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al-Azhar and Egyptian Politics

Session III-17, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
In recent years, academics analyzing Egyptian politics have increasingly paid attention to the role of the Muslim scholarly elite (the ulama), and the institution of al-Azhar. Rather than understand the ulama as merely passive actors, and al-Azhar simply a pliant institution co-opted by an authoritarian nation-state, new studies have detailed the ulama’s dynamism and creativity. In the face of growing competition over Islamic authority and norms in Egyptian political discourse, al-Azhar’s ulama have reinvigorated their role in Egyptian society by branding themselves guardians of tradition in a secular age (Zaman 2002, 2012; Hatina 2010). During the Arab Spring and since the 3 July Coup, Azhari ulama have taken on particularly prominent roles as either critics or champions of the regime, further demonstrating their importance for thorough analyses of Egyptian politics (Bano 2018; al-Azami 2021). This panel explores the role of al-Azhar during the Nasser and Sisi periods. The papers move beyond an emphasis on the state nationalization of al-Azhar and its consequences (Zeghal 1996), to call attention to the institution’s own – at times formidable – soft power to publicly resist, negotiate, or advance state-led reforms, while also examining under-researched arenas of Azhar-state cooperation in Egypt’s international relations and foreign policy. Rather than analyzing the ulama’s behaviors and discourses purely in terms of buttressing or critiquing the state, we use new and unread sources to showcase how Azhari ulama intervene in key political debates in both explicit and implicit ways through their production of historical and Islamic knowledge, their missionary activity, or through their subtle molding of foundational concepts such as religion (din) and politics (siyasa). The relationship between al-Azhar and the Muslim Brotherhood is a key issue for this panel, as it is in Egyptian politics more broadly, and we foreground the multifaceted ways that Azhari ulama have sought to engage, marginalize, or securitize the group. Yet, the Brotherhood and the authoritarian nation-state are far from the only competitors over Islamic authority and norms that Azhari ulama contend with, and this panel highlights other key voices within the Egyptian humanities and secular universities who also intervene in debates over Islamic reform. All in all, the panel underscores the ingenuity of Azhari ulama as important actors in Egyptian politics, while also detailing how their interventions must still negotiate powerful statist discourses of development and nation-building, which underpin political debates in both overt and unrecognized ways.
Religious Studies/Theology
  • In 2019 the Alexandria Library published a ten-volume biographical dictionary, titled Jamharat a‘lām al-Azhar al-Sharīf fī al-qarnayn al-rābi’ ‘ashar wa-l-khāmis ‘ashar al-hijrīyyīn [The Community of Luminaries from the Honorable al-Azhar in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries AH]. This dictionary, which was written by Usāma al-Azharī, a religious advisor to Egyptian president ‘Abd al-Fattāḥ al-Sīsī, details the lives and intellectual contributions of Muslim religious scholars (‘ulamā’) from al-Azhar from 1883 CE to the present. In doing so, it is the first of its kind; other biographies of ‘ulamā’ in the modern period only include those who served as Shaykh al-Azhar (e.g. al-‘Aẓīm, 1978). In this paper, I analyze the biographical dictionary to illuminate the anti-Islamist narrative that it constructs, and the related idealization and homogenization of the history of al-Azhar and the ‘ulamā’ in the modern period. Since the 2013 coup that ousted Muḥammad Mursī, Muslim religious scholars (‘ulamā’) like Usāma al-Azharī have collaborated with the Egyptian state to demonize the Muslim Brotherhood, while also promoting the Azhar methodology (manhaj) as the Islamist antipode. Most scholarship on al-Azhar in the modern and contemporary periods examines the ‘ulamā’ through the lens of their relationship to the state and political behaviors (Zeghal 1996, 1999; Bano, 2018). Much less attention has been given to the ‘ulamā’s production of knowledge, even when, as this biographical dictionary demonstrates, it can be deeply embedded in their politics. Through textual analysis of Jamharat a‘lām al-Azhar al-Sharīf, this paper argues that in al-Azharī’s construction of an anti-Islamist narrative, he is simultaneously redressing the legacy of “conservative” ‘ulamā’ in twentieth century historiography. In doing so, the paper demonstrates the intersections between the ‘ulamā’s efforts to counter Islamism and to reconstitute their reputation and place in modern Egyptian history.
  • Since 9/11 the vast majority of scholarship on Islam has focused on analyzing how religion is used by different militant groups and social movements on the international level. However, less attention has been given to the role governments and state institutions play in utilizing religion internationally. My paper joins an emerging scholarship that seeks to analyze how governments, especially in the Middle East, use religion and its institutions as a strategic asset to promote their foreign agenda. My paper explores the relationship between religion, politics and international relations in Egypt (1950-1970) by focusing on Nasser’s al-Azhar and its role in the country’s foreign policy. It sheds light on the transnational reach of Egypt’s religious policies by analyzing the transnational network of Nasser’s Islam in Africa and the Arab countries. Although several scholars have previously discussed the extension of al-Azhar’s reach beyond the Egyptian scene through its foreign students (Abaza 1994, ‘Abd al-Rahman 2004) and missionary activities (Zeghal 2007, Burner 2004, Riyad 2006), they have overlooked the state’s instrumentalization of al-Azhar’s transnational power, especially during the Nasser period. Using unpublished documents from both the Egyptian and British National Archives, Majallat al-Azhar, and drawing on personal interviews with Azhari Shaykhs who served under the Nasser regime and their memoirs, I provide an empirical account of transnational Azhari circuits and the role they played in the cross-border dissemination of religious and political ideas. By exploring the Egyptian state’s policy of sending Azhari missions to different Arab and African countries, I trace the role Islam and its institutions played in supporting and expanding Nasser’s regional aspirations in countries like Zanzibar, Chad and Libya. Furthermore, I highlight the role Islam and al-Azhar played in Nasser’s fight against Saudi Arabia in the Arab Cold War. I explain that Nasser did not only fight for the mantel of Islam domestically, against the Muslim Brothers, but also internationally, against Saudi Arabia. I argue that Nasser, supported by al-Azhar, adopted an Islamic rhetoric in his struggle against Saudi Arabia on two different levels: undermining their religious authority, and Islamizing Arab-Socialism and pan-Arabism. This paper, therefore, sheds light on an overlooked aspect in the historiography of Nasserism and highlights the important role religion and its official institutions can play in a country’s foreign policy.
  • The paper discusses the role some Azhari scholars played in mobilizing the Egyptian public to join and support their military during the Suez Crisis of 1956, and the 1967 and 1973 wars. By analyzing the relevant content of al-Azhar's official periodical “Al-Azhar Magazine” and also al-Ahram newspaper published between 1956 and 1982, the paper analyzes the religious framing of these wars as they were being fought and the subsequent construction of these war narrative in Azhari publications. It traces how these wars were often compared or linked to the battles of the early Muslim community, presenting the twentieth-century conflicts as the most recent episodes in the long struggle between Muslims and their “enemies,” broadly defined. The 1973 “victory,” in particular, generated some euphoria that encouraged Azhari scholars to search for religious justifications for the victory. In the process, these scholars “discovered” in the hadith and sira literature some statements attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that prophesied this success, and these statements quickly acquired the status of axioms and eventually became an integral part of the military recruitment process in the following decades. The paper thus argues that some of the key components of the contemporary Egyptian national myth that are now perceived as axiomatic by the Egyptian public and are displayed in museums and other aspects of visual culture are products of the Azhari discourses that followed the 1973 war. In reconstructing these discourses in Egyptian media over several decades, the paper demonstrates how Azhari scholars contributed to popular understandings of the relationship between early Islamic history and twentieth-century military conflicts.