Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tantawi Dies

This morning saw the death of Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, head of al-Azhar University, considered the world's foremost seat of Sunni Islamic learning. Issandr El Amrani has an excellent overview of his career:
"Tantawi leaves a mixed legacy behind him: overall, the immediate verdict may be that he was too liberal for conservatives, too conservative for liberals, too compliant with the regime for those who want al-Azhar to be independent, and too independent for those in the regime who needed Azharite support to enact policy changes on issues as varied as Palestine, banking and TV game shows. The overall image is of a man besieged on all sides, but adept at fighting bureaucratic battles in the bloated, clerical civil service that al-Azhar has become."

The whole piece is worth reading for its detail and local insight. As a historian, of course, I'm interested in what the Tantawi era meant for al-Azhar's development as an institution. El Amrani touches upon this:
"He leaves behind an unreformed al-Azhar — an institution that includes a university and a school system as well as a theological center — whose credibility has hit rock-bottom. This may be because Tantawi was too pliant towards the regime, or because of the growth of various trends in contemporary Islam that reject al-Azhar's centrality. While the Muslim Brothers dream of restoring al-Azhar to its former (imagined?) glories, Salafists and groups like the Quranists would do away with its mediation of religion altogether. The debate over al-Azhar and the trahison des clercs is far from over. Whoever replaces him — perhaps Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, another tentative modernizer — will have much work to repair al-Azhar's standing and its vitality as a place of learning. It will also have to make difficult political decisions, especially on the issue of presidential succession, at a time when clerics are beginning to voice an opinion on the prospect of a Gamal Mubarak presidency."

I suspect that the standard interpretation will be that Tantawi was the regime's man by Midan Husayn. He was essentially Mubarak's agent as Egypt's Chief Mufti, and his reformist views should be seen in that light - not that they were necessarily insincere, but simply that they were what the regime wanted and Tantawi saw nothing wrong with allying himself with the government. This alliance, of course, may in some circles have hurt his message's credibility as well as his own.

When I think of al-Azhar, however, I think beyond Egypt. I've seen Al-Azhar called the "Sunni Muslim Vatican," but that's a terrible analogy, as no formalized hierarchy establishes its position. A better analogy would be an Islamic Harvard in a tradition that emphasizes religious learning. Its status is based on multiple perceived indicators which are not necessarily directly tied to the quality of the education one gets there. Yet just as a Harvard degree carries cachet regardless of higher education gossip about the quality of the ivies vis a vis, say, the top tier of liberal arts schools in the U.S. Walking around al-Azhar, you can't help but notice students from throughout the Muslim world, who will return to their countries with the prestige of an al-Azhar degree.

Of course, El Amrani is right that an assault on the ulama's privileged authority in religious interpretation has been a key element of both liberal and conservative Islamic reform movements throughout the world since the 1800's. In her excellent 1999 International Journal of Middle East Studies article "Religion and Politics in Egypt: The Ulema of al-Azhar, Radical Islam, and the State (1952-94)," Malika Zeghal addressed some shifts in the construction of religious education, but didn't really tackle of extent to which Azhari claims to continued authority were accepted by the Egyptian public, much less how the issues with its administration and politicization have affected its stature around the world. The experiences of its students and their affect on their own communities are as much a part of al-Azhar in the world as is its moral authority in the Nile Valley.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Anonymous sunni said...

I so sad. death of Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi is great loss to islamic world.

5:26 AM  

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