January 24, 2019
I moved to Egypt in December 2010, and stayed there throughout the revolutionary uprising and its aftermath. Weeks after my arrival, on 25 January 2011, the mass upheaval that would topple Hosni Mubarak and change Egyptian politics began. Cairo was a quiet place in those days. Sure, one could feel tension in the air, but I never would have predicted that a revolution was in the offing.
Eight years later, much has changed in Egypt, for better or for worse; I wrote about this in my book A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond Revolt . But one of the least marked developments has been the transformation of the Muslim religious educational landscape. Egypt has had a long history of affecting change in the practice of Muslim religious instruction in the region and throughout the world. Eight years after the 25 January uprising it may still be a favoured destination for Islamic studies by Muslims, but the context has definitely changed.
Many would know, for example, Egypt’s al-Azhar University as a preeminent institution for Islamic scholarship. But how has that institution, and Egypt more generally, weathered the political turbulence that followed the revolution? How do Muslims within and beyond the Arab world perceive Egypt’s Sunni Muslim religious complexion today?
Shortly after I arrived in Cairo, al-Azhar had just convened a conference dedicated to the Ash’ari tradition of speculative theology. That tradition, which is normative in Sunni Islam, underpins the Azhari approach or minhaj; so the topic was hardly unusual. But the range of scholars that attended and spoke at that conference was rather unique ― particularly when one considers where these scholars figure today. They included the then newly appointed Shaykh al-Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib, the then mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, the most famous scholar within the Muslim Brotherhood movement, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the foremost scholars of Syria, Ramadan al-Bouti, and many others.
Eight years on, it’s hard to imagine any such assembly ― academic or not ― being possible in Egypt, let alone in the wider region.
Ahmad al-Tayyib remains the head of the Azhari institution. In 2010, there were discussions that he would push a counter-movement to the spread of Salafi proselytization in the Arab world in general, but also within al-Azhar itself, as a firm exponent of the Azhari scholastic tradition within Sunni Islam. Al-Tayyib came through the Egyptian revolutionary period with his authority over the institution intact, but various pressures have resulted in a different perception of al-Azhar internationally.
There was a time in Egypt between 2011 and 2013 when Salafis enjoyed something of a heyday, but the military overthrow of Egypt’s first elected president, drawn from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, set in motion a different trajectory for the Salafis. They had entered into the political arena, but saw their ability to move in that space severely curtailed. The new political dispensation meant that Salafis are tolerated in Egypt, but no longer have the same freedom they once had. Their Egyptian television channels have been taken over by the government, and they are careful not to provoke the ire of the state establishment. Ironically, a non-Salafi student I once taught in Egypt told me that he found a lot of foreign Salafis still choose to study in Egypt because Saudi Arabia has stricter regulations on foreign students.
Another destination for students might have been Syria, where many Muslim students looking to study Islam would have chosen to go to learn under the likes of Ramadan al-Bouti. That scholar, who later became infamous as a supporter of the Assad regime ― almost certainly due to being given an incomplete picture by that same regime of the empirical realities of the time ― was killed in an attack while he gave a religious class in his mosque. (The circumstances of his assassination remain hotly debated to this day.) But instead of Syria, students might now go to Turkey, where scores of Syrian scholars or ‘ulama have settled. The Turkish government now seems to provide scores of scholarships for non-Turks to study Islam, which may play a role in its own public diplomacy efforts.
I had recently completed my doctoral studies when, in April 2006, I visited the famous Sultan Hasan mosque in Cairo for Friday prayers. At the time, the then mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, was a frequent khatib or preacher at the mosque. He remains an influential figure in many quarters within and outside of Egypt, but his full-throated support of the military damaged his standing among others. But what I remember from that visit was the number of Westerners who flocked to the Sultan Hasan mosque to listen to the sermons Gomaa delivered. I recall vividly that Shaykh Emad Effat ― the shaykh al-thawra or “Shaykh of the Revolution” ― was there that day. Effat was killed in December 2011, in the midst of a violent state crackdown on protests. Years later, I wrote extensively about him in a piece entitled “The Martyr of the Azhar” ― about this man who represented an inspiring and profoundly activist type of scholar or ‘alim.
There is no longer a large cohort of Westerners descending upon that mosque. Not that they were ever a large cohort in absolute terms: Westerners probably never made up more than a few percent of the foreign students. But their presence is a matter of interest for a Western scholar such as myself, and I’ve learned that new Western arrivals have dispersed into different collectives, gathered around various shaykhs and often in Sufi orders. Many of them have gone on to study in Turkey. But they have all grown keenly aware that while Egypt might have many scholars from whom they might benefit, it is incumbent on them to steer clear of controversy ― especially of the political kind. Otherwise, their stay in Egypt might abruptly be cut short. It will be interesting to see if they run into similar problems in Turkey, considering the growing fears around its autocracy.
It is worth noting that Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for his part, despite being Egyptian, has not been to Egypt in many years. He is advanced in age, and ensconced within a new religio-political axis, consisting of Qatar, Turkey and Muslim Brotherhood-friendly networks. Turkey’s political establishment has its own religious public diplomacy measures, which seeks to affect not only Turks overseas but Muslim communities elsewhere, including in the West. Another critical bloc is spearheaded by Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where religion is being instrumentalised in its own public diplomacy measures, which seeks to counter the remnants of any revolutionary waves in the region.
Thus the “religio-cultural wars” ― which are probably more about political power than anything else ― are fully underway, and the repercussions continue to reverberate throughout the world.
What about in Egypt itself? The Egyptian revolutionary moment saw many young Egyptians grow disillusioned with the Salafis, when the tenor of its often-sectarian rhetoric caused great consternation as it became more explicit and less restrained in the new openness that characterised public discourse at the time. The Muslim Brotherhood benefited greatly from that same openness, but as the Brotherhood’s politics developed many Egyptian Muslims who had given the movement a chance began to see it as a less-than-ideal option through which to channel their religious identity and political aspirations. And once the Brotherhood’s dominance in the political sphere came to an end, so too did it become even less relevant to the religious discussion.
Some Egyptians looked to al-Azhar as a way of grounding themselves in a more classically-embedded version of the Islamic tradition. But there, too, politics took its toll. Some Azhari scholars let themselves be enlisted in the service of the state narrative, leading many, if not most, Egyptians to take a certain distance from the institution. Emad Effat represented a different type of independent scholar, one far more conducive to the revolutionary fervour of the 25 January moment. But as I write these words in 2019, eight years after the uprising, it’s clear there is no successor to him.
The absence of that activist element among Egyptian scholars is perhaps not so different after all to the pre-revolutionary period. The overwhelming majority of students in Islamic studies do not go looking for political activism; they go to learn about theology, jurisprudence and related topics. Indeed, it is the minority of Egyptian scholars who delve into political affairs, and students that do go to study under such scholars will generally try to ignore their politics. Yet, few students deny that Egypt houses a great many scholars with the skills and training to teach the advanced texts, and they refuse to underestimate the value of those scholars ― even if they, quite accurately, had complaints about the failings of the institutions in which they operated, in terms of quality control, independence from the state and other structural issues.
It is probably a minority of the students who harbour certain commitments to a more activist mode of political engagement, and will base that engagement on ethical positions they have fashioned quite independently of their studies ― and with a variety of outcomes, often at odds with the quietism that was subliminally modelled to them when they studied at al-Azhar. That minority, I’m told, generally remained cautious as to whom they discussed politics while in Egypt. They may well become more active in the public sphere when they return home, wherever that may be.
Eight years after the uprising, Egypt remains a place where many non-Egyptians and non-Arabs wish to study. The vast majority appear rather uninterested in getting involved in any political activity in Egypt, or pursuing some sort of activism within their religious studies ― and thus, for them, it looks like business as usual in Egypt. Some of this may be due to the general inclination of seminary students; for others, it is simply a matter of self-protection given the volatility of post-revolutionary Egypt. That doesn’t make them apologists for tyrannical regimes in the region; it’s just that political activism isn’t the reason they left their homes to study religion.
But for those that do seek a spiritually-rooted activism, they do so at a time when the religious geo-politics of the region are almost impossible to escape. Some will align themselves with certain elements of the Turkish-Qatari-Muslim Brotherhood axis, particularly if they have ideological leanings in that direction; others will find themselves in the embrace of the Emirati-Egyptian (and sometimes Saudi) bloc, often because they have a certain respect for and loyalty to scholars who are themselves similarly aligned.
Still others will triangulate themselves at some distance from both of these alliances, seeking to chart their own, more independent path. But they will suffer from being excluded from the opportunities (often financial) that alignment with powerful actors brings. They might even be demonised by one or more blocs as a result of their independence. This more scattered set of paths hasn’t coalesced into a single group ― maybe they would have, had Emad Effat survived the post-uprising era. Perhaps they may still. Only time will tell.
Eight years ago, such a fragmented situation would have been almost unthinkable. But that’s where we are today. And yet, all of the students I knew while based in Egypt felt that al-Azhar as an institution, Egypt’s religious landscape and Egypt itself would all pull through. For them, the weight of hundreds of years of history was a key source of their optimism. If Egypt changes again ― it is, after all, still a country in flux ― perhaps a new set of religious and political configurations will become evident. For what happens in Egypt, seldom stays in Egypt.