Saturday, March 27, 2010

Which Al-Azhar should we believe --

"Which Al-Azhar should we believe -- that of the 1960s, the 1970s or the 1990s," Abdel-Fattah asks. In the same vein, the former grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, Mohamed Tantawi, was accused of double standards, in that while he described boycotting the presidential elections as an illegitimate act, he was accused of staying quiet on issues like corruption in the Agriculture Ministry and the alleged use of carcinogenic pesticides.

"The regime's systematic violations of human rights, the state security agency's abuse of prisoners, the widening gap between rich and poor, the president's remaining in power for more than 24 years, and the possible transfer of power to his son," have all been ignored by Al-Azhar, according to Abdel-Fattah.

Tantawi was also a controversial figure who was criticised for his liberal fatwas that seemed to satisfy few in the Muslim world, whether conservative, liberal or secular. Tantawi was sometimes lambasted by critics for being a government official willing to compromise his views for the sake of state policies during his long term in office.

Critics said that although the state used Al-Azhar as its mouthpiece, in many cases Tantawi himself volunteered with fatwas pleasing to the regime. Al-Ahram columnist Fahmy Howeidy is just one of many critics of the opinion that Tantawi "used to fear the regime more than he feared God."

Two controversial fatwas issued by Tantawi that brought much criticism were those to do with the legitimisation of the barrier on the Egyptian border with Gaza, which some consider was issued in favour of the regime at the expense of the lives of Palestinian Muslims, and his ban on the wearing of the niqab, or full face veil.

Although there is almost a consensus among scholars that the niqab is not a religious obligation in Islam, critics argue that it may still be considered a virtue and that banning it is not based on the Quran or hadith (prophetic sayings). Many claim that the ban was imposed in an attempt to please secularist circles in the regime.

Yet, even secularists were not pleased with the apparent irrationality of the ban. One incident that took place in an Azhar girls' school in Cairo saw Tantawi rebuking a young girl for wearing the niqab, reportedly telling her that she was not beautiful enough to hide her face and that as a religious scholar he knew better than her parents.

Tantawi also shot himself in the foot when he supported a French decision last year to ban the niqab in public places in France. He had earlier refrained from commenting on a French ban on the hijab, on the grounds that he could not interfere in the affairs of a foreign country, and he was not among the first to denounce the Danish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohamed, triggering waves of wrath across the Muslim world, that appeared some years ago.

Tantawi was also bogged down in controversy for toeing the government line when he issued a controversial edict that equated the boycotting of elections with "withholding testimony" in the run-up to a referendum on amending Article 76 of the constitution.

Tantawi's earlier retraction of a fatwa issued by a senior Al-Azhar cleric urging Muslim and Arab states to boycott the Iraqi Governing Council also led to criticism. Tantawi rejected the earlier edict, which bore Al-Azhar's official seal, 10 days after it was issued and immediately after meeting with David Welch, the then US ambassador to Egypt.

"No Egyptian cleric has the right to pass a verdict on the affairs of another country," Tantawi said.

There were calls in liberal, conservative and secularist circles for Tantawi to resign after he shook hands with Israeli President Shimon Peres at a UN- sponsored meeting. Tantawi was generally not against normalisation with Israel, and he was a critic of suicide bombing as an act of resistance to the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

The late grand sheikh was often thought of as a pro-Western scholar, and it is little wonder that Tantawi's death brought forth "an outpouring of grief from Western leaders," as the US magazine Newsweek put it in its obituary.

US President Barack Obama mourned the loss of a "voice of faith and tolerance", and Tantawi was "an important voice for dialogue among religions and communities," in the words of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. French President Nicolas Sarkozy called him "a premier figure in the effort to foster intellectual and interreligious dialogue".

In the Muslim world, intellectuals and Islamic thinkers have warned against the dangers of decreasing credibility and academic standards at Al-Azhar, causing Muslims around the world to seek alternative sources of religious edicts and learning. On the educational level, many students now opt for alternative Islamic universities in Syria, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco, while the declining standards of an Al-Azhar education, according to Abdel-Fattah, have meant that countries like Tunisia and Turkey do not even acknowledge the ancient university's degrees.

Some people, already despondent at the policies of the government and the weakening of Al-Azhar, have sought foreign models of Islam, such as Shiism, Wahabism, or Sufism, in an attempt to find a solution to the political, economic and social dilemmas facing the country. For Qotb, the danger of these "foreign schools of thinking resides in the fact that they were born in other cultures, and as such they carry thoughts that are sometimes alien to Egyptian society."

Meanwhile, the decline in Al-Azhar's educational standards has resulted in a generation of Azharite sheikhs who are unable to reach out to young people, leaving the ground open for alternative sources of fatwas that may not always be correct.

Even with the appointment of a new top cleric of the institution who may be "more pious, eloquent, modern, well- read, and creative than his predecessor," many would perhaps agree with Howeidy that chances remain dim for Al-Azhar to restore its former prestige so long as political liberties, human rights and freedom of expression are curtailed.

"The demise of Al-Azhar is only a reflection of an overall weakness in the state," Howeidy said. As such, a change in the grand sheikh can only be "cosmetic and a change in the image rather than the core, which is the best we can hope for at the moment."

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