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The fall of Egypt’s symbol of progressive Islam

Joining itself with an authoritarian regime caused harm to the millennium-long history of al-Azhar U

"[Egypt] didn't change the basic tenets of Islam, but its cultural weight gave Islam a new voice, one it didn't have back in Arabia. Egypt embraced an Islam that was moderate, tolerant and non-extremist." With these words, Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, gave his last statement about Islam, after decades of being on the death lists of extremist Islamist groups and an assassination attempt in 1994.

The moderate Islam that Mahfouz was referring to had a protector and a promoter: al-Azhar University. Throughout its long and proud history, al-Azhar had remained unrivalled as the prime centre of Islamic teaching, attracting millions of Muslim students from all over the world to its campus in Cairo. Many of the most notable liberal reformists in Egypt's history, especially in the 19th century, were Azhar graduates. Tolerance and not getting too involved with state affairs have been central to its teaching for centuries.

The father of Islamic modernism, Rifa'a al-Tahtawi, a 19th-century scholar and an Azhar graduate, saw no contradiction between Islamic thought and ideologies drawn from the European Age of Enlightenment. He studied in France and, on his return to Egypt, he worked at modernising the country, calling for liberal reform in the Muslim world.

Mohamed Abduh followed in al-Tahtawi's footsteps, urging open dialogue with European civilisation and the reformation of Islamic thought, arguing that Muslims can't rely on medieval interpretations of religious texts. He also argued for the secularisation of Muslim countries. Both scholars spoke European languages fluently and wrote positively about their experiences in Europe.

My fatwa against yours

However, it seems that slowly this progressive form of Islam is being replaced with a more radical Salafist ideology, one that blatantly calls for a return to the practices of the first three generations of Muslims, who lived more than 1,400 years. Salafi Islam is considered Muslim orthodoxy at its strictest, and is influenced by the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahab, an 18th-century Muslim theologian whose radical ideas still shape how the Saud family runs its kingdom today. Evidently Al-Azhar in Egypt is falling prey to ideologies funded and encouraged from across the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia.

Speaking to al-Youm al-Sabei newspaper, Mahmoud Ashour, the former deputy of al-Azhar, said that the Salafist ideology has infiltrated the university. He blamed the phenomenon on young Egyptians' feeling that society is unjust and their refusal to believe what they are told without experiencing reform on the ground, the paper reported.

A few months ago, in reaction to news of the rising influence of Salafi ideology within the walls of the university, the president of Tajikistan recalled 134 students he had sent to study at al-Azhar.

The clash between the two credos, Salafism and moderate Islam, reached its peak in 2009 when Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, a former sheikh of Azhar, called for a ban on the niqab – the full face veil – inside schools. The growing popularity of the niqab is a manifestation of the growing ascendancy of Salafi ideas among young Egyptians. Protests and sit-ins held by face-veiled students broke out, not just at al-Azhar, but at many other universities across the nation, all protesting against the cleric's declaration.

Another collision took place when the Azhar Scholar Front (ASF), which was dissolved in 1999 after rejecting some of the fatwas issued by Tantawi, restarted its activities unofficially from Kuwait in 2007. The ASF is now considered attractive for those who split from al-Azhar due to opposing views, and usually adopts more radical positions, such as the ASF's call a few months ago for an economic boycott of all Egyptian Christians as a riposte to an alleged kidnap by churchmen of a Coptic woman who had converted to Islam. Declarations of conflicting fatwas and heated exchanges have been common since the ASF was informally re-established.

But another reason why many have turned their back on al-Azhar's ideology and fallen prey to more radical views is al-Azhar's close association with the former president Hosni Mubarak and his increasingly disfavoured authoritarian regime, which many think has impoverished Egyptians.

The appointment of the sheikh of al-Azhar, the highest Sunni Muslim authority in the world, was the gift of Egyptian leaders by presidential decree. The sheikhs were usually loyal to the presidential palace and hardly ever issued fatwas that would go against the regime's will or policy.

Chief whip of journalists

Tantawi was also notorious for his tailored fatwas to "Islamically" back up some of the regime's actions, such as supporting the building of an underground wall on the border with Gaza and prohibiting anti-government street protests.

He also famously called for the "whipping" of journalists who publish false reports, after the appearance of a 2007 article by Ibrahim Eissa, a former editor of al-Dostour newspaper, questioning Mubarak's health and the future of the presidency in Egypt.

What's more, the recently appointed new sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, was a member of the policy committee in what used to be the ruling National Democratic Party. The policy committee division of the NDP was led by Gamal Mubarak, the president's son.

This kind of co-operation with Mubarak's regime is what made al-Azhar lose credibility. Paradoxically, it also made it easy for other, more radical Islamic groups, which were usually in conflict with the unpopular regime, to "infiltrate" the influential university.

At this critical phase, Egypt needs al-Azhar as a defence wall against extremist ideologies, to promote a culture of peace, progression, citizenship and dialogue with the west, and to thwart a rising Salafi influence that incites nothing but regression, hate and violence, clashing with and discriminating against the other. Egypt and the entire Muslim world, now more than ever, are in desperate need of enlightened scholars such as al-Tahtawi and Abduh to move it forward to modernity, instead of attempting to take us back to a 7th-century culture.

Osama Diab is an Egyptian-British journalist and blogger.