Islamic university pledges reform to fight militancy

The president of Al-Azhar University, Abdel Hai Azzab, said last week that he had ordered the formation of academic committees to revise the textbooks taught at the Islamic seminary to purge them of radical ideas or religious edicts, which “do not suit modern times”.

“It is not sensible that Al-Azhar curricula include lessons talking about slavery, protection tributes paid by non-Muslims or apostasy because these religious rules were set for early eras, which are different from our times,” Azzab said.

Rocked by protests

Al-Azhar, seen as a stronghold of Islamists, has been rocked by violent protests since the military’s 2013 overthrow of former president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood following mass demonstrations against his rule.

The university’s authorities have blamed the upheaval on students backing the Muslim Brotherhood and asked security forces to be stationed on campus to quell the unrest.

Hundreds of Al-Azhar students have in recent months been detained and put on trial on charges of inciting and participating in violent rioting.

The university’s president also said that a panel will be set up to examine dissertations at Al-Azhar as part of the institution’s anti-militancy strategy.

“It is necessary for us to adopt teaching methods that encourage students to exercise their minds rather than learn by rote, which has resulted in graduating students who cannot criticise extremist ideas,” Azzab added.

“We will just teach curricula which are suitable for our times. This emanates from our belief in the necessity of renewal and coping with the latest developments in different disciplines.”

Al-Azhar criticised

Al-Azhar has recently come under criticism from the country’s secularists, who accused it of promoting extremism and jihadism by allegedly teaching radical interpretations of religious tenets.

Top officials in Al-Azhar have denied the charges, accusing detractors of seeking to tarnish the institution’s reputation.

However, some lecturers at Al-Azhar University have lent their voices to critics.

“I find excuses for those criticising Al-Azhar,” said Ahmed Karima, a professor of Islamic Sharia law at the Cairo-based university.

“There is already a decline in the standards of Al-Azhar graduates as a result of educational flaws. We have to admit these shortcomings and proceed to eliminate them.”

Karima noted that some of the textbooks taught at Al-Azhar feature “dangerous views” that were made in the past under certain circumstances. “They are related to jihad and distribution of war spoils. We have to exercise self-criticism to set things right and enable Al-Azhar to lead efforts for carrying out necessary renewal of religious discourse.”

Pressure on Al-Azhar for reformation came after Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi called for a ‘religious revolution’ against extremism.

Addressing a ceremony at Al-Azhar University earlier this year, al-Sisi said that centuries-old extremist Islamic ideas have become a source of “concern for the entire world”.

“It's inconceivable that the thinking we hold most sacred should cause the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world,” he said.

Al-Sisi, a Muslim army general-turned-politician, is a self-declared fighter against violent radicalism in Egypt and the region.