Tunisia’s Al-Zaytuna Mosque to Reclaim Islamic Leadership Role

As Tunisia’s famed Al-Zaytuna mosque returns to education, leaders are treading carefully over possible trip wires of political conflict in the post-revolutionary country, writes Diana Skaini. Will Al-Zaytuna once again resume a place among other famed centers of Islamic learning? .

al-monitor Al-Zitouna mosque in Tunisia.  Photo by REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi.

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religious education, modernization, tunisian mosques, tunisia, salafist, religion, islamists, al-zaytuna, al-qarawiyyin, al-najaf, al-azhar

Jul 21, 2012

In Tunisia, the religious institution that has historically followed in the footsteps of Egypt's Al-Azhar, Morocco's Qarawiyyin and Iraq's Najaf, in terms of religious, scientific and national roles, is trying to recover in this post-revolutionary period after a "judicial, political" decision was made to allow Al-Zaytuna back into the domain of education. Former President Habib Bourguiba disrupted its work for five decades, and the institution now faces significant other challenges. These challenges primarily relate to the institution’s identity, making it more modern and carrying out reforms. Reforms may be achieved now that they have been given an impetus by new knowledge and revolutionary political dynamics.

To reach the hall of the Great al-Zaytuna mosque, one must pass through the ancient Souk al-Attarin [The Aromatic Market], which can be reached through one of the side streets off of Avenue Habib Bourguiba. There, one can feel the concerns and aspirations of average people in the post-revolution street. Upon arrival to the mosque, visitors are greeted by a sign which "announces" the resumption of "the original al-Zaytuna education."

Inside, there are tourists, worshipers, and only a handful of students because religious lessons are only given on Sundays for the time being. From the inner courtyard of the mosque, the dome appears more clearly. It is meticulously decorated on all three layers. Islamic architecture prevails at the level of columns, arches, decoration and inscriptions. In the rocky inner courtyard, doves fly alone or in groups. In one of the interior corners of the mosque, Sheikh Mu’tasim plans how to revive “al-Zaytuna’s past glories” with his students and followers.

"The Sheikh Has Aged"

Sheikh Hussein al-Obeidi has grown old. He is the Imam of the Al-Zaytuna Mosque and the religious education body’s last president of the religious educational body in the historical Tunisian scientific and religious edifice. In his 80s, he was destined to witness a revolution which resulted in a "judicial and political" decision allowing for the resumption of education at Al-Zaytuna.

This decision was issued by the Court of First Instance last March. It came after President Habib Bourguiba had dried up the sources of funding for the institution for decades by unifying the curriculum for national education in a framework of modernization. The primary and secondary levels of Al-Zaytuna were affiliated to national public education. The University of Al-Zaytuna was established and integrated into the legal framework governing other Tunisian universities. Thus, the scientists and professors at Al-Zaytuna were divided and dispersed.

The draft document outlining reforms for the institution which had been developed by Sheikh Mohammed Tahar Ben Achour — a Sheikh of the Al-Maliki doctrine and the first to carry the title of “Sheikh of the Al-Zaytuna Mosque” in the early 1950s — was shot down. The role of the institution as a national and religious body was obscured, even though it had in past centuries served as a beacon for the education and moderate and interpretive forms of Islam across Africa.

Founded in 736, it is the oldest university in the Muslim world. Top scientists, leaders and elites in the region have graduated from it. These include Ibn Khaldun, Tahar Ben Haddad, Al-Azhar Sheikh Mohammed Al-Khoder Hussein, Mansour Abu Zubaydah al-Fitouri, Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi and Houari Boumediene, among others.

Reforming the Past, Today

In the opening ceremony marking the return of education to Al-Zaytuna last May in the Great Mosque, the 80-year old Sheikh stressed the importance of reforming Al-Zaytuna’s educational program. He mentioned the reform plan originally formulated by Sheikh Bin Ashour. According to historians, during the months preceding the blow to Al-Zaytuna as an educational body, Bin Ashour had described the institutions as utterly ruined and in dire need of curricula reform. He thus drafted lengthy reform plans, but did not have the time to test them.

Sheikh al-Obeidi has returned to those plans to the spotlight with his current reform efforts. Obeidi also said that he was informed that Egypt's Al-Azhar University and Morocco's Qarawiyyin will help Al-Zaytuna in the reform process and will provide it with the necessary expertise. To date, 1,800 students have applied to join Al-Zaytuna, according to Obeidi.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the educational commission signed a joint protocol for the resumption of Al-Zaytuna lessons with the Ministry of Higher Education. These lessons are officially scheduled to begin in the fall. The Ministry of Religious Affairs announced that the "curricula are being prepared and developed under the supervision of specialists who are careful to keep up with the times."

Ennahda and Al-Zaytuna

At the same opening ceremony, Obeidi addressed Head of the Islamic Ennahda Rashid Ghannouchi, saying, "May God be Pleased with Him" [a phrase usually uttered after mentioning the name of one of the Prophet’s Companions]. The audience got upset and the Sheikh explained that he had been misunderstood.

For his part, Ghannouchi sees the decision to make Al-Zaytuna an educational establishment again as a chance to correct a historic mistake. He has promised that ideology and politics would be kept away from Al-Zaytuna. However, political interactions will soon develop anyway between the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which is affiliated with Ennahda and the Imam of Al-Zaytuna. In one of his Friday sermons, this Imam issued a fatwa against the artists of the drawings from the Al-Abdaliyya art collection, which he deemed offensive to Islam. He declared that the artists are infidels and that their killing is sanctioned by Islam.

As secularists mounted a campaign against Obeidi's comments, the adviser to the minister of religious affairs issued statements to the media confirming that Obeidi would be dismissed. He said that Obeidi is no longer allowed to lead the prayers of devout people in Al-Zaytuna. Islamists of all movements, especially Salafists, were expected to protest in front of the ministry [on Wednesday evening].

Secular Sensitivity

Not only does the aforementioned situation reflect the delicate approach that the government must employ for everything that has to do with Islamic issues, it also sheds light on the lack of demarcation of powers and responsibilities between the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Al-Zaytuna mosque. It also demonstrates the ministry’s inability to completely control the mosques. A number of mosques are dominated by Salafists, who in the past have made their feelings clear regarding the Minister of Religious Affairs when they stole his shoes for having entered "their mosque.”

How independent is the Al-Zaytuna Mosque as an institution? Does it own the assets and property that were returned to it, or do these belong to the state? Who is entitled to fund Al-Zaytuna, and who is not? How much freedom will its scholars have to interpret curricula, under the general supervision of the ministries concerned? How will reform start from scratch, at an institution that has been broken for decades, and whose scientists have become old and divided? Must the institution break with the past to maintain a presence in the competitive educational arena, especially since Tunisian society has become accustomed to a unified educational system? These are some of the questions being raised. Secularists are handling this step in a sensitive manner. It is perhaps a direct political implication of the ascension of Islamists to power, and the start of their interference in Tunisian political society.

Nostalgia of the Elders

Muhammad Dayfallah, professor of History at the University of Tunis, told An-Nahar that nostalgia is the key word describing the [popular sentiment regarding] the return of Al-Zaytuna as an educational body. He said: “Today, those who gather to listen to religious lessons are mostly elders. The deposits of collective popular memory stir in them a desire to return to the bosom of the mosque, and see it return to the glories they have heard much about."

Dayfallah said that, if the required reformist steps were well implemented, Al-Zaytuna would become a pillar of moderate Islamic thought in the country in the face of radical or extremist thought, “Due to the need for such a role." 

An-Nahar spoke with Ahmida al-Nayfar, a progressive Islamic scholar and professor at the Al-Zaytuna University, and asked about the implications for Al-Zaytuna’s return to education.

Nayfar said: "The call for the return of Al-Zaytuna education is extremely ambiguous in many ways. Ambiguities lie in content of this education, the curriculum, who will be responsible for it, the nature of its relation with the current Al-Zaytuna University and its faculties of Arts, and where funding will come from. These questions, among others, stem from a pivotal question, to which no one has provided a clear answer: what justification is there for reviving Al-Zaytuna education now, and on what intellectual and methodical basis will this be done?"

Nayfar said he fears the end result will only be “the beginning of Da’wah [preaching of Islam] activities that represent a symbolic move. This signals the start of a vengeful reaction to a historic mistake made by the founder of the Republic of Tunisia when he decided to stop education at Al-Zaytuna in the 1950s."

In his view, were Al-Zaytuna to take on such a position, "It would be incapable of modernizing in a way that reinvigorates Islamic thought. Such a process needs to be done in a qualitative manner, and requires a combined effort from various parties.”

On the subject of reforming the institution, Nayfar said that “Al-Zaytuna was not able to achieve all of its objectives as an educational body due to internal causes related to its intellectual framework. This framework has often reproduced the same obstacles that limit the modernist motivations inherent to its founding discourse.”

“External forces strengthened these obstacles and prevented Al-Zaytuna education from continuing on its ascending path. These external forces are embodied in the different political considerations which held that the modernizing efforts of the educational institution would deprive some politicians in power of an important element of support. Breaking the Al-Zaytuna educational institution away from dependency on political power will be key to bolstering its now weak legitimacy.”

When asked about the possibility that Al-Zaytuna might return to play a central role in the Maghreb and Africa, Nayfar said, “Given the mass information revolution and the resulting change in the ability of individuals and communities, the chances that it may play such a role are stronger.”

“[The mass information revolution] is what opens the horizons up to genuine and effective modernity. This can begin with the holding of a national dialogue related to educational institution in general along with Al-Zaytuna," he added.

In his view, "This dialogue must focus on the educational institution’s relationship with the question of the cultural identity of the country, and its intellectual, moral, and social requirements. The dialogue must cover how self-modernization could be achieved, one of the pillars of which would be Al-Zaytuna. This would respond to the knowledge and revolutionary changes shaking the Arab world and humanity."

Nayfar adds that the key to reform lies in "the development of awareness among those concerned with and participating in this education." He added that "the political authority should make sure that this reformist endeavor adheres to the law."

When pressed about the “new” religious ideas which have surfaced on the Tunisian scene after the revolution, such as the Salafist phenomenon, and the role of Al-Zaytuna in this context, Nayfar said, "The political transformations being witnessed today in several Arab countries expose both radical thought and simplistic perceptions of religion. These were disguised due to [the old regime’s] repression that inflicted all components of society."

“Restoring the functions of the modern Al-Zaytuna institution, along with those of the civil society institutions and organizations, will expose the true size of this phenomenon. This phenomenon is unrelated to the wide popularity the [Islamic groups enjoy] today. As it stands, they can be easily infiltrated by sides working to destabilize security and disrupt the revolutionary march." In his opinion, the return of Al-Zaytuna will contribute to "the civilized march that resulted in the Arab Spring."

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