Al-Majalis Al-‘Ilmiyya: Revival and Critique in Egypt’s al-Azhar

By Mary Elston
Submitted to Session P4761 (Islam and the State in Egypt: An Institution-Centered Approach, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
In 1961, Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalized al-Azhar, the Sunni world’s premier institution of Islamic learning, coopting and expanding the role of the thousand-year old mosque-madrasa to legitimize an interpretation of Islam that was compatible with various state projects (Zeghal 1996 and Skovgaard-Petersen 1997). In the wake of the 2013 coup, al-Azhar’s role in the Egyptian public sphere became even more pronounced as Sisi’s regime sought to purge civil society of all other voices that claimed to speak for Islam. In this climate of almost unprecedented state control of religious messaging in Egypt, the state has allowed al-Azhar to further expand its influence and disseminate a state-sanctioned brand of religious moderation (al-wasatiyya) that aims to counter alleged Islamic extremism within and outside Egypt. One of the primary sites where this currently takes place is the semi-formal network of classes (al-majalis al-‘ilmiyya) that occurs at and around al-Azhar mosque from the dawn to the evening prayer. While al-Azhar’s critics have dismissed the majalis as an opiate for the masses, teaching an apolitical, Sufi-infused brand of Islam that is grounded in traditional Islamic texts (al-turath), this paper argues that the majalis are in fact an essential site for understanding the negotiation of the boundaries between religious authority and political engagement.

Based on ten months of participant observation in al-Azhar’s majalis and interviews with the ‘ulama and students who frequent them, this paper examines the content, dynamics, and context of the majalis ‘ilmiyya to shine a light on the relationship between religion and politics in Sisi’s Egypt. In addition to approaching the majalis as a site that teaches state-approved Islam, the paper contends that the majalis are a prime location in which rivalries between various ‘ulama play out. Furthermore, it situates the revival (ihya) of traditional learning at the majalis within a larger critique of official education at al-Azhar in the post-1961 period when the institution came more fully under the control of the Egyptian state. By exploring the key questions and issues that animate the majalis ‘ilmiyya, the paper foregrounds the ways in which education at the Azhar mosque is embroiled in broader battles over the nature of Islamic knowledge (‘ilm) and the proper role of the ‘ulama in contemporary Egypt.