To some people, writing about Al-Azhar is like walking on a rope hanging over a minefield… not because Al-Azhar is a scared entity that should not be touched… but because those people have kins, in-laws and family members who studied in Al-Azhar, the thing that makes one hesitate long before picking his words.
I am one of those… as my maternal grandfather who died in 1942, my father who died in 1988, my maternal uncles older and younger than my father, tens of boys and girls of Al-Gammal family along with their in-laws and kins are all pure Azhar students… most of them chose the faculty of Shari’a or Islamic law to get his university degree as the elderly – grandfather, father and maternal uncles – always thought that the one who did not study Usul al-Fiqh is not a scholar.
Also, they had a deeply held belief that there are two kinds of knowledge… a Sharif knowledge; meaning descendent from Islam and prophet Muhammed; that is what is being taught in Al-Azhar… and only knowledge; that is the rest of sciences taught outside Al-Azhar… in many times, I used to find on the margins of their disjointed books, collected between two covers of natural leather, attempts to enhance their handwritings by writing their names in Naskh or Req’ah calligraphy scripts with a phrase reading “student of Sharif knowledge” underneath.
With all this and despite all this and after the whole country is fed up with terrorism, tardiness and double-standards, some have to walk on this rope hanging over the field… minefield.
I said before that being strict in complicating Shari’a branches of knowledge turning them into enigmas is undesirable in two aspects… first, the student is obliged to memorize and rote-learn instead of understanding, criticizing and innovating… second, the monopoly in some people who said about themselves that this knowledge is theirs and those enigmas are their codes and no one else should get close to them… and so, whether we liked it or not, a group of clergymen or theology men came to exist like what happened in religions prior to Islam. I have already given the example of John the Evangelist who adopted a stricter interpretation in his narration away from the three Evangelists Matthew, Mark and Luke.
However, the most dangerous and serious thing we have – I here apologize for using the superlative form – is double education systems in Egypt since the beginning of the nineteenth century and the inability of the whole state – people and authority – to unite them in one, the thing that led to conscience and cultural duplicity and one may also say duplicity in the set of criteria used in evaluation.
I resist a strong desire inside me to dive deep into the old roots of this phenomenon and how we used to hear from the old people we witnessed when we were young boys and men; our folks of peasants, craftsmen, merchants and even some of the rich affirming that they dedicated their son to study Sharif knowledge; meaning to study in Al-Azhar.
It is a thing that goes back in time to the ancient Egyptians or people of the orient in general where there was a temple for each God… and those temples used to have servants of males and sometimes females dedicating their lives to stay there hoping they can earn the satisfaction of the God… also hoping that the talented of them may make it to the frontline of the theology people… thus, obtaining a distinguished social rank as the hierarchical order allowed clergymen, military leaders and noble men to come atop of it.
And so, the clergymen monopolized – especially during deterioration times – everything starting from absolving sins and not ending by monopolizing the scientific issues… to the extent that some historians who worked hard to know the reason behind the mysterious collapse of the ancient Egyptian civilization reckoned that the monopoly of sciences and scientific applications by the clergymen led to the ignorance of the society… and when it happened that the clergymen decreased, the civilization collapsed and Egypt became an easy catch for foreign invasions and occupations on the hands of Persians, Greeks and Romans.
Back to our point; the duplicity of culture, conscience and evaluation criteria and dominance of ignorance and tardiness, I believe limiting the study in Al-Azhar ash-Sharif to Shari’a branches of knowledge and resisting the attempt of Sheikh Hassan al-Attar in the nineteenth century to renovate it was the reason lying behind the cultural, social and economic tardiness we have today.
We shall also know that our country, which is an agricultural one in the first place, kept using Shaduf – a long wooden pole suspended over an upright frame at a distance of about one-fifth of its length, with a bucket fixed at the end with the longer arm and a weight of stone or clay fixed to the other end – in irrigation, then when the Greek came, they used Archimedes’ screw or Tanbur and water wheels. We kept using Shaduf, Tanbur and water wheels for a long time. We did not know about barrages, water locks and relatively advanced irrigation systems until the time we knew civil education and Muhammed Ali’s delegations dispatched to Europe. Moreover, we will find resistance to study modern sciences even outside Al-Azhar, an example of this is the story of prohibiting anatomy lessons in the school of medicine and struggle of Imam Muhammed Abdo against those who called for prohibiting this… such thing is a direct and quick evidence of what I want to say.
We now have two references of evaluation; one judging with Halal and Haram and another one judging with right and wrong… we have a reference saying that this is the best we can do and another one saying there is something new every day… etc… to the extent that one day we found some people standing against the tyranny of Ismail Sedqi Pasha; then-prime minister from 1930 to 1933, while some others – that was muslim brotherhood – standing for them shouting: “And mention in the Book, Ishmael. Indeed, he was true to his promise, and he was a messenger and a prophet", they used the Quranic verse in a mean and hypocrite way to quell the demonstrations while the verse has nothing to do with this incident.
It even happened that in some occasions people are placed in lines according to their costumes as those wearing turbans come first, then those wearing Tarbush, and after this come those who wear nothing over their heads; no turban or Tarbush. Once again, it happened that the conflict and struggle over the reference of constitution and laws heated, as we witnessed in the past few years over whether this reference shall be Shari’a, its aims or its principles… and how the deputy chief of the salafist Dawaa called Yasser Burhami once kept talking about how they could snatch this constitutional article from others after they exhausted them day and night until they managed to get it written as they wanted.
I suggested before that we should keep specializations in Shari’a branches of knowledge in the post-graduate studies level; meaning master and doctorate levels… and that public education should be one for all Egyptians; males and females; Muslim and Christian.
At this time, I believe the dilemma will be what we should do with thousands of teachers, senior teachers, supervising ones, school masters, managers and administrative employees working in the public Azhari education; meaning preparatory, secondary and the rest of faculties of Al-Azhar university… here I say we can solve this problem on transition phases by turning those Azhari institutions into schools and re-qualifying those teachers to do their mission.
Actually, why don’t we direct some of those masses of people to a mission I believe lies at the heart of serving God’s religion; that is combating illiteracy and teaching people how to read and write… as I believe that the Muslim who cannot read is disobedient to God’s orders since the Quranic order to “read” is not less necessary than the Quranic one to “hold prayers”.
Translated into English by: Dalia Elnaggar
This article was published in Almasry alyoum newspaper on June 16, 2015.
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