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Religion and Politics in Egypt: The Ulema of Al-Azhar, Radical Islam, and the State (1952–94)

  • Malika Zeghal


A vast literature has been produced since the 1980s on the emergence of Islamist movements in the Middle East. This literature offers different rationales for the emergence of new kinds of foes to the political regimes of the region. Filling the void left by the leftist opposition, the Islamist militants appeared around the 1970s as new political actors. They were expected neither by the state elites, which had initiated earlier modernizing political and social reforms, nor by political scientists who based their research on modernization-theory hypotheses. The former thought that their reform policies toward the religious institution would reinforce their control of the religious sphere, and the latter expected that secularization would accompany the modernization of society. The surprise brought by this new political phenomenon pushed observers to focus mainly on the Islamists and to overlook the role of the ulema, the specialists of the Islamic law, who were considered entirely submitted to the state.



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Author's note: I wrote this paper while a visiting fellow at the Center of International Studies, Princeton University. I thank Rym Brahimi, Carl Brown, Ellis Goldberg, Hédi Kallal, Arang Keshavarzian, Elizabeth Thompson, and three anonymous referees for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.

1 For example, Kramer, Martin, Political Islam (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1980);Dessouki, A. and Hillal, D., ed., Islamic Resurgence in the Arab World (New York: Praeger, 1982); Enayat, Hamid, Modern Islamic Political Thought (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982); Arjomand, Said Amir, ed., From Nationalism to Revolutionary Islam (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984); Dekmejian, R., Islam in Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1985); Kepel, Gilles, Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and the Pharaoh (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985); Sivan, Emmanuel, Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985); Esposito, John L., Islam and Politics, 2nd ed. (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1987); Kepel, Gilles and Richard, Yann, Intellectuels et Militants de I'lslam contemporain (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1990); Marty, Martin E. and Appleby, R. Scott, ed., Fundamentalisms Observed (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

2 During two years of fieldwork in Cairo (1992–93), I conducted biographical interviews with thirtyfive Azharite ulema chosen from a large spectrum of social and professional positions. The Azharite calim is a doctor of the Islamic law who was graduated from al-Azhar University and received the ʿālimiyya, or doctorate. I considered any person who completed his education in the secondary schools (or institutes) of al-Azhar to be an “Azharite.” The attribution of the title of ʿāalim is also a privilege given to those who have attained an important level of knowledge in religious matters. The Azharites I interviewed belong to the administration of al-Azhar or are teachers in the primary and secondary institutes, faculty members, preachers educated at al-Azhar, or students at the university of al-Azhar. They can also have an Azharite education and work in modern universities or in other sectors of society that are not linked to al-Azhar. My interviews focused on the careers of these men of religion from several points of view: geographical, genealogical, religious, professional, and political; see Zeghal, Malika, Gardiens de I'lslam: Les Oulémas d'Al Azhar dans I'Egypte Contemporaine (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1996).

3 Eickelman, Dale and Piscatori, James, Muslim Politics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996), 131. See also Voll, John, Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World, 2nd ed. (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1994), 376, in which the author interprets the process of Islamization as a “normalization” of the ideology on which it is based. This ideology is today part of the Azharite mainstream.

4 Casanova, José, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 13.

5 Mitchell, Richard P., The Society of the Muslim Brothers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, y), 211.

6 Crecelius, Daniel, “Non Ideological Responses of the Egyptian Ulama to Modernization,” in Scholars, Saints and Sufis. Muslim Religious Institutions in the Middle East since 1500, ed. Keddie, Nikki R. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972); and “Al-Azhar in the Revolution,” Middle East Journal 20 (Winter 1966): 3149.

7 Crecelius, “Non Ideological Responses,“ 185.

8 Crecelius, Daniel, “The Course of Secularization in Modern Egypt,” in Islam and Development: Religion and Socio-Political Change, ed. Esposito, John (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1980).

9 Shaykh al-Bahi, who represented the regime during the short-lived debates in Parliament on the 1961 reform law, said: “The revolution reformed al-Azhar, because its shaykhs did not want to”: cf. Salāh, Magda, Al-Dawr al-Siyasi lil-Azhar (19521981) (Cairo: Markaz al-Buhuth wa-1 Dirasat al-Siyasiyya, 1992), 137.

10 Crecelius, “Non Ideological Responses,” 208.

12 See Zeghal, , Cardiens de I'lslam, 91126.

13 In 1961, the faculty of sharʿa was transformed into the faculty of sharʿa wa-qānūn (Islamic law and modern law).

14 Crecelius, “Al-Azhar in the Revolution,” 42.

15 interview with Shaykh Zahir, a retired civil servant from al-Azhar, Cairo, 21 May 1992.

16 See the articles of Taha Husayn in Al-Jumhūriyya on 21 October 1955 and 6 November 1955 and in Majallat al-Azhar in November 1955. After Taha Husayn suggested unification of the Egyptian system of education through what he called “the second phase” (the first one being the unification of the religious courts), several ulema reacted in the official magazine of al-Azhar. The “Ulema Front,” a group created in the 1940s, opposed Taha Husayn's project, which a shaykh considered as a blueprint for a “modern, American, or French Islam.” The front claimed that religious sciences and Arabic language had to gain space in all kinds of education in Egypt.

17 Zeghal, , Gardiens de I'lslam, 125–26.

18 They could get into al-Azhar after having spent a preparatory year studying religious subjects at al-Azhar.

19 See al-amīriyya, Al-Hayʾa al-ʿāmma li-shuʾūn al-matābiʿ, Al-qānūn raqm 103 li-Sanat 1961 (Cairo: 1986), 3334.

20 Zeghal, , Gardiens de V'slam, 172.

21 The figures for the years 1962–63 and 1972–73 are given by al-Azhar in Al-Azhar taʾrikhuhu wa tatawwiruhu (Cairo: 1983), 329. Figures for the years 1982–83, 1987–88, and 1992–93 were given to me by the administration of the institutes at al-Azhar.

22 Shalabī, Raʾūf, Shaykh al-islām ʿAbd al-Halīm Mahmūd (Kuwait: Dār al-Qalam, 1982), 391–92.

23 al-⋐Azim, ʿAli ʿAbd, MasMkhat al-Azhar mundhu inshaʾihā hattā al-ān (Cairo: Al-Hayʾa al-ʿāmma lil-shuʾūn al-Amīriyya, 1978), 422.

24 Berque, Jacques, L'Egyple, Impérialisme et Révolution (Paris: Gallimard, 1967).

25 Cf. Table 1.

26 Interview with Shaykh Hamdi, an accountant educated at the faculty of trade at al-Azhar, on 4 May 1992, Cairo.

27 Subkī, Shaykh ʿAbd al-Latīf, Majallat al-Azhar (November 1955): 394–95.

28 Roy, Olivier, “Les Nouveaux Intellectuels islamistes: Essai d'approche philosophique,” in Intellectuels et Militants de Vlslam Contemporain, ed. Kepel, Gilles and Richard, Yann (Paris: Seuil, 1991), 266: “ … disparate et fragmente, jamais ressaisi comme un tout.”

29 Majallat al-Azhar (December 1967), 566.

30 Speech on 23 July 1967, on the occasion of the anniversary of the 1952 revolution.

31 Majallat al-Azhar (December 1972).

32 Mahmūd, Shaykh ʿAbd al-Halīm, Fatāwā ʿan al-shuyāʿiyya (Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif, 1990), 9.

33 Kepel, Gilles, Le Prophète et le Pharaon (Paris: La Découverte, 1984).

34 al-Bahī, Muhammad, Mushkilat al-mujtamaʿīt al-islāmiyya al-muʿāsara, wa al-firāgh min al-islām (Cairo: Maktabat Wahba, 1979).

35 This text was published by the Majallat al-Azhar in 1979.

36 al-Tayr, Mustafā,“ “Al-maʿsiya la tukaffir sāhibahā” (Disobedience Does Not Make One Impious), Majallat al-Azhar (02 1977), 224–30.

37 Zeghal, , Gardiens de I'Islam, 381–88.

38 ʿAli cAbd al-Azim, Mashlkhat al-Azhar, 396.

39 lnterview with a 50-year-old Nasserist shaykh who belongs today to the leftist opposition, 12 June 1992.

40 Quoted in Muhammad al-Tawīl, Al-ikhwān ft ʾl-barlamān (Cairo: Al-Maktab al-Misri al-Hadīth, 1992), 115.

41 Shaykhs Shaʾrawi, Muhammad al-Ghazali, ʿAbd al-Hamid Kishk, three famous Azharite preachers, and Sayyid Rizq al-Tawil, president of the Islamic association of Daʿwat al-Haqq, were part of this committee: Rūz al-Yūsuf, 19 April 1993. The other half of the committee consisted of modern-educated people, mainly university professors.

42 The chronologies published in Maghreb-Machrek (1995) and Ègypte-Monde Arabe (1995) give details of this debate.

43 Zeghal, Gardiens de I'lslam, 328–37.

44 lbid., 337–58.

45 Al Farīda al-ghīʾiba (The Absent Obligation), this obligation being the jihad.

46 Quoted by Gilles Kepel, “L'Egypte d'aujourd'hui: mouvement islamiste et tradition savante,” in Annales ESC, no. 4 (1984).

47 ʿAziz, ʾAbd al Ghaffār, Man qatala Faraj Fmacr;da? (Cairo: Dar al-lʿlām al Dawlī, 1992), 112.

48 Cf. Majallat al-Azhar (February-March 1986), 854.

49 Al-Nūr, 18 December 1996.

50 Al-Wafd, 17 August 1994, and Al-Ahram, 11 August 1994.

51 Al-ʿArabi, 5 May 1996.

52 Rūz al-Yūsuf, 23 March 1998.

53 Al-liwāʾ al-islāmi, 27 June 1996.

54 For instance, ʾAbd al-Ghaffār ʾAziz, “Man Yanqud al-Azhar min mihnatihi?” al-Wafd, 26 March 1987. Also, in 1987, some ulema decided to create a private center for religious studies, within al-Azhar, that would have transmitted religious knowledge independently from the state. The government immediately stopped the project: cf. Al-Nūr, 16 December 1987.

55 Elements of ʾUmar ʾAbd al-Rahman's biography can be found in al-Rahmān, ʾUmar ʾAbd, Kalimat Haqq (Cairo: Dar al-Iʾtisam, 1987).

56 The dissertation was on “the opponents of the Qurʾan as depicted in the sūrat al-Tawba of the Qurʾan.”

57 See Kepel, Gilles, The Prophet and Pharaoh. Muslim Extremism in Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

58 The sources on which to base an understanding of the religious and political thought of ʿUmar ʿAbd al-Rahman are of very different natures, which adds to the elusiveness of the character. His defense at his trial in Egypt provides us with a theoretical justification of the assassination of Sadat (published in Kalimat). Interviews he gave to the media in Egypt and later in the United States are numerous and sometimes contradictory.

59 Wall Street Journal, 22 September 1995, 1.

60 See the New York Times, 18 January 1996, 1. The article reports that the shaykh delivered “a 100- minute speech in which he castigated the United States as an ‘enemy of Islam’ and cast himself as a victim of an ‘unlawful trial.’”

61 ʿUmar ʿAbd al-Rahmān, Kalimat, 40–41.

62 Ibid., 79.

63 Ibid., 47.

64 Ibid., 110, 159.

65 “Doubts About Jihad,” ʿUmar ʿAbd al-Rahman, audiotape no. 40.

66 “On the Inevitability of Jihad for the Solution of Our Problems and for the Frightening of the Enemies of God,”Conference on Solidarity with Bosnia-Herzegovina,16 January 1993, videotape.

67 Chris Eccel developed the notion of “division of labor” in Alim and Mujahid in Egypt: Orthodoxy Versus Subculture, or Division of Labor?Muslim World 85 (07 1988): 189208.


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