Sheikh’s pronouncements is how he opines (in the context of discussing the foundation of Saudi Arabian policies on Sharia): “we say the truth whatever the price is. Doubting has always existed; there are people who doubt God’s unity and the messages of the prophets.” The notion of “God’s unity” (tawheed) is so central to the Wahhabi creed that believers in it, who vehemently refuse to call themselves–or to be called–“Wahhabi,” want to be known as “the people of the tawheed.” Al-Tantawi is publicly paying obeisance and fealty to the Al-Saud-Wahhabi nexus–as any Arab reader recognizes instantly.
The importance of Al-Azhar’s submission to the Saudis is not a mere theological issue: In 1990, when the Saudi royals met reluctance on the part of a large number of their own Wahhabi clerics to accept the call for “infidel” troops to come into the Kingdom and protect it from a fellow Arab, fellow Muslim, predator, they turned to Al-Azhar and asked the Cairene clerics to issue a fatwa mandating precisely that. The fatwa was duly issued. The same goes with entire categories of fatwas, such as those dealing with suicide bombing: Al-Azhar approves, especially when the bombing is directed against Israel and abets “resistance” to the U.S. presence in Iraq, by all available means. For the Saudi royals, their patient investment in Al-Azhar is paying handsome dividends.