Skip to main content Accessibility help


  • Masooda Bano (a1)


Routinely required to lend religious legitimacy to contentious state policies, al-Azhar's moral authority has been under pressure since its nationalization in 1961. This article outlines how Shaykh al-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayyib's recent alliance with President ʿAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi has, however, exposed al-Azhar's moral authority to unprecedented risks. This is for three reasons. First, the tactics used by al-Sisi's government to quell the Muslim Brotherhood have been more extreme than those used by previous regimes. Second, the al-Azhari establishment's defence of these violent tactics has been more unqualified than in the past. Third, current state-led reforms of al-Azhar's curriculum are more controversial than prior efforts along these lines. As I show, these recent developments are not a complete break from the past; rather, they are a natural outcome of incremental shifts that have been occurring within al-Azhar since its nationalization over fifty years ago.



Hide All

Author's note: This research was carried out under the European Research Council, European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC grant agreement no. [337108].



Hide All


1 Al-Azhar is routinely approached by the Egyptian state, and at times even by Western governments, to legitimize state policies that would be considered controversial in light of Islamic dictates. See Zeghal, Malika, “The ‘Recentering’ of Religious Knowledge and Discourse: The Case of al-Azhar in Twentieth-Century Egypt,” in Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education, ed. Hefner, Robert and Zaman, Muhammad Qasim (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007), 105–30. On the overwhelming influence of al-Azhar in shaping Islamic discourse and practice in other regions, in particular East Asia, see Bano, Masooda and Sakurai, Keiko, eds., Shaping Global Islamic Discourses: The Role of al-Azhar, al-Medina and al-Mustafa (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), Part 3.

2 Masooda Bano, “Protector of the ‘al-Wasatiyya’ Islam: Cairo's al-Azhar University,” in Shaping Global, 73–92.

3 Ahmed Morsay and Nathan Brown, “Egypt's Al-Azhar Steps Forward,” The Cairo Review of Global Affairs: Tahrir Forum, 23 November 2013, accessed 27 July 2016,; Michael Kaplan, “Under Egypt President Sisi, World Famous Muslim University Al-Azhar Faces Global Backlash,” International Business Times, 13 August 2015, accessed 27 July 2016,

4 Zeghal, Malika, “Religion and Politics in Egypt: The Ulema of al-Azhar, Radical Islam and the State (1952–1994),” International Journal of Middle East Studies 31 (1999): 371–99.

5 Zeghal, “The ‘Recentering’ of Religious Knowledge.”

6 Gesink, Indira Falk, Islamic Reform and Conservatism: al-Azhar and the Evolution of Modern Sunni Islam, rev. ed. (London: I.B.Tauris, 2014).

7 Zaman, Muhammad Qasim, Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age: Religious Authority and Internal Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 29.

8 Kalmbach, Hilary, “Introduction: Islamic Authority and the Study of Female Religious Leaders,” in Women, Leadership, and Mosques, ed. Bano, Masooda and Kalmbach, Hilary E. (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 129.

9 Hisham Al-Zoubair Hellyer and Nathan J. Brown, “Leading from Everywhere,” Foreign Affairs, 15 June 2015, accessed 1 May 2017,

10 Farhan Ahmad Nizami, “Madrasahs, Scholars and Saints: Muslim Response to the British Presence in Delhi and the Upper Doab, 1803–1857” (PhD diss., University of Oxford, 1983).

11 Masooda Bano, “Conclusion: Female Leadership in Mosques: An Evolving Narrative,” in Women, Leadership, and Mosques, 507–34.

12 Mernissi, Fatima, Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World, trans. Lakeland, Mary Jo (New York: Basic Books, 2009).

13 Zaman, Muhammad Qasim, “Religious Education and the Rhetoric of Reform: The Madrasa in British India and Pakistan,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 41 (1999): 294323.

14 Zeghal, Malika, “Public Institutions of Religious Education in Egypt and Tunisia: Contrasting the Post-Colonial Reforms of al-Azhar and the Zaytuna,” in Trajectories of Education in the Arab World: Legacies and Challenges, ed. Mershed, Usama Abi (London: Routledge, 2009), 111–24.

15 Calvert, John, Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism (London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers Ltd, 2010); Mitchell, Richard P., The Society of the Muslim Brothers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

16 Stéphane Lacroix, “Sheikhs and Politicians: Inside the New Egyptian Salafism,” Brookings Institution, 30 November 2001, accessed 15 May 2017,

17 Bano, “Protector of the ‘al-Wasatiyya’ Islam”; Hellyer and Brown, “Leading from Everywhere.”

18 Hellyer and Brown, “Leading from Everywhere.”

19 Ibid.

20 Please refer to the detailed discussion on the Constitution in the second half of this article.

21 Hellyer and Brown, “Leading from Everywhere.”

22 Ibid.

23 Graf, Bettina and Skovgaard-Petersen, Jakob, eds., The Global Mufti: The Phenomenon of Yusuf Al-Qaradawi (London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers Ltd, 2009).

24 Abu Hudhayfah, “ʻCall of Egypt’ – More than 150 Muslim Scholars Issue Statement against the Sisi Regime,” DOAM – Documenting Oppression Against Muslims, 27 May 2015, accessed 1 May 2017,

25 Ibid. Point 8 in this petition noted: “The presence of Al-Azhar's Grand Imam in the coup's declaration scene, and his silence on the coup's crimes is deemed, Islamically speaking, a crime that nullifies his legitimacy and ruins his status; it makes him involved in all the crimes committed by the coup's culprits. Such participation tarnishes the glorious history of Al-Azhar, damages its current status and ruins its future.”

26 Jared Malsin, “Turmoil at Al-Azhar: Religion, Politics, and the Egyptian State,” The Revealer, 8 April 2014, accessed 2 May 2017,

27 Masooda Bano and Hanane Benadi, “Official al-Azhar versus al-Azhar Imagined: Arab Spring and Revival of Religious Imagination,” Die Welt des Islams (forthcoming).

28 Zeinobia [pseud.], “Remembering Sheikh Emad Effat,” Egyptian Chronicles, 22 December 2014, accessed 15 July 2016,

29 The News Pakistan, “Sunni Islam Riven Anew by Ancient Dispute,” 18 September 2016.

30 Bano, “Protector of the ‘al-Wasatiyya’ Islam”; Zeghal, “Religion and Politics in Egypt.”

31 Shadi Hamid, “Is the Muslim Brotherhood a Terrorist Organization?,” Unpacked (blog), Brookings Institute, 11 April 2017, accessed 15 May 2018,

32 Ismael El-Kholy, “Al-Azhar Controversy Leads to Curriculum Updates,” Al-Monitor, 5 June 2015, accessed 27 July 2016,

33 Jennifer Williams, “There's a ‘Crisis of Legitimacy within Islam’—And It's Fueling ISIS,” Vox, 18 November 2015, accessed 27 July 2016,

34 Cathy Hinners, “The ISIS-Al Azhar-Murfreesboro Imam Connection,” The Counter Jihad Report (blog), 29 November 2015, accessed 27 July 2016,

35 Reham Mokbel, “Al-Azhar Rethinks Primary School Teaching to Encourage Moderation,” Al-Monitor, 14 July 2015, accessed 27 July 2016,

36 Raymond Ibrahim, “Al Azhar Can't Denounce ISIS as Un-Islamic Even if It Commits ‘Every Atrocity,’” Middle East Forum, 3 December 2015, accessed 11 August 2016,; Rami Galal, “Sisi's Call for Religious Tolerance Divides Muslims,” Al-Monitor, 26 May 2015, accessed 27 July 2016,

37 Kingston, Christopher and Caballero, Gonzalo, “Comparing Theories of Institutional Change,” Journal of Institutional Economics 5 (2009): 151–80.

38 Kuran, Timur, The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012), 32.

39 Kingston and Caballero, “Comparing Theories of Institutional Change.”

40 Hellyer and Brown, “Leading from Everywhere.”

41 Zeghal, “Religion and Politics in Egypt.”

42 Morsay and Brown, “Egypt's Al-Azhar Steps Forward.”

43 Calvert, Sayyid Qutb; Mitchell, The Society.

44 “Egypt: Rab'a Killings Likely Crimes 2against Humanity: No Justice a Year Later for Series of Deadly Mass Attacks on Protesters,” Human Rights Watch, 12 August 2014, accessed 17 July 2016,; “All According to Plan: The Rab'a Massacre and Mass Killings of Protesters in Egypt,” Human Rights Watch, 12 August 2014, accessed 12 July 2016,

45 Ibid. In interviews conducted in late 2014, a female student at al-Azhar similarly explained to me how her brother, who was killed during the Rabʿa Mosque operation, was not a Brotherhood member.

46 Calvert, Sayyid Qutb; Mitchell, The Society.

47 Reem Gehad, “Crackdown on Pro-Morsi Sit-Ins Leaves Egypt in a State of Emergency,” Ahram Online, 15 August 2013, accessed 11 August 2016,

48 Human Rights Watch has argued that the operation at Rabʿa was clearly planned with the approval of the country's top command. See “All According to Plan.”

49 Ibid.

50 The death, apparently in police custody, of an Italian student from Cambridge who was pursuing his PhD fieldwork in Egypt caused major international outcry; Stephanie Kirchgaessner, Ruth Michaelson, and Aisha Gani, “Italian Student Giulio Regeni Found Dead in Cairo ‘With Signs of Torture,’” The Guardian, 4 February 2015, accessed 27 July 2016,

51 La Rédaction [pseud.], “Pro-Muslim Brotherhood Clerics Call to Overthrow al-Sisi Regime in Egypt, Restore Mursi to Presidency,” Ikhwan Info, 17 June 2016, accessed 11 August 2016, The petition, also endorsed by important religious bodies from across the Arab world, was posted on the Nidaʾ al-Kinana (Egypt Call) website.

52 Oliver Laughland, “Egyptian Military Removes President Mohamed Morsi—As It Happened,” The Guardian, 4 July 2013, accessed 14 August 2016,

53 “Egypt Minister Calls for Killing 400,000 Brotherhood Members and Supporters,” Middle East Eye, 28 January 2016, accessed 11 August 2016,

54 Hanan Fayed, “Al-Azhar Responds to Sisi's Call for ‘Religious Revolution,’” The Cairo Post, 2 January 2015, accessed 27 July 2016,

55 ʿAli Gumaʿa, “Speech to Military and Police Officers during the October 6 Victory Celebration,” YouTube, October 2013, accessed 15 November 2015,; Amr Osman, “Ali Gomaa: Kill Them, They Stink,” Middle East Monitor,” 27 January 2014, accessed 15 August 2016,

56 Ahmad Karima, Professor of Islamic Law at al-Azhar, who has also endorsed al-Sisi's proposed reforms to the al-Azhar curriculum, is one such example; Walaa Hussein, “Al-Azhar Rewrites Curricula,” Al Monitor, 29 June 2015, accessed 16 July 2017,

57 Calvert, Sayyid Qutb; Mitchell, The Society.

58 Zeghal, “Religion and Politics in Egypt,” 30.

59 Bano, “Protector of the ‘al-Wasatiyya’ Islam.”

60 For a detailed analysis of the freedoms demanded in the al-Azhar Document, see ibid.

61 Ibid.

62 Ibid.

63 Chloe Benoist, “The Sketchy Articles of Egypt's Constitution,” al-Akhbar, 2 December 2012, accessed 1 August 2016,

64 Ibid.

65 Ibid.

66 Heather McRobie, “Egypt: A Tale of Two Constitutions,” openDemocracy, 16 January 2014, accessed 14 August 2016,

67 Morsay and Brown, “Egypt's Al-Azhar Steps Forward.”

68 Paolo Caridi, “Consensus-Building in Al-Sisi's Egypt,” Insight Egypt, February 2015, accessed 27 July 2016,

69 Raymond Ibrahim, “Egypt's Sisi: Islamic ‘Thinking’ is ‘Antagonizing the Entire World,’” Middle East Forum, 1 January 2015, accessed 27 July 2016,

70 General Musharraf, who like al-Sisi staged a military coup against an elected government (becoming Pakistan's president between 1999 and 2008), similarly liked to present himself as a devout Muslim, but one who was a reformist. Explicitly referring to Mustafa Kemal as his model, he developed a notion of “enlightened Islam” that, like al-Sisi's “religious revolution,” encouraged Muslim societies to conform to Western modernity.

71 Mohamed Khairat, “Egypt's President Sisi Urges Islamic Scholars to Send Christmas Greetings, Calls for Reform,” Egyptian Streets, 24 December 2015, accessed 27 July 2016,

72 “El-Sisi Says Al-Azhar Has Failed to Renew Islamic Discourse,” Ahram Online, 14 July 2015, accessed 27 July 2016,

73 Ibid.

74 Ibid.

75 Fayed, “Al-Azhar Responds.”

76 Jakob Skovgaard-Peterson, “al-Azhar, Modern Period,” EI 3.

77 Hyde, George, Education in Modern Egypt: Ideals and Realities (London: Routledge, 1978), 155.

78 For details, consult al-Azhar University's website, accessed 15 August 2017,

79 Monique Cardinal, “Islamic Legal Theory Curriculum: Are the Classics Taught Today?,” Islamic Law and Society 12 (2005): 224–72.

80 Ibid.

81 Ibid., 241, 245.

82 Nakissa, Aria, “An Epistemic Shift in Islamic Law: Educational Reform at al-Azhar and Dar al-Ulum,” Islamic Law and Society 21 (2014): 209–51.

83 Cardinal, “Islamic Legal Theory,” 239.

84 Bano, Masooda, “Madrasa Reforms and Islamic Modernism in Bangladesh,” Modern Asian Studies 48 (2014): 911–93; Bano, “Engaged Yet Disengaged: Islamic Schools and the State in Kano,” Working Paper 29, Religions and Development (RaD) Research Programme, University of Birmingham, 2009.

85 Hussein, “Al-Azhar Rewrites Curricula.”

86 Ibid.

87 Ibid.

88 Ibid.

89 Bano, “Madrasa Reforms.”

90 Ibid.

91 Ibid.

92 Mahmoud Mourad and Yara Bayoumy, “Special Report: Egypt Deploys Scholars to Teach Moderate Islam, but Skepticism Abounds,” Reuters, 31 May 2015, accessed 27 July 2016,

93 Hussein, “Al-Azhar Rewrites Curricula.”

94 Muhammad Mansour, “Why Sisi Fears Egypt's Liberals,” Foreign Affairs, 18 May 2016, accessed 14 August 2016,

95 Ibid.

96 Even this time around, in return for its cooperation with the al-Sisi government, the Ministry of Awqaf made al-Azhar responsible for revising the Islamic curriculum for state schools and made it mandatory for all mosque imams to be al-Azhar trained; Mokbel, “Al-Azhar Rethinks Primary School Teaching.”

97 Al-Yom al-Sabah video, 9 July 2013, accessed 27 July 2016, .

98 South Asian experiences have been similar. Abul Ala Maududi, the South Asian counterpart to Sayyid Qutb, and founder of Jamaʿat-i-Islami, was critical of the political inaction of the ʿulamaʾ and vice versa. He also severely critiqued the neglect of modern subjects in madrasa curriculum, which he found indicative of the ʿulamaʾ’s unwillingness to engage with the modern world; Bano, Masooda, “Welfare Work and Politics of Jama'at-i-Islami in Pakistan and Bangladesh,” Economic and Political Weekly 47 (2012): 8693; Bano, “Madrasa Reforms.”

99 David D. Kirkpatrick, “Mohamed Morsi of Muslim Brotherhood Declared as Egypt's President,” New York Times, 24 June 2012, accessed 25 July 2016,

100 Lacroix, “Sheikhs and Politicians.”

101 Zeghal, “Religion and Politics in Egypt,” 383.

102 Wickham, Carrie Rosefsky, Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 216.

103 Zeghal, “Religion and Politics in Egypt,” 389.

104 Mokbel, “Al-Azhar Rethinks Primary School Teaching.”

105 Lacroix, “Sheikhs and Politicians.”

106 Hinners, “The ISIS-Al Azhar-Murfreesboro”; Williams, “There's a ‘Crisis of Legitimacy.’”

107 John Jammy, “Sheikh Usama Al-Sayyid Al-Azhari,” The Correct Islamic Faith (blog), 19 May 2013, accessed 11 August 2016,

108 N. Mozes, “Egypt's Al-Azhar Opposes Ministry of Religious Endowments Plan for Uniform Friday Sermon,” MEMRI - The Middle East Media Research Institute, 4 August 2016, accessed 22 May 2017,

109 “Al-Azhar for Verbal Divorce If All Requirements Are Met, Rejects El-Sissi's Call to Reform,” Ummid.Com, 6 February 2017, accessed 22 May 2017,

110 Mozes, “Egypt's Al-Azhar Opposes.”

111 “Al-Azhar for Verbal Divorce.”

Author's note: This research was carried out under the European Research Council, European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC grant agreement no. [337108].



  • Masooda Bano (a1)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed