Two significant streams of Muslim thought flow through Egypt. One emanates from the scholarship of the al-Ahzar establishment in Cairo; the other from the legacy of Hasan al-Banna and the movement he founded.1
With that in mind, this article addresses two topics: the role of al-Azhar in the formation of orthodox Sunni Islam in contemporary Egypt, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the transnational Islamism movement it inspires. Both of these have emerged as competing voices within Muslim orthodoxy.
It is my opinion that until now, these two subjects have been improperly defined and articulated, leading to confusion and ambiguity. Thus, it is necessary to address them both with a dose of history and context along the way. I hope the reader will allow me these detours.
I will argue that the Muslim Brotherhood, as a catalyst to transnational Islamism, has been a competitive and antagonizing voice to that of the ulama—i.e. those scholars affiliated with the institution of al-Azhar. Recognizing this tension, which has lasted nearly 100 years, is essential to understanding the current crises within Islam and the global threat of extremism. Therefore, while Egypt provides the primary backdrop for my arguments, it should be viewed as an example for similar patterns in other Muslim- majority countries.
It is also important to state from the beginning that I do not claim that supporting the ulama offers the only solution to extremism. The problem of extremism is too large for that; it is a multifaceted, multilayered problem. I personally believe it has more to do with economics than theological rhetoric. However, based on my experience in helping train hundreds of people in terrorism prevention programs—individuals who are actually standing and fighting on the front lines against Boko Haram, al-Shabab, and ISIS—it is clear that alongside economic issues, there is indeed a theological/religious aspect to the problem. And since I am convinced that this has not been properly and thoroughly addressed by those who have the capability to respond, I offer this paper as a small contribution towards clarification.
The Importance of Islam in Egypt
Egypt’s modernization process has intrigued scholars for nearly a century. It has been hailed as a profound example of modernization and liberalization, which developed one of the most influential Muslim-majority contemporary nations, as well as one of the earliest to break away from Ottoman control.2 Whether the discussion surrounds political theory, economics, religion, or education, the story of Egypt is often presented as a dialectic that has progressed from chaos to order, and from old to new.
Yet that simplistic dichotomy is misleading, as it neglects the significant role traditional Islamic networks have played in the development of the socio-religious dynamics of Egyptian society. In discussing Egyptian politics prior to the 2011 revolution, in his book Egypt After Mubarak, Bruce Rutherford argues that there are two vying forces—the nationalist liberal movement (secular), and the Islamic-liberal movement (Muslim Brotherhood)—that struggled to create a better and more transparent government.3 He offers the usual story of liberals bringing the “light” of liberalism to the ancien régime of Islamic institutions, while the Muslim Brotherhood appears as the primary opposition, holding a monopoly on the Islamic position. The failure to give credence to the role other religious and non-Islamist actors have played in Egyptian society is a mistake, diminishing their potential potency in solving the modern crisis of radical Islamism.
An alternative reading of events in Egypt, and one that I argue is more accurate, is the interpretation of Islam offered by al-Azhar, whose scholars were able to adapt, more or less, to the changes of the modern world and the rise of today’s nation-state. The institution has authored hundreds of works reconciling Islamic law with issues of gender, citizenship, nuclear armament, nanotechnology, capitalism, materialism, and more. This ongoing intellectual footprint of al-Azhar is crucial to understanding how Islam continues to play a defining role in the contemporary Egyptian state.
While the conflation of real Islamic scholarship (i.e. the intellectual output of the scholars of al-Azhar) with political operatives using Islamic slogans (the Muslim Brotherhood and their ilk) is not new, the Arab Spring has brought to light the sharp distinction between the ulama and Islamists.4 Since the modernization of Egypt, beginning with the Napoleonic invasion in 1798, al-Azhar clerics have been at the forefront in shaping the modern Islamic nation-state. From establishing civil society organizations, to helping draft present-day legal codes, the ulama continually sought to define a relevant Islam in light of intense state-led modernization.
Although not always a comfortable fit, al-Azhar as an institution has helped Egypt’s political leaders step into today’s world while holding on to their Sunni-Islamic identity. In fact, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Muhammad Bakhit al-Mutii (d. 1936), one of two ulama to serve on the 1923 constitutional committee that drafted Egypt’s first constitution, was personally responsible for adding the clause that Islam would be the religion of the nation. This clause has found its way into nearly every constitution of modern Muslim nations. 5
However, in Sunni Islam, the role of trained religious scholars has been to support and empower political leaders in order to maintain political stability, but not to engage directly in partisan politics. This disposition is commonly referred to as “quietism” and stems from the traditional orthodox view of statecraft. It is perhaps best articulated in the works of al-Siyasa al-Shariyya, penned by the 11th century theologian and jurist Imam al-Juwayni (d. 1058) in his popular work, al-Ghiyathi.
Often misconstrued as an apolitical stance, this view insists that organized political rule is better than civil strife (a sentiment taken directly from the Quran 2:191), and that without a strong civil society any nation-state will collapse.6 This attitude has been the hallmark of the Sunni disposition towards statecraft, and it explains why Sunni institutions traditionally focus on the social and spiritual needs of people rather than the pursuit of political power.
While Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood seek a more revolutionary approach to change in society, the ulama argue that the injection of religion into partisan politics is dangerous and counterproductive for maintaining the sanctity of Islamic jurisprudence and the political processes. They believe they can build long lasting change by working at the grassroots level, rather than rallying people to support political parties in the name of religion.
From this point of view, the mixing of religion and partisan politics would provide a religious sanction to particular candidates and political platforms, which, the ulama argue, is the most grotesque misuse of their religious authority. Instead, in the view of the ulama, political order and a functioning government are necessary for an Islamic society, and this represents the only form of politics they are comfortable with. They believe their role is to help guide people to form the building blocks necessary for a socially responsible and civically minded society, upon which politicians can govern effectively.
As a result of this disposition, it is common in Egypt to find traditional ulama—in particular the hundreds of registered Sufi Orders—at the forefront of water conservation projects, interfaith efforts, anti-female genital mutilation campaigns, health clinics, and other development-oriented projects. These types of efforts, led by the ulama, have had a lengthier and more positive impact on building the social fabric of Egypt’s civil society than the political efforts of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamism
Islamists have challenged the quietist approach since the turn of the 20th century, and their growth is important vis-à-vis the evolution of Islam in the modern Egyptian State. While not a cohesive group, Egypt’s Islamists have their origins in the Muslim Brotherhood, and collectively represent a reaction to both colonialism and the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1922.
The Islamists’ approach to politics reflects a continuous dissatisfaction with political structures, claiming that they are either not Islamic enough, or not Islamic at all. This, in their view, justifies in some cases the use of violence to restore the primacy of their extreme interpretation of God’s law.
Although an unorganized group, Islamists have repeatedly denied the work of religious scholars in the codification of Egypt’s laws and in the drafting Egypt’s constitution. This negative response is intended to maintain the narrative that the Egyptian government is not “Islamic,” an issue that supposedly must be rectified through social engineering and periods of violent insurrection.
As a corollary, some radical Islamists have more broadly used this line of thinking to justify the use of violence against anyone who does not share their beliefs. This has resulted in the targeting of such minority groups as Coptic Christian communities and Sufi networks.78 In Egypt, and in other states in which Islamists came to power during the Arab Spring, violence against such communities increased at an alarming rate.9 In contrast, the ulama have championed interfaith initiatives and called for the preservation of diverse cultural traditions. 10
Perhaps a little history and context would be helpful in order to properly place this aberrancy within Islamic thought. Hasan al-Banna (d.1949) established the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 with the intention of filling the many societal gaps created by the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate.11 While originally focused on providing social welfare and championing issues affecting the lower middle class, the Muslim Brotherhood quickly spread its activities to politics, where they gained large-scale support as a populist alternative to the Egyptian State.
By the 1940s, however, the State began to clamp down on the party’s activities, particularly after the armed wing of the Brotherhood (known as the “secret apparatus” or al-jihaz al-khass), was held responsible for a number of violent incidents, including the assassination of the Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmud Fahmi Al-Nuqrashi on December 28, 1948.
The movement went underground in the 1950s, but continued to gain adherents under the influence of Sayyid Qutb (d.1966). Qutb’s 1964 manifesto Milestones, as well as his commentary on the Quran (In the Shade of the Quran), continue to provide the intellectual and theological underpinnings for many radical Islamist groups, including ISIL, al-Qaeda and Hamas.
This last point is an important one to make, and one I believe is not made often enough. There is hardly a radical Islamist movement that does not rely in some form on the writings and theological positions of Qutb.12 Gilles Kepel, in his 1984 book, Muslim Extremism in Egypt, argued that Qutb’s writings, particularly Milestones, “[are] the total road to the ideology of the Islamist movement of the seventies.”13 This same pattern is observed more recently, as Thomas Hegghammer argues, “It is not at all clear how operational the salafi-ikhwani dichotomy is in the world of contemporary militant Islamism. Sayyid Qutb is still being cited by groups as Jihadi-Salafi.”14
Although it is true that the post-Qutb Muslim Brotherhood had difficulty accepting his opinions without revision, Qutb continues to represent a major intellectual and theological link between the Muslim Brotherhood and more violent and extremist groups.15
While the Muslim Brotherhood does not outwardly endorse terrorism, given the government’s continual crackdown on their activities, they have adopted several ambiguous positions about justifying the use of violence to achieve political change. This has created an opening for violence that the movement has not been able to temper:
[The Muslim Brotherhood] attempts to justify any violent actions that do not involve killing, but it represents a slippery slope at best and has understandably resulted in serious, damaging organizational rifts and strategic dissonance. The effect is that the Muslim Brotherhood, which previously stood as the model—and drew its strength from—unquestioning loyalty and strict hierarchical discipline, finds itself increasingly marginalized as its established leadership loses control of a violent, rowdy new generation of so-called revolutionary Brothers cooperating with like-minded Islamist actors. 16
When we look at the formation and rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, we see that it has had a tremendous impact on the way we presently discuss Islam and politics in Egypt and other Muslim-majority countries. First, it introduced a new “Islamic” voice into political commentary. Up until the 1920s the ulama, represented largely by graduates of the al-Azhar seminary, spoke almost exclusively as the “Voice of Islam.” Even when secular scholars were inclined to comment on Islamic topics, they usually aligned themselves with a Muslim scholar to strengthen their case.17
The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood provided a new way to comment on Islamic principles without requiring religious scholarship, or needing to fit within the mainstream religious milieu. This opening allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to create a new socio-political discourse about the role of Islam and the state.18 No longer was the call for reform and modernization coming from al-Azhar scholars like Rifaa Ṭahtawi (d. 1873) and Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905). Instead, an alternative voice was now gaining popularity.
Another way that Muslim Brotherhood impacted the discussion of Islam and politics in Egypt was introduced through their commentary on Egypt’s legal reforms. Al-Banna rejected the Western model of secular, democratic government and advocated for Islamizing the state through the promotion of his version of a “pure” Islamic law, values, and morals.19 This stemmed from al-Banna’s belief that Islam must play both a private and public role (termed by al-Banna: din wa dawla) in the Egyptian state.20
A similar theme, expounded upon and later exaggerated by Qutb, was the idea that current Muslim nations, including Egypt, had in fact removed themselves from the folds of the faith altogether, and this communal apostasy—what Qutb called the jahiliyya of society—required direct action and correction.21 In Qutb’s view, as the Brotherhood expanded into politics, their critique of legal reforms was that Egypt’s laws were simply not Islamic enough (and therefore inherently evil) and must not be based on Western laws and norms. On its own, this notion provided the needed justification to rebel against the state.22 A similar line or argumentation and justification is still advanced by today’s Muslim Brothers and radical Salafis.23
Today, an inaccurate understanding of Egypt’s religious landscape is also evident within the academy.24 Ulama, for example, participated in all stages of drafting laws in Egypt and ensured there was no conflict between these laws and the Islamic law, which had existed for centuries.25 Yet, modern scholars fail to include the ulama’s perspective on such issues. Instead, they position the Brotherhood and other Islamist actors as the only credible voice of Islam.26 Academically this is a mistake, and one I hope future researchers and writers will carefully avoid. An even bigger problem is the erroneous argument that extremist Muslim groups are in fact “Islamic” because they represent legitimate interpretations of Islam’s primary sources.27
However, if one were to take apart piece-by-piece the 15 or 20 major themes Islamist groups use to form their intellectual framework, analyzing the primary sources (i.e. Quranic verses and hadith literature) on which they build their arguments, one would find that their interpretations and use of proof texts are completely heterodox. They are not shared by any legitimate Islamic school of interpretation.28
It is worth noting that Islamists’ faulty scholarship has led some Islamic scholars to view these groups as apostates and entirely outside the fold of Islam.29 This remains, however, a separate issue from that of the excommunication of extremist groups from Orthodox Islam.30
In any case, as a result of the often loosely defined discussion of Islam-Muslims-Islamists-Extremists etc., the Muslim Brotherhood and other such groups have gained wide popularity—and in some cases legitimacy—within segments of Western governments. A common argument is that a particular group has renounced violence and thus should be embraced. It is difficult to argue with this, since it is true that, at least publicly, the Muslim Brotherhood claims to have renounced violence. However, this renunciation itself is tactical, not methodological.
The overall goal of these groups—an ideal “Islamic State,”—is one that can be approached by several paths. Some believe in violent insurrection (more along the lines of al-Qaeda and ISIS), while others seek a non-violent approach to political gains.31 For this reason, I argue that there is a spectrum of extremism, which is critical to understanding the overall discussion of violence and radicalism within the family of Islam.32
If a group is positioned somewhere on the extremist spectrum, that does not necessarily mean it will become violent; it does mean that because it is on that spectrum, it is a step away from heterodoxy towards the heresy of violence. Organizations on the left side of the Islamist spectrum may appropriately be thought of as gateway groups, some of which may ultimately slide into violence and extremism. Therefore, the Brotherhood’s claims of renunciation of violence, while sounding genuine, should be taken with a grain of salt; in fact they ought to be considered a large warning sign.
Moreover, even the liberal/secular nationalist actors inside Egypt realize that mainstream Islamic institutions hold the key to future political and social stability in Egypt and beyond. For example, the Sufi leader Shaykh Idris al-Idrisi from Aswan was appointed by Egypt’s 2015 government to lead reconciliation efforts between Arab tribes in the south of Egypt and in Sinai.33 Since this appointment, Idrisi has held several high-level tribal meetings and has sought to leverage these tribal relations as a deterrent to violence and extremism in Sinai. According to Idrisi, both the government and the intelligence community are relying on him and other Sufi leaders to help spread a more peaceful and tolerant Islam by using their influence and teachings.
Idrisi has commented that, “the difficulty that has befallen Egypt presents the greatest opportunity for traditional Egyptian Islam.”34 In short, the Egyptian government has utilized traditional scholars such as Idrisi because of their authoritative role in society, their capability to mobilize communities, and their ability to reduce conflict through an indigenous peace-building framework. Perhaps these ties between the ulama and the state will be instrumental in fulfilling Egypt’s counter-extremism agenda.
Al-Azhar: A Model for Reform
Al-Azhar is the oldest, largest, continuously operating Sunni seminary in the world, dominating Sunni discourses on an international level. Currently the university provides higher education, while the al-Azhar primary school system offers K-12 studies. At the higher education level, the institution has 64 colleges, over 16,000 faculty members, and nearly 500,000 students.35 Its graduates have gone on to serve as senior government officials, founders of academic centers, influential thought leaders, and even heads of state for a number of Muslim-majority countries.
By some estimates, there are over 9,000 public and private institutions with which al-Azhar has formal partnerships in Egypt alone. Perhaps the strongest public institution with which the university is linked is Dar al-Ifta, the official agency responsible for issuing fatwas (non-binding legal opinions), which provides guidance and clarification on contemporary social issues that intersect with the practice of Islam.
Beyond Egypt’s borders, al-Azhar maintains a strong international influence in shaping theological discourses in Muslim-majority countries. Its library and digitalized manuscript collections, along with the thousands of dissertations it generates every year, allow al-Azhar to produce more Sunni scholars than any other institution in the world. Aside from the international influence of Saudi Arabia (which, according to the narrative I have expounded on here, would be considered an antagonist), many Muslim countries continually rely on al-Azhar to train their clerics and to authorize their religious leaders. Moreover, over the past 150 years, al-Azhar has demonstrated that it has the ability to think outside the box and push other Sunni institutions internally to adopt more nuanced positions and articulations, keeping in step with the modern world.36
However, despite the size and influence of these institutions, al-Azhar remains a virtually unknown entity. And even among those familiar with al-Azhar’s role as a theological seminary, many question its credibility for being a quasi-governmental institution.37 This is perhaps due to the ulama’s strict adherence to the traditional Sunni belief of political quietism, which necessitates that religious authorities uphold actions that mitigate the threat of political instability, while avoiding partisan politics. Nonetheless, the institution’s tacit support for some of the government’s policies (particularly vis-à-vis the Muslim Brotherhood), have called into question al-Azhar’s independence.38
Contrary to this view, and based on my own personal experience dealing with al-Azhar for the past 15 years, it functions with a great deal of independence. In fact, with its unwieldy bureaucracy, al-Azhar is simply too big to be controlled or influenced by an external entity. I do not write this to defend the institution. But I do believe that al-Azhar often self-censors in matters of state, and I hope to make it clear that the notion of direct government oversight of the institution is untrue. It is a common misconception, and the very idea is a fallacy.
Al-Azhar has an extremely antiquated and dilapidated organizational structure, which makes implementation of reforms challenging. And given its large size, goal alignment in and of itself is a problem, simply because there are so many stakeholders involved in the institution. Aside from the position of the “Shaykh al-Azhar,” there are several complex layers of authority within the Azhar structure. And while the upper echelon of al-Azhar leadership is undoubtedly resolute in its commitment to countering radical Islamism, it is not a given that mid-to-lower level administrators automatically share this sentiment. The university has also been slow to reach out to the U.S. and international community simply because it views its primary responsibility as providing Islamic education. Addressing violent extremism, therefore, is a relatively new area of focus for the entity.
There is, however, a larger shortcoming when it comes to the story of al-Azhar, which has called into question its role as a partner. For several decades, students heavily influenced by Wahhabi and Salafi ideologies were permitted to pursue higher education at al-Azhar without first graduating from the institution’s grammar or high school.
This policy enabled foreign-funded educational materials (e.g. editions of classical texts that were redacted to support radical Islamism) to enter the classrooms.39 This issue has been aggravated by the influence of foreign satellite television stations that propagate extremist ideologies in Egypt, promising economic opportunities to young graduates and activists who observe the Salafi mantra.
Al-Azhar has since changed its policy, and the university no longer accepts students seeking post-secondary education without first being grounded in the institution’s traditional Islamic sciences. Nonetheless, the sheer size of al-Azhar makes it difficult to weed out every form of foreign influence. Recent al-Azhar student protests sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood are a case in point.40
Where Does This Leave Us?
As I proposed at the beginning, this paper has considered al-Azhar and its ulama alongside the Muslim Brotherhood and the groups it has inspired. My intention has been to demonstrate that these two groups are not the same and are, in fact, entirely incompatible.
Unfortunately, in international discussions about Islam in Egypt, or about ways and means of defeating extremism in the name of Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Azhar are conflated at best, or the role of al-Azhar is ignored all together. This confusion leads to both advertent and inadvertent empowering of the Muslim Brotherhood in the context of Egypt. More broadly, no matter how legitimate the two institutions may seem to be, efforts and arguments—even on the grounds of human rights—claiming that Brotherhood-affiliated groups represent legitimate, dissenting Muslim voices inevitably empower extremist organizations, both directly and indirectly.
On the other hand, empowering the ulama and their institutions (a process itself that will be difficult, but one I feel is necessary), will include preventative measures that can inoculate large populations from extremism for generations to come. This is true for the very reason that, when it has taken place, it has been proven to work.
While the problem may be clear, the solution, unfortunately, is not. One of the reasons I suspect that Western governments have found it easier to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood is that they are organized and have a polished, accessible presence in the West. You can easily find them and speak to them. The ulama are not so available. They are ivory tower academics who often times are confined to the dens of libraries and study circles. I often muse, only half seriously, that al-Azhar is the living version of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts—minus the magic.
This results in the view that al-Azhar is too difficult for the non-expert to deal with, and any efforts to work with it are too often considered a waste of time by government officials. And therein lies the most dangerous mistake in the fight against global extremism: the idea that argument and debate are too difficult. In fact, decades of experience have made it manifestly clear that informed argument is essential to actually making a dent in an expanding global problem.
In this regard, one way to make this seemingly impenetrable issue more workable is to understand precisely what al-Azhar is and what we stand to gain by engaging with it. I previously mentioned the “intellectual footprint” of al-Azhar’s ulama. It may be helpful to think of this footprint as raw material. The raw material is pure scholastic discourse, rooted in the finest tools of the Sunni orthodox interpretative methodology (usul al-fiqh). Unfortunately, this material is too unrefined to be usable by non-experts.
In the refining process of raw materials, there is a supply chain in which several levels of activity are necessary: first to farm the raw material, then retrieve it, transport it, process it, market it, and sell it as a desirable consumer item. In these supply chains, no one person is expected to be able to do it all. If we keep this example in mind, it will not surprise us that the ulama of al-Azhar—representing the farming and retrieving side of our example supply chain—are abundantly rich in intellectual material (raw material). But by its very nature, a great deal of effort will be required to convert this raw material into a usable packets of information to those unfamiliar with this raw material.
Al-Azhar’s scholars do not need help in farming and retrieving – this is what they do best. However, in order to complete the supply chain, engagement with them is essential to fill in the gaps. In the past, assistance was considered as directly empowering the Azhar and its scholars. Recommendations of language training (particularly English), media training, organizational training, etc. were commonly heard. While there is no doubt that all of these are helpful, I offer a slightly nuanced recommendation. There is a need to form, support, and empower “bridge institutions” and “bridge individuals.” In the Western world, and the United States specifically, there are hundreds of individuals who represent the methodology of al-Azhar and themselves have formed their own organizations. What distinguishes these people and organizations is that they are hardwired to manufacture and process the raw material of al-Azhar into a product that people in the West can understand. This is what they can do best, and thus complete the supply chain. While this might seem difficult at first, I believe not only doable, but necessary.