Egypt's Al-Azhar Association of Senior Scholars came into being in 1911, more than 700 years after the establishment of al-Azhar, and was replaced in 1961 by another entity called the Center for Islamic Research. It was only in 2012 with the modification of al-Azhar law that the association was resurrected.
According to the report presented by the committee that foresaw the establishment of the association, al-Azhar was not just a place of learning but also one from which knowledgeable scholars and reliable clerics were to emerge. This, the report added, was the purpose of establishing the Association of Senior Scholars. The association was comprised of 30 scholars who proportionally represented the four schools of Islamic thought in Egypt and started acquiring a special place in religious institutions and in the community in general. Members of the association, who were to remain in their jobs as long they were able to, ranked second after al-Azhar grand imam and the grand mufti.
In its first stage, the association was blamed for its clampdown on intellectuals and scholars who attempted to reach innovative interpretations of Islam. An example was the case of Sheikh Ali Abdel Razek, a religious judge, who was put on trial, dismissed from his job, and stripped of his academic degree for arguing in his book Islam and the Foundations of Governance (1925) that the concept of the Caliphate was not part of Islamic law but rather a political system that Muslims devised to manage the worldly affairs of their nascent nation. Another example was the case of intellectual and Arabic Literature professor Taha Hussein, who was accused the association’s scholars of deriding religion following the release of his book Pre-Islamic Poetry and was later referred to the prosecutor general. On the other hand, the association was credited for its part in the national struggle for freedom and its stance against foreign intervention.
The association entered its second stage in 2012 when on January 19 the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – then the de facto ruler of Egypt – issued a modification of al-Azhar law based on the recommendation of Grand Imam Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb. The new law re-established the Association of Senior Scholars in an attempt to revive the reputation of al-Azhar as the “beacon of the Muslim world.” The association was also tasked with electing the grand imam when the position became vacant and nominating a grand mufti as well as affirming al-Azhar’s independence. According to the new law, the association was to be headed by al-Azhar grand imam and to be comprised of 40 members from all four Islamic schools of thought, and its decisions were to be taken through majority voting. The law determined the main duties of the association, which included providing religious advice on contemporary issues both through its members as well as through the specialized committees of the Center of Islamic Research that remained in place after the association’s revival. The law also set personal and academic criteria based on which members of the association were to be chosen and gave the grand imam the right to choose the members of the first round, who were also to be appointed with a presidential decree.
On July 17, 2012, the Association of Senior Scholars was formed of 27 scholars, including ministers of Islamic endowments, rectors of al-Azhar University and current and previous muftis. The law stipulated the procedures to be taken in case a member left and in cases in which memberships were to be suspended.
The new law resulted in two important achievements. First, the Grand Imam Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb was granted independence and made immune to impeachment and was given the chance to revive the association to which he can resort in a variety of political and intellectual issues related to religion, and which have abound lately. Second, al-Azhar was made the final reference on all Islamic affairs and would, therefore, be able to resolve religious disputes and have the final say on controversial issues.
Several laws were expected to be passed in the coming stage in implementation of the article of the new constitution and which refer a series of issues to the law provided that those laws were in line with Islamic rules. A close examination of article four of the constitution, which tackles al-Azhar and the Association of Senior Scholars, revealed that the association was the only entity in al-Azhar that was to revise new laws and legislations as far as compliance with Islamic law was concerned. And in the light of the amount of laws to be issued in the near future, the association was expected to regain its past prominence and to play a major role in shaping post-revolution Egypt.
This new role was put into practice on January 2, 2013 when Tayeb decided to refer the issue of Islamic bonds to the association and, regardless of the results, the symbolic significance of such a step cannot be overlooked especially when taking into consideration that no scholarly entity in Egypt was assigned such part before.
The powers given to the association could be seen in relation to those taken from the Supreme Constitutional Court, which is no longer the main reference as far as the constitutionality of laws is concerned. For judge Abdel Rahman al-Garhi, member of the State Cases Authority, article four of the constitution laid the foundations of a religious state because it made clerics rather than judges have the final say on laws, which, he argued, is a dangerous precedent. Dr. Hazem Abdel Azim noted that this article is bound to establish a system similar to that of “Wilayat-e Faqih” in Iran, an opinion seconded by Dr. Ali al-Selmi who also said that this article stripped the parliament and the judiciary of several of their powers.
Even though the decisions of the association were not legally or constitutionally binding, they were seen as morally so; since it will be very hard for the parliament to insist on passing a legislation which the association affirms is against Islamic law. In addition, the constitution gave the association precedence over the Supreme Constitutional Court, therefore enhancing the authority of religion.
According to legal expert Dr. Hisham Nasr, the Association of Senior Scholars was not very different from the Guardian Council of the Constitution in Iran, made up of scholars chosen by the supreme guide and also in charge of making sure that legislations comply with the constitution and Islamic law.
Dr. Ahmed Karima, professor of Islamic Law at al-Azhar University disagreed and argued that article four of the constitution curbed al-Azhar’s role in favor of ultra-conservative Islamists who were attempting to impose their strict interpretation of Islam. “Unfortunately, liberal factions thought that al-Azhar will establish a theocracy, while it is the only guarantee for tolerance and moderation,” he said.
Karima’s point of view brought to mind earlier statements made by Salafi leader Dr. Yasser Borhami about an imminent change in al-Azhar law and which, many expect, would allow the impeachment of the grand imam. Karima’s concerns appeared, therefore, quite valid as they foreshadowed a future alliance between Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood to impeach Tayeb and take control of al-Azhar, thus stripping it of the moderation it has always been renowned for.
The return of the Association of Senior Scholars underscored a conflict over al-Azhar, one that threatened changing the historical identity of the institution. True, the association was now comprised of scholars known for their moderate take on religion, but this will not necessarily last for long, especially that new members might replace them in case the law was changed. In this case, the new association would have the power to deal the civilian state and fatal and last blow. Remembering previous ultra-conservative stances taken by the association in its first stage would also be helpful in this regard.