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Egypt’s 25 January revolution in 2011 ignited a fast-changing succession of political leaders, from presidents to cabinets to army leaders. Yet one powerful and highly influential figure withstood the years of unrest and remained in place virtually unchallenged: Dr Ahmed Muhammad Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s most important religious authority, al-Azhar.
El-Tayeb was born on 6 January 1946 in the village of Qurna, near Luxor in Upper Egypt. He studied philosophy and doctrine at al-Azhar University in Cairo, and holds a PhD in Islamic philosophy, also from al-Azhar. He spent six months at the Sorbonne University in Paris. Following several positions as (assistant) professor and later dean of universities in Qena, Aswan and Cairo, he was appointed president of al-Azhar University in 2003, then grand imam in 2010.
Al-Azhar was founded as a mosque in 972 by the Shiite Fatimids and grew into a university when it started to attract scholars from all over the Islamic world. It is now considered the world’s highest seat for Sunni learning.
El-Tayeb is said to be from a Sufi family, but how Sufism precisely influences him is unclear. Fanack approached al-Azhar’s spokesperson on the question of Sufism but received no reply. El-Tayeb’s brother, Muhammad el-Tayeb, leads a Sufi order, but he has told local press that neither the grand imam nor al-Azhar has any connection to the order.
El-Tayeb’s relatives consistently stay out of the spotlight, and he hardly ever talks about them in public. He reportedly married his cousin Sakina from his village in Luxor, where she still lives. They have a son and a daughter and at least two grandchildren. In one rare interview, el-Tayeb elaborated on the harsh upbringing he endured as a child and how that influenced him as a father.
Usama, a petrol engineer in his 60s, is positive about el-Tayeb. “He has a strong personality and is smart,” he told Fanack. “He carefully chooses his words.”
El-Tayeb leads al-Azhar’s efforts to counter extremist thought in Islam, as assistant professor of al-Azhar Sayed Zakaria told Fanack previously. These efforts include a counter-messaging department, initiated by el-Tayeb, which refutes the narrative of groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda.
Countering extremism fits the agenda of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has frequently called for a “renewing of religious discourse” and sees al-Azhar as an important vehicle for this renewal.
The relationship between al-Azhar and the state has historically been close. How el-Tayeb fulfils that role – especially during the turbulent years after the 2011 revolution – deserves a closer look.
Close to the Military
Before assuming his position as grand imam, el-Tayeb was a member of former President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), which was disbanded after he was toppled during the revolution.
When then-army general al-Sisi announced the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, el-Tayeb stood together with Pope Tawadros II during the live television broadcast. During Ramadan in 2018, el-Tayeb appeared in a television ad saying that donating money to the government fund Long Live Egypt is a valid way to follow zakat (giving money to the poor, one of the five pillars of Islam). The Long Live Egypt Fund is generally used to fund national mega-projects such as the extension of the Suez Canal in 2016 and the construction of a new administrative capital.
Usama believes el-Tayeb maintains a close relationship with the state but does not fully represent the voice of the government. “In this regard he is much better than his predecessor [Muhammad Sayyid] Tantawi, who was 100% with the state,” Usama said. For instance, el-Tayeb rarely talks about the banned Muslim Brotherhood in public, whereas other sheikhs follow the government’s anti-Brotherhood line much more fiercely, Usama said.
Amr Ezzat, a researcher at the Egyptian Institute for Personal Rights, believes otherwise. “I do not think Ahmed el-Tayeb’s performance can be described as independent or more independent,” he wrote to Fanack in an email. “On the contrary, out of all the other sheikhs, he is the most involved in politics, supporting the authority in its general direction and crucial political positions.”
Out of Brotherhood Hands
During the revolution, el-Tayeb supported the Mubarak regime and opposed the revolution, Ezzat said. After Mubarak’s fall, el-Tayeb supported the then-ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), strengthening his position in al-Azhar, he added.
In the initial post-revolution period (2011-2012), a new law was issued to change the way al-Azhar’s leader is chosen. According to the new law, al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars instead of the president appoints a new grand imam. Hence, el-Tayeb made sure that a Muslim Brotherhood president would not be able to replace him. “After the revolution, he prevented radical changes in al-Azhar and ensured it did not come under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Ezzat said.
Moreover, Ezzat believes that el-Tayeb worked with the military to prevent actual change in the country as demanded by revolutionary forces, for instance by appointing senior scholars who were close to the state, maintaining strong relations with the intelligence services and firing scholars with pro-Muslim Brotherhood or otherwise strong opposing views.
Guardian of Islam
On certain issues, however, el-Tayeb seems to take a more independent stance. He distanced himself from the violent dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in in 2013, saying he only learnt about it “from the media”.
Later, in 2017, al-Azhar rejected a call by al-Sisi to amend the concept of ‘verbal divorce’ in Islam. “Al-Azhar would not go along with it as in its view al-Sisi’s proposal was an interference in its domain,” researcher H.A. Hellyer told Fanack previously. Al-Sisi said publicly in response that el-Tayeb was giving him “a hard time”.
Furthermore, al-Azhar has resisted the state’s programme to unify Friday sermons in mosques across Egypt, as prescribed by the Ministry of Religious Endowments.
Ezzat acknowledges that el-Tayeb used the opening of public debate to disagree with the SCAF on certain issues. “He is not as obedient as, for instance, the minister of religious endowments.” In this way, el-Tayeb “preserved his image as a preacher of Islam, and in my opinion, guardian for Islamic dominance over official policies,” Ezzat said. As Fanack wrote earlier, state policies in Egypt have not become more secular since the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood. On the contrary, court cases over blasphemy are on the rise and violence against Christian communities in Upper Egypt persists.
In addition, al-Azhar did not follow al-Sisi’s call to renew religious discourse unconditionally. For el-Tayeb, it seems Islamic discourse does not need to be renewed, it needs to be taught better in order to prevent people from using the religion to justify violence and extremism. At a conference in Mecca in February 2015, el-Tayeb stressed the importance of education reform, because extremism is the result of a “wrong interpretation of the Koran and Sunna”.
In a direct response to the narrative of extremist groups, el-Tayeb said: “The only hope for the Muslim nation to recover unity is to tackle in our schools and universities this tendency to accuse Muslims of being unbelievers.”
At the same time, its close relationship with the state discredits al-Azhar as a religious authority among Islamist movements, researcher Ziad Akl told Fanack previously. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups view al-Azhar as the state’s religious body, and its clerics as state officials instead of religious scholars, according to Akl.
Al-Azhar opposes declaring certain groups or individuals as apostates, even IS, and in this regard practices what it preaches. In May 2018, the head of al-Azhar University, Ahmed Hosny, was replaced. Hosny had declared TV presenter Islam el-Beheiry, who often voices criticism of certain Islamic teachings and al-Azhar as an institution, an apostate.
In his interactions with other actors el-Tayeb also appears to choose his statements carefully, adjusting them to suit the audience. On several occasions, he blamed problems in the Middle East on ‘new colonialism’ and Zionism, which resonates with a large part of the Arab population, whereas when speaking with leaders in the West he highlighted the need to open dialogue and peacefully coexist.
He criticized the US’ decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (al-Quds), saying it feeds terrorism, and abruptly called off a meeting with US Vice-President Mike Pence in response to the embassy move.
El-Tayeb’s relationship with Saudi-Arabia is also somewhat ambiguous. He met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in March 2018 to talk about cooperation between al-Azhar and the kingdom regarding counterterrorism.
However, in 2016, during an international conference of Sunni scholars held in Chechnya, Russia, el-Tayeb excluded Wahhabism, the ultraconservative Saudi version of Salafism, from mainstream Sunni Islam, angering Saudi clerics. This may not be surprising considering el-Tayeb’s supposed Sufi background. As argued in The Atlantic, Wahhabism and Sufism are at odds with each other, with Wahhabism being intolerant towards the more inclusive Sufism.
El-Tayeb’s approach towards Christians in Egypt shows two sides as well. El-Tayeb started the Family Home initiative, a regular meeting between himself and the leaders of the different churches in the country, and activities to promote interfaith dialogue, which focus on unity and the common ‘Egyptianness’ of all the faiths.
On the other hand, el-Tayeb objected to a new unified law for places of worship and “completely rejected equality between church and mosque”, Ezzat said. His objection was successful. In 2016, Egypt issued a separate church building law that in name guarantees the right to build a church, but in practice puts restrictions on it under the authority of the security services.
Throughout the political upheaval of the past seven years, el-Tayeb has succeeded in maintaining al-Azhar’s key role in Egypt’s power dynamics, by strongly supporting the regime and the army, preventing major internal changes at al-Azhar and ensuring Islam retains a central role in public policies.