From the archive of Abdelrahim Ali

Four hours with the imam

Abdelrehim Aly

This article was published on Tuesday, June 28, 2022.


My intervention bothered Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb a lot. I spoke with clear evidence about the presence of people around him who belong to the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Al-Azhar is our house. It is the main pillar of the tent that is our country. It is equal in importance to the army and the police.

Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb believes the problem is deeper than the presence of the Brotherhood affiliates within the institution. The problem is with what he described as the 'atonement of those who beg to differ'. 

Two days ago, I received a generous invitation from the Grand Imam of al-Azhar to attend a dialogue session that brought together a large number of chief editors of national, partisan and private newspapers.

This was not the first invitation that I received from his imminence, the imam. My relationship with Dr al-Tayeb is old, dating many years back, when he was president of al-Azhar University. Before this, I was introduced to him and his thoughts by his enlightened writing and thoughts which were included in more than 15 books, including ones authored by him and others translated by him. Some of the books are about logic, such as his book 'Introduction to the Study of Old Logic'. Other books are in jurisprudence, mysticism and philosophy, such as his book 'Critical Side in the Philosophy of Abu al-Barakat al-Baghdadi'. He also has translations from and into French, a language he masters fluently. 

I knew Dr al-Tayyib as an enlightened man with broad-mindedness, discipline, and openness to all opinions.

However, when I saw the grand imam this time, he was sad and distressed. He was less tolerant to debate and raged as he presented his point of view.

He is a modern imam par excellence. He learned and lived in France for many years. Like all those who learned and lived for a period of their lives in the West, such as Rifa'a Rafe' al-Tahtawi, Mohamed Abdo, Taha Hussein and Louis Awad, he enjoyed broad-mindedness, discipline of the curriculum, accuracy in the use of terminology, and openness to dissenting opinions.

Despite the dozens of meetings I had with the Imam over the past years, this was the first time I saw him sad and worried. He became angry as he presented his point of view, which caused him to make mistakes, sometimes using many terms, and making accusations, including about the presence of what he called an 'organized' media campaign trying to tarnish the image of al-Azhar and its men.

I was amazed at the imam's use of this term because I know his accuracy in using the terminology, and because those who announced some of their visions or criticisms of al-Azhar during the last period are among those affiliated with the enlightenment camp of the imam.

The imam was sitting and to his right sat a young man, no more than 30 years of age, who I later learned was his legal advisor. To his left, sat the head of the Journalists' Syndicate, my dear friend Dr Diaa Rashwan, and other journalists. 

The imam expressed sadness and pain as a result of what he sees of an organized campaign carried out by some satellite channels, newspapers and websites, accusing al-Azhar of being infiltrated by the Brotherhood.

He enumerated his stances through which he confronted the group and its men during their rule of Egypt, starting with his insistence on the issuance of the al-Azhar's Independence Law, which was presented days before the convening of the Brotherhood's parliament in 2011. He also passed through his refusal to attend the swearing of the oath of office by ousted president Mohamed Morsi at Cairo University, in protest against his mistreatment and bypassing protocols with him, up to his position on July 3, 2013 as a victory for the Egyptian people's revolution and their choice of change, and in support of the national vision that eventually led to the ouster of Morsi. 

The grand imam stressed that he put his life in danger on that day as a victory and alignment with the popular will supported by the army.

The imam also presented several positions that he used to demonstrate that al-Azhar stood against the group's attempts to infiltrate it by planting deans within certain colleges, or thinkers within the Academy of Senior Scholars, or preparing to hijack Dar al-Ifta. 

This was not, in fact, what we went to hear from his eminence. We rather went to hear from him clear answers about what was raised by many media outlets about certain people around the imam who are sympathetic to the ideas and positions of the terrorist Brotherhood which killed and terrified Egyptians for nearly two whole years. 

I said this to the letter during my intervention, which seems to have angered him a lot because it included specific names, and clear evidence about those names, such as Dr Mohamed Emara, the person in charge for the magazine of al-Azhar and Sheikh Hassan al-Shafie, a member of the Academy of Senior Scholars. 

These two men had clear positions on the dispersal of the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in. They considered the sit-in dispersal as a 'massacre' carried out by police against peaceful citizens. They also described people's revolution on June 30 as a 'military coup'. 

Also, Dr Mohamed Abu Moussa, a member of the Academy of Senior Scholars, who still confirms in his book 'Sahih al-Bukhari's Ahadiths' Explanation' (Page 31) that all the slogans raised by the Muslim Brotherhood are our principles and a Muslim cannot deny one of them, even if the sword is put on his neck.

In fact, there are many examples, whether related to the curricula or the behaviour of al-Azhar University students who belong to the terrorist group, as they are the most violent among Egyptian university students, or the memoirs of professors who teach students and call for fanaticism that sometimes reaches the point of atonement.

We went to hear from the imam specific answers about the questions raised: Are these people who act as his assistants and agents still on their side with the Brotherhood? Are they only sympathetic to their cause? Do they just adopt their ideas? Can we hear from them or from the imam a definitive statement about their views? 

It is true that Dr Diaa Rashwan spoke seriously about the inadmissibility of searching people's consciences or even their books and ideas, otherwise we would go together to a new McCarthyism, like the one that invaded the US in the 1950s, searching minds and ideas about Marxist or communist beliefs. Many intellectuals were harmed as a result of these inspections.

But it is also true that we are in the process of religious preachers who are primarily responsible for shaping the conscience of people, and youth in particular. Most importantly, these preachers shape the awareness of researchers in this field. 

I mentioned, as part of my intervention during the meeting, the dangers inherent in the presence of people who harbour these ideas, especially in such sensitive places. I also mentioned what happened with me in 2004 when I debated Dr Abdel Fattah al-Sheikh, may God have mercy on him, president of al-Azhar University, on the infallibility of the companions as part of the famous television programme 'Opposite Direction' on al-Jazeera channel. The debate ended in a sweeping defeat for Dr al-Sheikh and his ideas. He also conceded this defeat. 

On the way back to Cairo, I sat next to the deceased Pope Shenouda, may God have mercy on him.

He was attending a conference in Doha at that time. I talked with the late pope on various topics. Less than half an hour later, the man went to the bathroom, and I was surprised by Dr al-Sheikh peeking his head from between the two chairs to say to me: What are you doing, Mawlana? "And never will the Jews or the Christians approve of you until you follow their religion."

It dropped on my hand on that day. I was sure why the graduates of al-Azhar University are the fuel for these groups, specifically the Brotherhood. The man who said this worked as the university's president for ten years, and before that he was a professor, assistant professor, and teacher for more than 30 years. He taught generations of researchers and made them mere copies of him. 

The strange thing is that when I mentioned that example to the grand imam to demonstrate that the issue does not lie in the presence of an enlightened and civilized imam, but it is related to an integrated curriculum that begins with the university professor and the al-Azhar student and the curricula that are taught. 

It is neither time nor place to enumerate hundreds of examples of this kind, or to enter into an argument with his eminence, the imam, about the validity of that saying, but I understood the man's defence of his case. 

He simply wanted to tell us that the issue is much deeper than that, and that al-Azhar as an institution does not exist. It has an extremist ideology, as it is based mainly on the Ash’ari doctrine which says that people who pray to the two Qiblas and say the two testimonies cannot not be declared apostates, which is what prompted al-Azhar to get involved in the fatwa not to declare ISIS apostate, in line with the Ash’ari doctrine. 

The imam put his finger on the core of the truth, but without a clear or correct acknowledgment that the impact of those years is still present and needs a real revolution in order to address its impact as well as its effects.

Many issues addressed by the grand imam, in fact, we cannot enumerate them here in this article, but one of the most important things the man said is that extraordinary efforts are being made in the framework of development and modernization, including the cancellation of the subject of the previously mentioned university notes, and the adoption of the old Azhar book, although the problem of explaining what is inside will remain. 

We have deep appreciation for the honourable al-Azhar and strong reverence for its great sheikhs. We also have all respect for its professors. We learned from them tolerance. They need to excuse us for our criticism that is necessary to correct the curriculum and return to the origins.