Al-Azhar University in Cairo In the Heart of Muslim Belief

If an extended conflict between the West and Islam is to be avoided, who should the West speak to in the Muslim world? Nobody officially. But inofficially, the ancient and respected al-Azhar University in Cairo would be a good place to start.

By Yassin Musharbash in Cairo

The al-Azhar Mosque exerts a major influence on Sunni Muslims.

The al-Azhar Mosque exerts a major influence on Sunni Muslims.

Self-doubt, insecurity, feelings of inferiority: Dean Abdullah Hassan Ali Barakat knows none of the things western observers like to pin on Islam. “Sit down, listen and find a use for what you hear!” he commands a female student who stumbles into the interview. Now she’s kneeling on the edge of a leather chair and taking notes: “The war of cultures is an invention of the West. Islam is about living together peacefully. I’m not sure what the West thinks.”

The Islamic world has many hubs. The trio of holy cities -- Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem -- is the undisputed focus of the religion, founded over 1,300 years ago by the Prophet Muhammad. But when it comes to Islam's intellectual center, no place is more important than al-Azhar, the oldest university in the world and, for the Sunnis -- a group which makes up some 90 percent of the world's 1.4 billion Muslims -- the most influential mosque. No fatwas are more observed than those of al-Azhar, and few have the authority within the Islamic world of the university’s professors. Dean Barakat, with a neatly trimmed beard, a red and white Fez and a floor-length, pinstripe dishdasha, is the university's public face.

And with calls from western politicians for a "cultural dialogue" amid the persistent spat over the publishing of Muhammad caricatures in European newspapers, Barakat may soon take center stage. Even though al-Azhar has lost some of its influence in recent years, it is still the place to go to should one want to "dialogue" with the Islamic world. Indeed, the cartoon conflict will very likely buoy the university's status.

The West is "not civilized"

"The West must communicate with al-Azhar,” says Barakat. And what he wants the West to say is crystal clear and not-to-be-budged: The caricatures, he feels, are not protected by freedom of the press and he wants an apology.

The West doesn’t look good in his eyes: “They are not civilized enough to solve conflicts peacefully,” he says. He mentions the Iraq War as proof and, without irony, the fact that medieval churches burned scientists at the stake at a time when the Islamic world emphasized research at places like al-Azhar. He says this as if it were yesterday and as though nothing has changed since. He refuses to accept the arson at Danish embassies as a counter argument: “There is a difference between action and reaction.”

Barakat speaks with a mix of self-confidence, arrogance and obliviousness, but also with a touch of dignity that almost certainly reflects al-Azhar’s perception of itself. But he also sees his university as a guarantee of a moderate -- if not traditional -- Islam and therefore a natural partner for the West. “Al-Azhar is the keeper of a balanced faith,” he emphasizes.

Despite his unflattering view of the West, he’s not so wrong. Al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, for example, recently refused to bestow martyr status on Palestinian suicide bombers that targeted civilians. He also acknowledged the right of the French government to prohibit head scarves and advised Muslim women to follow the ban. Charitably, he even asked preachers to no longer identify Jews and Christians as “descendants from apes and pigs.” Not all of Tantawi’s comments are without criticism: He is continually accused of being a puppet of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek. But the once-rumored infiltration of the university by radicals has proven untrue. 

Looking at terrorism from the hub of the Islamic world

Tantawi and other key al-Azhar representatives don't shy away from discussions with western politicians, holy men and journalists. The university is ready to talk. But it brings more of its own agenda and more of its own unfaltering self-confidence to the table than many in the West would prefer. Of course it’s ready to discuss terrorism, says Barakat. But not just that perpetrated by al-Qaida. Western terrorism must be looked at as well –- in Iraq, for example, and in the Palestinian Authority. Peaceful West, bloody Islam? From al-Azhar, the hub of the Islamic world, this comparison looks to be the wrong way around.

Abdullah Salah, a student at al-Azhar, stands on a small, shady square between ancient, mud-colored buildings eight kilometers from Barakat’s office. The history of al-Azhar began on this square in the year 972 and it has now expanded into an empire of hundreds of thousands of students as well as thousands of preparatory schools both inside and outside of Egypt. Barakat’s “Da’wa” faculty was even forced to move to a nearby suburb. Abdullah, like many al-Azhar students, isn't from Egypt, rather, he comes from Senegal. Indeed, for centuries, al-Azhar has been where the elite from the Islamic world send their children to be educated. “At home,” he says, “there is no university where one can really learn Arabic and the Islamic fundamentals.” He is proud to be able to study here and even he feels that al-Azhar could play a significant role in preventing a "clash of civilizations": “This is the religious center of Islam; it has a lot of responsibility.”

Praying before protesting. Al-Azhar students prior to marching against the Muhammad cartoons last Friday.

Praying before protesting. Al-Azhar students prior to marching against the Muhammad cartoons last Friday.

Abdullah hopes the conflict can be settled with an apology from the Danish government. His fellow student, Sliman Latif from the Ivory Coast, takes an even harsher view: “This crime can’t be forgiven.” He believes that Danish embassies in Africa will soon burn as well. “Westerners don’t understand what’s important to us. You don’t do this to a prophet.” But he follows the guidance of the professors he most reveres. If they call for moderation, he will listen.

"Osama bin Laden, explode Copenhagen"

In the past, such as with the fight against French occupation forces at the end of the 18th century or in 1948, during the war with a young Israel, al-Azhar students took the initiative and became active independent of the university's leadership. But today that looks unlikely. Foreigners are rarely allowed on campus since the university doesn’t want to show everything that happens here. Still, there isn’t a single anti-Danish poster to be seen -- calls for protest are nowhere to be found. The al-Azhar University appears to snoozing.

This impression, of course, isn’t entirely correct: Just like last week, a march following prayers on Friday took aim at the cartoons. Until Friday, there had been few marches in Egypt against the caricatures, one of them being a peaceful protest last week at al-Azhar. The radicals, Barakat and Latif agreed prior to demonstrations on Friday, were elsewhere.

Their confidence, though, may have been shaken. Thousands of Egyptians took to the streets across the country. And outside al-Azhar Mosque, there were at least 1,000 demonstrators. Some chanted "Osama bin Laden, explode Copenhagen." And then the burned a Danish flag just outside the mosque gates.

Translated from German by Andrew Bulkeley


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