Since opening its doors to academic studies in 975 CE, Cairo’s al-Azhar University has become the Islamic world’s preeminent institution of Islamic studies and its Shaykh (or leader) has been traditionally regarded as the Sunni Islamic world’s most authoritative voice. However, since the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, al-Azhar has lost much of its independence to the Egyptian government. In the process the university has become a symbol of secular interference to radical Islamists in Egypt and elsewhere.
Despite this antipathy, Egypt’s al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (G.I. – Islamic Group) issued a statement in March regarding the appointment of new al-Azhar Shaykh Ahmad al-Tayeb, entitled, "We Welcome Dr. Ahmad al-Tayeb as al-Azhar’s new Shaykh.”  Before its renunciation of violence in 2003, G.I. was one of Egypt’s most vicious terrorist organizations and a fierce opponent of al-Azhar. The new statement came only two days after the presidential decree appointing al-Tayeb to the highest religious post in the Sunni Muslim world. The statement emphasized the ability of al-Tayeb to shoulder the great responsibility and challenges ahead as the most senior Sunni authority (Al-Masry al-Youm, March 12).
The statement came in clear contradiction to the GI’s constant demand for the election of the Shaykh al-Azhar by fellow scholars of Sunni Islam. Since 1961, the Shaykh al-Azhar has been appointed by a presidential decree. Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s description of al-Azhar as a “government agency” is typical of Salafist views of the institution (As-Sahab Media Production, November 27, 2008). Until his resignation following his new appointment, al-Tayeb was also a member of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of Hosni Mubarak.
G.I.’s relations with Al-Azhar’s former director, the late Shaykh Muhammad Sayid Tantawi (who died in Riyadh on March 10), have long been unfriendly, as Tantawi was criticized by all Islamist groups and individuals. Many saw his various stands as diminishing the role of Sunni Islam’s biggest religious institution. G.I. demanded his firing following the famous niqab (face veil) case in October last year, when he told a middle school student in a class he was visiting to take off her niqab while in school. At the time, a G.I. representative accused Tantawi of taking stands inappropriate for the Shaykh al-Azhar and demanded his dismissal (al-Quds al-Arabi, October 13, 2009).
On the other hand, G.I. has seen al-Tayeb’s appointment as a good omen, promising a better era for al-Azhar and better relations with Islamists. That was reflected in G.I.’s welcoming statement, in which they called for opening bridges between al-Azhar and the youth of the Islamist movement in a bid to make use of their potential in the service of the country and faith. The statement also highlighted al-Tayeb’s support for G.I.’s so-called “Revisions” of its methods and ideology in recent years (see Terrorism Monitor, December 6, 2007; January 9, 2008).
Al-Tayeb’s recent declarations have been encouraging for G.I. and other Islamists, especially in decisive matters such as not allowing a Copt to be president, his promise to reinstate the teaching of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence (Hanafi, Maliki, Hanbali and Shafi’i) in preparatory and high schools and his pledge to reduce the Shaykh al-Azhar’s authority in matters such as establishing religious schools and gathering donations for such projects. Al-Tayeb also welcomed the discussion on electing the Shaykh al-Azhar and declared he would not resent a non-Egyptian occupying the post. Such issues have always provided fuel for al-Azhar critics, but al-Tayeb’s statements have defused much of their criticism.
Nagih Ibrahim, a member of G.I.’s Shura Council, sees the necessity for bypassing past mistakes by both parties, most notably in the following areas:
• Al-Azhar always saw the demerits of the Islamist movement, ignoring its merits as a vital tool in pushing the Islamic call forward.
• The Islamist movement also focused on attacking al-Azhar and smearing its scholars, ignoring its great role as the highest Sunni seat of learning around the world.
• The Islamist movement always believed that it has among its ranks the best scholars, ignoring the fact that most of them were graduates of al-Azhar.
• Ibrahim rejects Salafist denunciations of al-Azhar scholars and the Salafist assertion that al-Azhar is an Asha’ri institution rather than a Salafi institution.  He describes such attacks as "a grave mistake." Al-Tayeb belongs to the Khalwatiya Sufi order of Upper Egypt (al-Khaleej [Dubai], March 20; masrawy.com, March 20). He has always been a follower of the Asha’ri theology and is a vocal critic of Salafism in Egypt.
Al-Azhar has not yet replied to G.I.’s statement, which may be due to al-Azhar’s awareness of the Islamist movement’s perception of historical religious institutions in general. The Islamist movement seeks to penetrate and utilize religious institutions without submitting to them. According to Ibrahim, dialogue between both parties should not focus on who is leading or whose flag they follow. Islamists have therefore always welcomed alternative institutions like Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s International Union for Muslim Scholars (IUMS).
While Nagih Ibrahim, G.I.’s spokesman, criticizes the Salafist attacks on al-Azhar, he ignores the fact that these are the same arguments G.I. has always made, even after their historical “Revisions.” G.I. has always been hostile towards Sufism and the Asha’riya doctrine (aqida) followed by al-Tayeb.
The welcoming statement by G.I. is part of their attempt to legalize their existence, in social and Islamic terms, after being confined to cyberspace for a long period. They are also trying to open up with the intention of increasing the probability that their strict theories in issues like citizenship, the civil state and various freedoms may gain support, despite the self-criticism they have practiced or their intellectual attacks on al-Qaeda.
1. The full statement is available on the GI website: http://www.egyig.com/Public/articles/announce/6/69163409.shtml
2. The Asha’ri theology was developed in the early days of Islam by Abu al-Hasan al-Asha’ri (d. 936 AD). Its best known proponent was the Persian theologian al-Ghazali (1058–1111), though he had slight differences of interpretation. In May, al-Tayeb gave a speech on the merits of al-Ash’ari to the alumni of al-Azhar. He was joined by Ali Goma’a, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, in saying a divided Islamic nation beset by radicalism and violence needs an approach like that of al-Ash’ari, who emphasized moderation and tolerance (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], May 9).<iframe src=’http://www.jamestown.org/jamestown.org/inner_menu.html’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>