The new Sheikh al-Azhar

Mubarak and his chief of staff Zakariya Azmi

The big news from yesterday in Egypt is that President Mubarak is back at work, making phone calls, shifting paperwork and generally looking busy. Among the tasks he's carrying out from his hospital room is appointing Ahmed al-Tayeb as the new Sheikh al-Azhar to replace Sheikh Tantawi.

Others have highlighted the trajectory of Tayeb's career — he is a former Mufti of Egypt and most recently was the dean of al-Azhar University. There, he was best known for tolerating security crackdowns on students from the Muslim Brothers that led to their stupid "martial arts demonstration" that provided the excuse for mass arrests, including senior leaders such as Khairat al-Shater.

The new Sheikh al-Azhar, Ahmed al-TayebAside from his animosity towards the Ikhwan, he is also generally known as a "moderate" and pledged to keep al-Azhar "centrist." I'm not sure what the means — it seems to indicate he is generally against clashes of civilizations, al-Qaeda and other things one would expect out of any decent religious leader. Things are not going to get very far if the standard for reform of al-Azhar is simply ensuring that it rejects salafi jihadist thinking. Much is being made of his PhD from the Sorbonne, though.

Anyway, having done a little search on my personal database I came across this article from al-Sharq al-Awsat's 26 August 2002 edition, chronicling what was then a public spat between al-Tayeb and Sheikh Tantawi:

Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Mufti of Egypt, denies any intention to resign because of the discrepancy between his fatwas and those of the Islamic Research Institute, headed by the Sheikh of the Azhar, concerning martyrdom operations and boycotting American and Israeli products. 

He says that news about his resignation is simply a rumor. He makes it clear that the fatwas issued by the Dar Al-Ifta, especially fatwas concerning sensitive issues, do not express his opinions only. He always asks the Islamic Research Institute to give its opinion concerning such issues. 
According to an apposition paper, while the Mufti supports martyrdom operations and boycotting American products, the Sheikh of the Azhar issued a fatwa to the effect that martyrdom operations against civil Israelis are not allowed according to the Islamic Shari’a.       

Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Mufti of Egypt, denies any intention to resign because of the discrepancy between his fatwas and those of the Islamic Research Institute, headed by the Sheikh of the Azhar, concerning martyrdom operations and boycotting American and Israeli products. 
He says that news about his resignation is simply a rumor. He makes it clear that the fatwas issued by the Dar Al-Ifta, especially fatwas concerning sensitive issues, do not express his opinions only. He always asks the Islamic Research Institute to give its opinion concerning such issues. 
According to an apposition paper, while the Mufti supports martyrdom operations and boycotting American products, the Sheikh of the Azhar issued a fatwa to the effect that martyrdom operations against civil Israelis are not allowed according to the Islamic Shari’a.       

I wonder if he still believes in boycotting US products.

The other interesting thing yesterday is that all state imams were told to pray for Mubarak's health during their Friday sermon. One wonders what to make of it: should it be a sign that the situation is quite bad? Probably not. I would guess it's either a directive from on high to show fealty to Mubarak, or perhaps the initiative of Minister of Awqaf (and until yesterday candidate for Sheikh al-Azhar) Hamdi ZaqZouq, who is the official in control of such things. Either way, when you're trying to reassure the nation that Mubarak is fine, surely having all public mosques pray for his health sounds a dissonent message...

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.