Important Sites: Al-Azhar

Cairo, in Egypt, houses one of the oldest mosques and universities. Al-Azhar Mosque and University is now the foremost Sunni institution in the world. Al-Azhar mosque was the first in Cairo, the capitol of the Fatimid Caliphate. The university followed and became the second oldest continuously running academic institution after Al-Qarawiyyin. Al-Azhar, part of a series on important sites in Islam, is the focus of this post. Continue reading

Islam’s Role in Egypt’s Secular Revolution

Mona Mogahed is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lived in Cairo between 2008-2009. She is a native of Madison, Wisconsin and currently resides in Washington, DC.

When a wave of self-immolation attempts began sweeping the Arab world following the now historic actions of Tunisian citizen Mohamed Bouazizi, Muslim clerics scrambled to issue statements condemning suicide in Islam. Al-Azhar, the world’s most respected institution of Sunni learning, released a statement declaring that “Islam categorically forbids suicide for any reason,” while a Saudi scholar called self-immolation a “great sin” and asserted that Islam “bans suicide even if living conditions are hard.” Of course, few Muslims would argue that suicide is not forbidden in Islam, but both the timing and nature of these statements left little doubt that the dictums were government directives – urging citizens to refrain from the extreme forms of protest that led to the eventual ousting of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali. One Azhar sheikh even went so far as to claim that protesting was forbidden in Islam (other Azhar scholars did the responsible thing by disagreeing with him, even calling Ben Ali’s removal a pious act).

It has long been a strategy of dictatorial governments like Mubarak’s 30-year old regime to try using Islam as an effective means to control citizens, appealing to a common currency that few would muster enough sacrilege to object to (with Azhar-sanctioned legitimacy, the regime has God on its side after all). And Egyptians are indeed a deeply religious people – arguably the most religious in the world. A recent Gallup poll found that a whopping 99% of Egyptians answered “Yes” to the question “Is religion an important part of your daily life?

It comes as a surprise to some, therefore, that the country’s current popular uprising has not taken on an explicitly Islamic bent. Protesters’ demands are quite simple: get Mubarak out. The role Islam has played thus far has been mostly organic and far from political. Until today, the most successful demonstrations took place on Friday, January 28th. These protests were scheduled immediately following the Friday prayers, benefiting from the already-critical masses which regularly turn out to attend these services. Committed protesters paused their chants in order to line up and perform daily prayers, bowing and prostrating beneath riot police and military tanks, gestures extensively documented in a slew of powerful images and videos.

But these were not political acts. These were merely practicing Muslims taking a few moments to perform prayer as they would on any other occasion, whether they were battling Egyptian security forces over control of a major bridge, or just experiencing a regular day in the office.

What does this mean for the revolution? Regardless of who takes rule after Mubarak, be it explicitly religious leadership such as the Muslim Brotherhood or a more secular figure like Mohamed El-Baradei, the powerful place religion occupies in the hearts and minds of Egyptians is unlikely to be affected. Contrary to an unfortunate misunderstanding espoused by government-puppet Muslim clerics and anti-Muslim zealots seeking to pit religion against freedom, lived Islam cannot be boiled down to a mere instrument of control or a series of punitive measures. In fact, as in the Egyptian uprising, the faith there is so much a part of Egyptian life that it seems to transcend such politics. It is there, simply as a matter of course, motivating people, enriching their lives, informing their decisions (both political and, more often, just everyday), but may ultimately go unaffected by the outcome of this historic moment.

What role does religion play in the current Egyptian protests and elsewhere? The majority of these protesters are Muslim. How does that change the perception of Islam?

Banning the Face Veil

This past month, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, shocked many by issuing a ban on students and teachers wearing the niqab, or face veil, in Al-Azhar University or its adjoining schools, specifically in all female settings. Tantawi’s decision to issue this ban stemmed from an interaction that he had with a secondary school student on one of his visits. According to many sources, Tantawi asked the girl why she was wearing the niqab in an all girl classroom and demanded she remove it. He added that niqab is not part of Islam, but is rather a cultural custom. His decree came soon after this interaction that was criticized by many in Egypt. There were then reports from female students who wear the niqab at Cairo University (not affiliated with Al-Azhar) that they were being prevented from entering the dormitories unless they removed their niqab. Continue reading