Sheikh al-Azhar

So, I just heard from my gorgeous,, multi-talented, bestest friend G (he forced me to say this) that we have a new sheikh al-Azhar! Unfortunately, the old sheikh al-Azhar, Tantawi, passed away 2 weeks ago while he was in Saudi Arabia…may he rest in peace.

I’m actually really excited about this new sheikh! His name is Ahmed el-Tayeb, and the first thing that struck me is that he doesn’t have a beard…strange for an Islamic scholar! And then I read more about him…

The French-educated el-Tayeb, 64, previously served as Egypt’s Mufti, the nation’s top religious law expert, for a brief stint before stepping down in 2003 to head Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. He is an expert on religious philosophy and issues of faith, and has written books about science, Marxism, Islamic philosophy, and Islamic culture.

So he is French educated – that’s already pretty surprising!

Viewed as a moderate Muslim who has encouraged dialogue with Western countries, el-Tayeb has outwardly criticized hard-line Islamists, saying the focus on rituals and outward manifestations of piety – such as Islamic garb or beards – comes at the expense of true spiritual development.

El-Tayeb also angered radical Islamists for once telling an Islamic conference that “the logic of things is change.”

I think I’m really going to like this guy!

Is this the light at the end of tunnel? Do you think he can actually reform Azhar and maybe inject a little moderation into contemporary Islam?


26 thoughts on “Sheikh al-Azhar

  1. I think “forcing” you to mention me is an overstatement 😛
    However, I do think that the first sentence of your post is the best lead in you ever had in your blog.

    Okay, I got my narcissism out of the way.

    First, congrats on your new blog! I’m sorry I was MIA for the past while but you know how work has been (I am forcibly stopping myself from ranting).

    I am really excited about this Sheikh too! When I first read the news I immediately thought of letting you know cause I knew you would be as optimistic as I am.

    However, after reading the article on AP, I saw a newscast that announced it too and they said that he is a Sufi. I am kind of concerned about this for one reason. I myself think it is great that he is a Sufi and I think that is why he could be leaning more towards inner faith rather than outer charades. But my family (traditional Egyptians) who were sitting with me, literally scoffed and laughed when the newscast mentioned this and they were like “oh great, now it’s complete, we’re going down the drain, he’s one of those people with the head swaying (referring to Sufi dancing)”.
    I am concerned that the guy would have amazing ideas yet would not be taking seriously because unfortunately Sufism is definitely frowned upon by the majority of Muslims, especially hardcore puritans or extremists.
    His moderate ideas, in the mind of “conservatives”, could be dismissed as “he’s trying to shove his stupid Sufism down our throats, but we will definitely do the opposite cause Sufism is 7aram.”
    I am kind of surprised that Mubarak chose him actually specifically due to this reason, I mean it would already be hard being tantawi’s successor since he has huge shoes to fill. Tantawi was loved (although I read reports that people thought he was too moderate at times and it angered them).
    I just hope the guy is given a chance.
    I am really looking forward to how he would handle the whole growth of radicalism in Islam.
    He seems to be more open minded than most in high-up Islamic positions, so this should be a breath of fresh air.
    Plus a person who is fluent in three languages Arabic, English AND French would help with cross-cultural communication and would hopefully help mend the broken (actually shattered) picture of Islam, both in the Arab world and internationally.
    I am particulary excited about this whole communication thing because we are in a religious PR crisis.
    Time to mend the image folks!
    All in all I’m happy. I was apprehensively waiting for this news in fear that they choose someojne who would be really hardcore.
    But the choice seems to be okay, I just hope that people ALSO keep open minds.

    Anyway, that’s my thought for the day.
    I miss your blog.
    I miss commenting.
    I miss YOU.

    Take care hun!

    • Hmmm, that’s a really good point! I wonder whether him being a Sufi will make a lot of people dismiss him. This is the sad thing about Islam today…we automatically dismiss people who we see as different from us. I do it too with traditionalist or orthodox scholars.

      But the same thing happened with Tantawi. Whenever someone didn’t like something he said, they would always be like “well he was appointed by the government, how much authority does he really have” etc etc.

      Welcome back 😀 Missed you!

  2. read about shaykh Abdel Haleem Mahmoud, considered by many to be the greatest Shaykh al-Azhar in recent times, and a symbol for many scholars as the “Azhar at its best.”


    Abdel Halim Mahmud (1910-1978) returned from Paris in 1940 with a PhD in philosophy. At the Sorbonne he had studied psychology, anthropology, and sociology under the renowned French scholar Louis Massignon. But before ever leaving Egypt he had completed his Islamic studies at Azhar and was awarded the Alamiyyah certificate, one of the youngest to ever do so in modern times.

    In 1973 he was appointed to the position of Shaykh al-Azhar, the highest religious position in Egypt. However, because of the institution’s preeminence and history, it becomes perhaps the highest religious position in the Muslim world. To this day he is revered and loved throughout the Muslim world as a profound intellectual, an extraordinary social leader, and cultural icon.

    he was also too strong for the government, and always got what he wanted to do, against the government’s wishes. that’s why i was told by one of his close friends, who studied with him for two years, that it was the government that killed him by putting poison in his first dish at the hospital.

    the Jabhat Ulamaa al-Azhar (The Azhar Scholars Front) which was founded to oppose Tantawi, had scanned his biography onto their website to show that he is their role model as the best shaykh of the azhar.

    He was also famous as a Sufi of the Shadhiliyya order, and i’ve read some of his great books on the subject. His PhD in the Sorbonne was a study of Abu al-Harith al-Muhasibi, the sufi contemporary of imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, and one of the world’s most remarkable thinkers..a pioneer in psychology and spirituality.

  3. it is said that shaykh Ahmad at-Tayyib is also a sufi (i’ve heard it say that he’s from the Idrisi tariqa), and he’s also a great intellectual, so here’s hoping he would be even a 10th of what shaykh Abdel Haleem Mahmoud was..

  4. I like what he says about the focus on rituals and the outward manifestations of piety..

    So true, so very true.

    People focus entirely too much on ritual, in my opinion, but ritual is always easier, it is mindless.

  5. I think you guys forget that milions in north africa are sufi influented. I think he has more support then you can think, but i do think that he and Tantawi were and are controled by the Mubarek dictatorship.
    Dialog with the west is not the problem, but to be slaves under the Israeldominated US government is. When you help build a wall around a muslim land that is occupied and that makes you help into starving them, then there is something wrong.
    The governments in the muslim countries rule the religious leaders and that has lead to our decline. People follow kings and presidents and have forgotten that there is a greater king who is really in charge. So if he is sufi or moderate or orthodox wont matter, he is a stoog in the hands of foreign powers..

    • Good point about Sufis influencing many Muslims in Africa. Unfortunately this was more so in the 50s and 60s in Egypt than today, where we see more and more Salafi and Wahhabi influence :S

      I agree that state control over religion has led to a decline in Islamic scholarship and the state of Islam in general.

  6. bahlool- of course being a sufi, i dont think is much a of problem, as the Azhar has always been a bastion of tasawwuf, and it is a subject has been taught in the Azhar for centuries. the anti-sufi wahhabis have always hated the azhar anyway, because of its support of sufism and its belief in the Ash’ari creed, which they oppose. so their loyalties won’t be affected.

    as for islamic modernists, they might be put off a bit, but it all depends on how he acts. a very outwardly sufi shaykh like Abdel Haleem Mahmoud was very successful.. so we have to wait and see whether he really is a stooge for the government or not. one hopes that his sufism will make him fear Allah more than fearing the rulers.

    and you’re right, he will have a very wide support base, as sufism is still the traditional and strongest form of islam in muslim Africa as a whole, in South East Asia, in the great majority of South Asia, in Syria, chechnya, and to a large extent in Egypt, lebanon and the rest of the middle east.

  7. Considering the great ammount of cash the wahabis use to destabilize islam from in, i think its an uphill battle, until the saudi government falls or until people wake up. I think we are seeing that a lot of people are getting tired of the wahabis. I recall how people were supporting Zarqawis killing of muslims in Iraq, cause they were shias, they even showed sorrow and grief over his killing, then after a while they had to see them selves confronted with terrorism on their own soil, same goes for those who supported wahabis (sipah sahaba in pakistan) they are now seeing how such elements are killing thousends who go to prayer or go to a feast.

    I think most of our dear leaders and their dear supporters have been playing with fire. They all, from the kings to the presidents supported differend wahabi eleemnts (look at Saleh in Yemen who supported wahabism over zaidism, and now he has a hugh wahabi headache in his area) and that has backfired every time.
    Saudiarabia is involved in every muslim country with its money, propaganda and spread of fitna, i dont hear too often of them supporting palestine or libanon in their struggle. Egypt and Saudi are allied in their pro USA front so i think none who will stand up for ashari thinking will be allowed to go too far..

  8. You moved!!!!!!

    Anyway, about this guy… hmm.. only time will tell. As usual. And yes, I agree with what Sarah said. He made a very good point there. People forget that faith must begin from the heart for it to really mean anything.

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