I have long reflected on the importance of [religious] leaders maintaining an honorable reputation outside of their religious instutitions. [For this reason], I publicly suggested years ago that the Grand Imam [of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest seat of learning] be elected by the institution’s Council of Senior Scholars. [I have advocated for the Grand Imam] to be [a figure] who [enjoys] credibility in the Islamic, Arab, and Egyptian street, as opposed to being just another government official appointed and dismissed at the whims of the president. [In the proposal I submitted], I mentioned the names of luminaries such as Grand Imams Al-Ghazali, Al-Sharawi, Al-Qaradawi, and a former Sayyed [an honorific title given to males accepted as descendants of the Islamic Prophet Mohammad]. All of these individuals were alive at the time. However, President [Hosni Mubarak] rejected my proposal, and I received a disturbing letter of warning after I spoke about it on television. Nevertheless, the idea [of reforming the role of the Grand Imam] continued to be a topic of contemplation for me.
I admire Grand Imam Sheikh Ali Jad al-Haq, who during his tenure expressed concern over the independence and status of Al-Azhar. [Al-Haq’s] tenure at [Al-Azhar] was followed by that of the late Imam Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, a leader [characterized by] extreme simplicity and modesty. Then God sent to this great religious institution an imam with a Sufi heart and courageous mind [Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed al-Tayeb], whose tenure coincided with the Egyptian popular revolution that erupted on January 25, 2011. As a result [of the revolution], the Grand Imam was liberated from the authority’s restrictions and the pressures of the former ruler [Hosni Mubarak]. [He was able to] exhibit moderation, tolerance, openness and a comprehensive of vision. He opened the doors of Al-Azhar to peoples of all monotheistic religions - a practice characteristic of [Al-Azhar] during its most prosperous periods. [Al-Tayeb] also surrounded himself with thinkers and intellectuals from the noble [education institution], and invited its senior scholars - experts on both Arab Islamic and Western European culture - [into his circle]. [The imam and his new entourage] promoted an insightful and true understanding of Islam. In some of his meetings [with Islamic figures], the Grand Imam even received [token offerings] from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, and other significant Islamic groups. In addition, [the Grand Imam also contributed] to the establishment of the “Family House” which formed a new national partnership between [Al-Azhar] and Egyptian Christian churches. [It] would be lead alternatively by the Grand Imam and Pope [of the Coptic Church, Shenouda III]. [This partnership was formed] to preempt and mitigate sectarian incidents.
The Grand Imam and his distinguished Islamic scholars have demonstrated a high degree of intellectual enlightenment, clarity of vision and a deep commitment to true religious belief. We have made the following observations on the honorable and reputable Al-Azhar:
First, throughout the ages, Al-Azhar has always been a rallying point for all national movements, a haven for Egyptians and a fertile environment for moderate currents and ideologies. It also integrated all of the Islamic sects and groups which adhere to genuine religion and do not deviate from its essence. As an institution that has maintained such standing for over a thousand years and is of such great value to the believers of divine religions, Al-Azhar is a beacon for our protests during calamitous periods and a haven in times of crisis and revolution. I attended a lecture at Al-Azhar given by the former President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mohammed Khatami, in which he said, “we look forward to Al-Azhar leading the Muslim world - both the Sunnis and Shiites." It was Al-Azhar which organized against the French military campaign and Napoleon [Bonaparte’s] political maneuvers [in Egypt]. It directly contributed to the foundation of the modern Egyptian state when it backed the ascent of Muhammad Ali to power. [Moreover], it contributed to the birth of modern enlightenment through contact with the West. This was namely led by Rafah al-Tahtawi. No honest researcher can deny [Al-Azhar’s] contributions in thought, culture, literature and art. [Former Egyptian President] Gamel Abdel Nasser delivered a speech [at the mosque] during the Tripartite Aggression of 1956 [where Egypt fought against Britain, France and Israel over the Suez Canal]. Convoys of rebels as well as free processions have pour from its doors and corridors. Given [the history of] the honorable Al-Azhar, it is only natural that it now regain its [preeminent] role and move forward without limits.
Second, Al-Azhar does not belong to Egypt alone, but is rather a great institution looked upon by the Arab and Muslim world with appreciation and gratitude. What’s more, scores of non-Muslims have studied at Al-Azhar, and they can testify to its centrism and moderation. This is the Al-Azhar of the progressive Imam Mohammed Abdo, the courageous Imam Mahmoud Shaltout and the modern [and current] Imam Ahmad al-Tayeb. Al-Azhar’s [status] was also confirmed by its welcoming of the Crown Prince of Britain, who gave a lecture [within its halls].
If Islam is universal, then Al-Azhar is as well. It was led by a Tunisian Imam a few years back - the late Al-Khudr Hussein - and a Syrian has been the dean of the Faculty of Shari’a. Al-Azhar does not differentiate between its sons and alumni who scattered across the globe - in continues to carry the banner of monotheism and call for tolerance between different religions and cultures. Indeed, Al-Azhar has been active in the recent months following the revolution in promoting the true values of Islam and its higher essence.
Third: Lifting the burden of [political power] over Al-Azhar has conferred on it an influence it previously never had. It may now act with full independence, and is restricted only by true Islamic traditions and established rules. As I have repeatedly stated, I am one of those who looks forward to the day when Al-Azhar University opens its doors to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Education belongs to no country in particular, and should respect all religions without exception. Therefore, [Al-Azhar’s] will continue to open up and expand to include Arab Christians and Muslims without discrimination among them. I think that the opportunity is ripe for Al-Azhar to expose its genuine face, its greatness and glorious history. There is no doubt that the “Arab Spring” revolutions have given new impetus to national movements. [The Arab Spring] has become a path to humanity in this region of the world which has been long deprived of political democracy and social justice, and has suffered from tyranny and corruption.
Fourth: If the sheikh of Al-Azhar welcomes the youths of the revolution, it would mark the inauguration of a new era of compatibility between the concept of popular revolution and religious reform. [It would also] legitimize the demonstrations for national unity, and the mixing of Muslim and Christian blood [that took place] in Tahrir Square for the sake of liberation and enlightenment. I have been working on release Al-Azhar documents and statements in recent months, which professor and literary critic Dr. Salah Fadl has been drafting tirelessly. We are also grateful for the humanitarian and national benefits emanating from the “Family House" [the anti-sectarian project launched by Al-Azhar] meetings. I am proud to be a member of this project, and we hope that it will continue to evolve, and not become just another outmoded temporary procedure.
This has been an honest analysis of the new developments occuring in the largest Islamic institution in the modern world. [Today], the [institution of] Al-Azhar - its mosque, university and Imam - is worthy being followed. This great institution, which has preserved Islamic heritage, embraced the Shari’a and jurisprudence and preserved the Arabic language, the language of the Holy Qur’an, is worthy of respect and appreciation.