Constructing Turath: Knowledge and Politics at Egypt’s al-Azhar

By Mary Elston
Submitted to Session P6032 (Islamic Knowledge and the Construction of Religious Authority in the Modern World, 2020 Annual Meeting
Rel Stds/Theo
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Today in Egypt, Islamic education is the subject of much debate. At al-Azhar—the preeminent institution of Sunni learning located in Cairo—contemporary Muslim scholars (‘ulama) argue that modern Islamic education has led to the spread of putative religious extremism. Through a series of reforms implemented at the hands of government reformers and modernist intellectuals, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Islamic education at al-Azhar was transformed in numerous ways. Large lecture halls replaced the intimate locus of the study circle; modern textbooks based on summaries of older religious texts replaced the commentary tradition; and an institutionally bestowed diploma replaced the traditional license issued by individual scholars to their students (Eccel 1984; Nakissa 2019). According to contemporary ‘ulama, these modernizing reforms severed the chains of transmission that ensured that Islamic knowledge was authoritative and transmitted according to sound methods. As a result, a gap emerged between lay Muslims and traditions of Islamic knowledge, leading to the growing influence of Islamists, Salafists, and putative extremists in Egypt and elsewhere in the Islamic world.

To counter this trend, contemporary ‘ulama at al-Azhar are calling for the revival of turath (literally, heritage), which refers to the pre-reform practices of Islamic knowledge production and dissemination at al-Azhar. In this paper, I argue that turath denotes an idealized conception of traditional Islamic education, one which connects the political aim of producing “sound” Islamic knowledge and “centrist” Muslims to the educational practices of the ‘ulama. I explicate the pedagogical, ethical, epistemological, and political approaches that constitute turath in the discourses of two prominent proponents of the turath revival: the rector of al-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayyab (1946-) and the former Grand Mufti of Egypt ‘Ali Jumu’a (1952-). ‘Ali Jumu’a has delineated his notion of turath in his published works, while Ahmad al-Tayyab has sought to implement a particular understanding of turath in his reforms of al-Azhar University. By comparing these two views of turath— one that is articulated in texts and the other in institutional reforms—my paper brings attention to the diverse ways that contemporary ‘ulama are redefining practices and discourses of Islamic knowledge transmission. In doing so, it provides new insight into how modern ‘ulama are continuing to constitute and defend their authority in the modern world (Zaman 2002; Zeghal 1996).