EGYPT: Anger at revamping of Muslim seminary

Academics at Al Azhar University, the Muslim world's oldest seat of higher learning, have reacted angrily to a decision by the Egyptian government to recategorise the institution's colleges. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, who doubles as Minister of Al Azhar Affairs, ordered separation of the university's religious colleges from ones teaching non-religious subjects to create two institutions.

The controversial decision was made to 'reform' the Islamic university, whose colleges now number 70 across Egypt, according to government officials. They explained that colleges teaching practical subjects, such as medicine, science and engineering, would be grouped in one university while colleges teaching Islamic theology and humanities would be combined in another university, with all overseen by Al Azhar.

"Reducing Al Azhar's 70 colleges to just two institutions will entrench the isolation of this prestigious educational institution," said Hussein Eweida, chairman of Al Azhar University's Teaching Staff Club, an independent academic union.

"The decision, issued by the Prime Minister, will eventually undermine Al Azhar as the venue for teaching moderate principles of Islam and replace them with extremist Wahabism," he added, referring to a strict version of Islam originating in Saudi Arabia.

Eweida called on President Hosni Mubarak to suspend the decision and "save Al Azhar as the bastion of moderate Islam".

Al Azhar University was originally established to qualify Muslim preachers. The institution limited its curriculum to Islamic theology until May 1961 when then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered non-religious subjects such as medicine, dentistry and engineering be introduced into Al Azhar.

After parliament approved a relevant bill, colleges were set up to teach these subjects along with Islamic theology. The move came to be known as the Al Azhar Development Law.

Until 1961, enrolment in Al Azhar was limited to males. But the new law allowed the admission of female students into girls-only colleges to study religious and other subjects. More than 500,000 male and female students are currently enrolled in different institutes of Al Azhar University.

"When the Al Azhar Development Law was issued in 1961, its aim was to bring this old university into close touch with the changing world outside it," said Mohamed el-Shahat, a member of the Islamic Research Centre, an influential arm of Al Azhar.

"Along with the traditional colleges teaching the Arabic language and Islamic Sharia (law), other non-religious colleges were created with the aim of qualifying doctors and engineers, who would project the true moderate Islamic teachings through their jobs," el-Shahat told University World News.

But he lamented failure to achieve these aims because of what he termed administrative and academic inconsistencies: "The number of institutes affiliated to Al Azhar has exceeded 70. In addition, students attending these institutes do not have the aptitude to study their syllabuses. In fact, the system of education at Al Azhar needs to be reformed."

Agreeing, Dr Osama el-Ghanam, an ex-dean of Al Azhar University's medical college, believes it is difficult to graduate well-qualified medical professionals or engineers from Al Azhar at present.

"Qualifying students who will be excellent doctors and engineers and at the same time well-versed Muslim preachers is difficult in view of discouraging circumstances," he said. "The colleges at Al Azhar are not well-prepared for this. Besides, the duration of the course is just 30 weeks as is the case in non-Al Azhar universities. This duration is by no means enough to groom well-qualified students as envisaged by the 1961 Law."

Only Muslims are allowed to attend Al Azhar institutes in this predominantly Muslim country of 80 million people. An estimated 32,000 Muslim scholars from more than 100 countries are also attending Al Azhar.