A sharp debate has taken place between the Sheikh of al-Azhar and the President of Cairo University,
Mohamed Othman al-Khosht, on the issue of renewing religious discourse.
The controversy sparked a debate on social media and in Egyptian religious and political circles and
raised questions about the nature of al-Azhar’s relationship with the regime.
The controversy on social media occurred on the second day of the al-Azhar International Conference
held last Monday and Tuesday, “Renewing Islamic Thought,” in the presence of Muslim scholars and
clerics from 46 countries around the world.
The President of Cairo University called for the establishment of a “new religious discourse and the
dismantling of traditional discourse,” by “replacing the sciences of interpretation (Tafsir), jurisprudence
(Fiqh), the origins of religion (Osoul al-Dien) and sciences of the hadith, to replace them with new
The boldness of al-Khosht’s proposal prompted the Sheikh of al-Azhar to request a response from the
former Secretary of the League of Arab States, Amr Moussa, who was moderating the session.
The Sheikh of al-Azhar began his speech by criticising Al-Khosht: “I would like a speech that was
delivered at an international conference on a delicate topic which is renewing religious discourse to be
prepared and [researched] in advance, and not to be a result of the flow of thoughts during the speech.”
Al-Tayeb added that “portraying Islamic heritage as the cause of inheriting weakness and retreat is an
attempt at bidding on it, and renewing is a word of Islamic heritage, not a modernist [one]. And without
our heritage, our character will be eliminated; our character as Arabs and Muslims is nothing recently,
because of leaving our heritage.”
Sheikh al-Azhar’s reply prompted al-Khosht to defend his point of view: “My words were loaded onto an
anti-al-Azhar stream, but I respect al-Azhar very strongly, agree with al-Tayeb on some matters, and
disagree on others.”
Philosophy Professor at al-Azhar University, Dr. Abdel Moneim Fouad, says that the debate was a polite
scientific debate on the issue of renewing Islamic thought, but it was used in some media outlets to
attack the Sheikh of al-Azhar, saying that he did not respect the other person’s opinion.
Fouad is referring to the regime-affiliated media figure, Mohamed el-Baz, who attacked the Sheikh of al-
Azhar after the conference.
However, the director of civil liberties at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Dr. Amr Abdel
Rahman, said that the controversy carried intense political messages from Sheikh al-Azhar, who
criticised his performance on the issue of renewing religious discourse.
The Sheikh of al-Azhar is facing harsh criticism by pro-regime figures, led by General Abdel Fattah al-
Abdel Rahman explained that the issue of renewing religious discourse is a front for a hidden political
struggle between Sheikh al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb and the ruling regime after July 2013, according to
Al-Tayeb clings to the independence of al-Azhar and tries to avoid politics, but this policy clashes with
the mentality of al-Sisi, who wants all institutions under his grip.
Al-Sisi and al-Tayeb’s relations change. While al-Tayeb supported the overthrow of the Muslim
Brotherhood in 2013, he condemned the violent break-up of the Brotherhood supporters’ sit-in in Rabaa
Al-Tayeb also refused atonement of ISIS supporters, in addition to the crisis of verbal divorce, when the
committee of senior scholars headed by al-Tayeb rejected al-Sisi’s proposal, which demonstrated their
differences in public.
Despite the announcement by the Egyptian presidency and al-Azhar that al-Sisi would attend the
opening of the Al-Azhar International Conference, he was absent at the last moments and then sent the
Prime Minister in his place.
Al-Sisi’s absence from the conference opened the door to speculation.
But Fouad said: “Respect is mutual between the president and the al-Azhar Foundation and the
conference would not have been successful if President al-Sisi did not sponsor it.”
He added that “al-Sisi’s absence at the last moments may be because of his many concerns that we value,
and he delegated the prime minister, while the president was present with his spirit and care.”
Fouad added that al-Azhar was not limited to the issue of renewing Islamic thought and holding
numerous scientific conferences, which indicates its openness.
He referred to the fact that Sheikh al-Azhar declared at the conclusion of the last conference he would
establish a centre for heritage and innovation that includes scholars from Egypt and abroad, and
specialists who wish to contribute to the renewal of Islamic thoughts.
Supporters of the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar say that al-Tayeb has progressive ideas that surpass all of al-
Azhar’s reformist sheikhs, but he does not want al-Azhar to be a tool in al-Sisi’s hand that he moves in
accordance with his policy against political Islamic groups.
Observers confirm that al-Azhar is not seeking to clash with the current authority, but it does not want
to turn into a mere tool in its hands, and this has caused a number of differences between them.
Analysts assert that in all the battles al-Azhar fought against al-Sisi, al-Tayeb won, including over their
differences vis-a-vis verbal divorce, atonement, armed groups and others.
Al-Azhar is the highest religious authority in Egypt and is very popular around the world, and is the
reference for a lot of Islamic legislation, especially relating to personal status.