Faith and the Campus

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Laura El-Tantawy / VII Mentor for TIME

Cairo's al-Azhar Mosque, founded in the 10th century, remains the focal point of the university

The dorm served lunch at noon, and the first ambulance screamed onto the al-Azhar University campus in eastern Cairo just after 3 p.m., followed by a line of white vans from the Red Crescent, the Arab world's Red Cross. By sunset, the tally of students laid low by food poisoning at the esteemed Islamic university stood at 600 — more than enough, in the tinderbox of postrevolutionary Egypt, to set off a demonstration. Thousands of young people took angrily to the streets, broke down the door to the offices of al-Azhar's religious head, known as the grand sheik, and forced the dismissal of the university president. In many ways typical of Egypt's raucous public life since the mass protests that led to the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the events also opened a window on a quieter contest, in which the prize is al-Azhar itself. The most celebrated educational institution in the Muslim world — the name translates roughly as splendid — is being stalked by every player in the country's nascent democracy, both for its prestige and its historical authority on matters of faith, a singular preoccupation of the new Egypt.

Until noon on April 1, those lofty qualities kept the major players — President Mohamed Morsi, parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamist fundamentalists, even the secular elite — from being seen trying to do what a batch of bad chicken managed in a single digestive cycle: drag the 1,000-year-old institution into the grubby push and pull of Egyptian politics.

It's an uncomfortable new reality for a seat of learning that, during its first millennium or so, accumulated the kind of gravity that often let it make its own weather. Until Egypt began calling itself a republic half a century ago, al-Azhar was answerable chiefly to the rigorous standards of the communal scholarship it came to embody: its leadership was elected by senior clerics. In the modern era, when it grew from a mosque and seminary into a university, issuing both fatwas — religious edicts — and degrees, al-Azhar became a virtual ministry of the Egyptian state. Its leader was appointed by the President, and its fatwas were occasionally colored by that President's political interest, like the 2010 endorsement of Mubarak's order to block smuggling tunnels into the Gaza Strip. The decision was highly unpopular: many Egyptians felt Gazans were being squeezed by Israel at one end and Mubarak on the other. Al-Azhar was derided as the dictator's rubber stamp.

The revolution that overthrew Mubarak promised to free al-Azhar as well as the Egyptian people, and in some ways it has. With the crucial support of Egypt's armed forces, which in the last days of its rule issued a decree aimed at protecting the university's moderate tradition, al-Azhar's leadership has skillfully maneuvered to assert a tenuous new independence. But it's a delicate business. Everybody seems to have plans for the place. Secular Egyptians see al-Azhar's reputation for restraint as a bulwark against the surging Islamists. It was nonreligious delegates to the constituent assembly who, knowing of the steadfastly moderate inclinations of al-Azhar's leadership, insisted it hold a place in the new constitution — a flanking move against Islamists that could backfire down the road, since it ensures that future debates about democracy and law will return to the very thing the seculars were trying to keep out of politics: religion. The Islamists, both the mainstream Brotherhood and more-extreme Salafist groups, regard control of al-Azhar as the ultimate validation of their ideology of a Shari'a state.

Al-Azhar resists all of it. "Here we have to make clear that Azhar is not a political institution, has nothing to do with a position governing the state," says Abdel Dayem Nosair, an adviser to the grand sheik. "There is no theocratic state in Islam ... We're only looking for a modern Egyptian state for all Egyptians, regardless of race or creed or color."

The contest carries profound implications reaching beyond Egypt to the 1.4 billion Sunni Muslims who look to al-Azhar for guidance — and often for instilling in its most promising young scholars the view of Islam they will carry home as clerics. It may be too much to say that as al-Azhar goes, so goes mainstream Islam: it certainly does not have the authority over clerics and worshippers that the Vatican, say, has over the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. But a resurgent al-Azhar could pose a powerful, moderate counterpoint to the severe, puritanical form of Sunni Islam that has been ascendant in recent decades.

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