Al-Azhar, Egypt’s 1,000-year-old seat of Islamic learning, will soon be preaching its doctrines on satellite television, a space it has previously left to Islamist parties now leading the country's first free polls.
Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest religious authority, also plans to spruce up its websites, improve religious education and mobilize its imams to offer an alternative to the unexpectedly popular puritan message some Islamist politicians deliver.
Alongside its traditional work training most of Egypt’s imams and providing thousands of religious rulings (fatwas) daily, it has also been hosting discussions among religious, political and cultural leaders to ponder Egypt’s future.
“The revolution has helped us to reform,” said Mahmoud Azab, adviser to Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar and top Islamic authority for many of the world’s Sunni Muslims.
Ibrahim Negm, senior adviser to Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, Egypt’s second-highest religious authority after Tayeb, said: “We have not adequately coped with the changing modern means of communication and information technology.”
The advisers told Reuters al-Azhar was not taking sides in the political rivalries marking Egypt’s staggered elections.
Rather, it was making up for time lost during Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade dictatorship when it kept close to the authorities, while banned Islamists eagerly embraced the new media and grassroots contacts to spread their stricter views.
Islamists swept about two-thirds of the vote in the first of three voting rounds for parliament last month.
A list led by the party of the pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood won about 37 percent, followed by hardline Salafis with 24 percent and a moderate Islamist group with about 4 percent.
Founded as a madrasa in 970, al-Azhar is centerd around its fabled mosque in old Cairo, where imams can still be seen lecturing to students sitting cross-legged on the floor.
In the last century, it became a modern university, adding secular subjects such as engineering and medicine and expanding to new buildings. Al-Azhar also came under control of the state, which pressed clerics into service defending autocratic rule.
Bound by tradition and overshadowed by the state, al-Azhar missed the boat when new communications options opened up and Islamists seized them to challenge its mainstream view of Islam.
“They have succeeded in talking to people in the privacy of their own homes,” Negm said. Eight Salafi satellite channels broadcasting from other Middle Eastern countries can be seen in Egypt while al-Azhar had nothing to match them, he said.
The Muslim Brothers, described by Negm as “people you could talk to,” also have well-funded publicity and social programs.
“We are about to launch two, if not three, satellite television channels in early 2012 that will speak in the name of the institution,” he said, adding this was a project of Dar al-Ifta, the al-Azhar department for fatwas and Islamic advice.
A private religious satellite channel called Azhari, financed by a Libyan businessman, went on the air two years ago but it has nothing to do with the official al-Azhar, he said.
Negm said his department would also launch a new internet portal about its activities and mobilize its 60,000 imams around the country for a “meet the people” drive that echoes the successful grassroots approach the Islamists have taken.
Asked why they didn't do this before, he said: “There is a difference between a job and a mission. They were doing a job, but were not on a mission. It was about time we realized this.”
Negm said open political debate had had a positive effect on the Islamists, turning them from an initial skepticism about al-Azhar’s role to publicly recognizing it now as the main point of reference for interpreting Islam in Egypt.
Azab, who advises Tayeb on dialogue with people of other faiths and views, said the Grand Imam reached out to Coptic Christians last December after 52 worshippers were killed in an Islamist militant attack on a Baghdad church.
“The imam said we’re not going to wait until al Qaeda arrives in Cairo,” the adviser said, noting that a Coptic church in Alexandria was bombed soon afterwards, killing 23.
Boosted by the new freedom the Tahrir Square protests brought, the dialogue, dubbed the Egyptian Family House, expanded to bring together religious, political and cultural leaders to discuss the challenges facing their country.
“The former regime nourished (sectarian) conflicts to stay in power and present itself as the only protector of Christians,” Azab said. “Some problems arising from security or cultural issues were masked as religious problems.”
One fruit of these discussions was a Declaration on the Future of Egypt in June, which supported freedom of opinion, faith and human rights in a state that would be “civilian, protected by constitution and law.”
Azab said his department would target religious extremism with a new school book on justice and liberty in Christianity and Islam to be studied by Muslim and Christian pupils together.
It was also holding new preacher training sessions for imams to guide them towards what he called the real values of Islam.
“We will need some time to undo the harm that was done to society under the dictatorship,” he said.