|Egypt's government exercises substantial control of the Al-Azhar mosque and university [EPA]
The controversy surrounding the legacy of Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the head of the Al-Azhar mosque and university who died last week, is more complex than many would expect.
Some of his critics viewed him as the theological functionary through which the state marketed not only its brand of Islam, but also other government-sanctioned social and political policies. His supporters championed him as a reformist, particularly for women's rights.
But most crucially, his sudden death has reignited the centuries-old battle over the independence of Al-Azhar, regarded as Sunni Islam's highest seat of learning.
Unlike Catholicism and Shia Islam, Sunni Islam was established and maintained through decentralised governance.
It knows no clergy and reveres no saints; in essence, Sunni Islam has maintained that there is no interlocutor between man and the divine.
When the Al-Azhar mosque and university were first established in the late 10th century, they became the centre of study for the Quran and Arabic language, drawing scholars from throughout the Muslim Empire.
It was during the Ottoman Empire, however, that the official position for a "Grand Sheikh of the state" was created; the state appointed an Islamic scholar to this position and paid him a salary. The title had previously only been used as an honorific awarded to the most prominent Islamic scholars of the time.
In the 17th century, the Ottomans created an official position for the "Sheikh of Al-Azhar" in Egypt. Although he was selected by a committee of Al-Azhar scholars and then confirmed by the Ottoman ruler of Egypt, the sheikh enjoyed some degree of autonomy.
This autonomy was entrenched in the non-governmental institution of Waqf, or religious trusts, established early in Islamic history as a means to shield scholars from state interference, as well as provide funding to schools, social works, and even armies.
Only the Waqf's original owners were able to select its beneficiaries; the protective measures even included the provision that offspring and the state could not inherit the trust once the Waqf owner died.
It was Mohammed Ali Pasha, the Albanian officer considered to be the founder of modern Egypt, who severally weakened Al-Azhar's autonomy.
In 1812, he rejected the sheikh elected by the committee of peer scholars and appointed to the position a man to his liking.
He also moved to assert control of all Waqf revenue in order to finance his massive state building projects; in the early 19th century, one-fifth of Egyptian farm lands were designated as Waqf-sponsored.
The state's act of seizing control of Waqf was seen by many scholars as a violation of Islamic law. Under Mohammed Ali, the state also undermined the financial independence of the scholars and Muslim civil society in general.
Grand Mufti's role
Under British occupation in the early 1900s, Al-Azhar was further weakened when a position for a "Grand Mufti of the state" was created to fill the position of chief Islamic Jurist, replacing in part the powers of the sheikh of Al-Azhar.
In addition, a position of Waqf administrator was created to bring the trusts under more government control.
After the Egyptian revolution in 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser brought the Waqf system under the government's jurisdiction; in 1961, he enacted a new law that gave the government the right to select the sheikh of Al-Azhar, in effect routing out what little was left of the position's autonomy.
In the past four decades, the powers of Al-Azhar have been divided between three government institutions: A Waqf ministry that controls the religious trusts, or the financial resources needed to secure Al-Azhar's economic independence; a Mufti institution that is part of Egypt's ministry of justice; and Al-Azhar which was downgraded to an educational institution controlled by a sheikh selected by the government.
|Mubarak will likely have the last say in the selection process for sheikh of Al-Azhar [AFP]
It appears that there exist insurmountable challenges awaiting the new sheikh if he is to seek independence from government control.
Primarily, the position itself will be filled by a government appointee ultimately approved by Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president.
This process makes it unlikely that the new sheikh will be able to immediately and comprehensively modify the relationship with the government along two fronts: The government has to relinquish control of the Waqf and to give Al-Azhar its right to chose it leader.
Such reforms are considered by most analysts to be pipe dreams under the current Egyptian government.
It is therefore unsurprising that Tantawi was portrayed by Egyptian media as a controversial figure seen by many to have furthered a government agenda.
He supported a ban of the niqab (face veil), the building of a barrier on Egypt's border with Gaza, the Egyptian president's limitless candidacy for office, French anti-hijab (head cover) legislation, and met with Israeli leaders amid growing public opposition to normalisation of ties with Israel.
While these made him hugely unpopular domestically, he was seen in the West as an advocate of a "moderate" view of Islam that welcomes dialogue between religions.
His supporters lauded him for prohibiting violence in the name of Islam, confronting the rise of Islamist political groups, and protecting the rights of women.
His critics, such as the influential Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, say that Tantawi was never qualified to issue Fatwas (Islamic legal verdicts) because of his academic background.
"He [Tantawi] was a specially qualified professor of Quranic interpretation," wrote al-Qaradawi in a condolence letter last week.
"But, the Sheikh [Tantawi] entered, or was pushed to enter, the area of Fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence]. He did not prepare himself for the task. He did not study, practise, or write in Fiqh. He did not train himself in navigating through the deep waters of Fiqh. Therefore, he was not successful in many of his hard-hitting opinions. This was the reason of my disagreement with him despite the old friendship between us."
To prevent what he says is another unqualified scholar to head Al-Azhar, Qaradawi suggested that the coming sheikh should be elected by the Muslim scholars themselves instead of being selected by the Egyptian government in line with current Egyptian law.
That is unlikely to happen. The position of sheikh of Al-Azhar is likely to remain vacant until Mubarak returns from Germany, where he has been recovering from gall bladder surgery.