Some Questions for the Grand Imam of Al Azhar University

It has happened again. Coptic Christians — this time 28 of them — were brutally murdered. They were in a convoy that included a bus accompanied by some workmen riding in pickup trucks headed to a monastery in Egypt. The convoy was accosted by a number of masked gunmen riding in sport utility vehicles. The gunmen stopped the convoy, got on the bus and shot their victims — some of whom refused to convert to Islam — at point-blank range. The jihadist shot little boys and girls in the name of a their faith.

The attack took place on Friday, May 26, just a few weeks after ISIS bombed two churches in Alexandria and Tanta, causing the deaths of more than 40 Christians. One factor that may have precipitated the attack was a recent visit by Pope Francis to Egypt. Pope Francis’ visit, which generated substantial goodwill and publicity for the plight of Christians in that country, apparently angered ISIS, which promised to make more attacks in response. Apparently, ISIS made good on its promise by killing little boys and girls and the adults who accompanied them on the way to pray at a monastery.

One of the most influential Muslims in Egypt, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar University and former Grand Mufti of the country called the murders an act of “brutal terrorism.” He also called on Egyptians to unite.

Ahmed El Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar University in Egypt has said a number of hateful things about Jews and Zionism.
Ahmed El Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt has said a number of hateful things about Jews and Zionism. These statements raise questions about his ability to reform the school he leads. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Tayeb’s statements carry a lot of weight in Egypt and in Sunni Muslim community in general because the school he leads is not simply a university, but a conglomeration of schools that serve students of all ages in Egypt. This educational system — which encompasses approximately two million students, most of them in single-sex classrooms — is supervised by the Supreme Council of Al-Azhar and is independent of other public or private school systems in Egypt.

The challenge that Al Azhar presents to Egyptian society is that it has created a parallel and separate education system that can be used to broadcast all manner of hatred and fundamentalism to its students as they proceed from grade school to university and graduate level education and training. If the leader of the Al Azhar system promotes hatred of Jews, as Tayeb did recently (see below), this can have profoundly negative consequences because the things that happen at the university level trickles down into the schools in the Al Azhar system.

So, in light of the role Tayeb plays in Egypt’s education system, it’s good that he condemned the attack as a brutal act, but a lot more work needs to be done and the Grand Imam is in a position to get it done, if he has the courage and tenacity to convince his co-religionists to make drastic changes in how they practice their religion.

In particular, Tayeb needs to get real and discus the role the ideology of Muslim supremacism plays in encouraging such violent acts like the one he condemned.

He also needs to recognize and repent for his role in fomenting contempt toward non-Muslims and use his authority as the Grand Imam of Al Azhar University to start fixing the problem that he himself made worse.

Here are a few questions that Tayeb needs to confront if he is to play a positive role in bringing an end to the violence.

Question One: Will Sheik Tayeb use his authority as Grand Imam of Al Azhar University to nullify the degrees the school has given to graduates who have promoted extremists views? 

Background: Some of the worst jihadist terrorists in recent history have earned advanced degrees from Al Azhar University, where El Tayeb serves as Grand Imam. For example, Dr. Omar Abdel-Rahman, otherwise known as the “Blind Sheikh” who helped plan the 1993 bombing of the Twin Towers in New York City, graduated from Al Azhar in the early 1970s with a Ph.D. in the Koran. He also issued a fatwa that terrorists used to justify the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1977. Prior to his death earlier this year, Rahman was a proponent of terrorism and Islamist supremacism that has cost a huge number of people their lives.

Another prominent graduate of Al Azhar University is Yusef Qaradawi, who has called Jews the sons of monkeys and pigs, endorsed female genital mutilation and has supported suicide bombing attacks against Israel. He has also described Salman Rushdie as an enemy of Islam, a declaration that can be used to justify his murder.

Question Two: Will Sheik Tayeb use his authority as Grand Imam of Al Azhar University to ban the issuance of fatwas that justify the assassination of perceived enemies of Islam?

Background: In addition to Rahman’s support for the assassination of Anwar Sadat and Qaradawi’s condemnation of Salman Rushdie mentioned above, scholars at Al Azhar University issued a fatwa declaring Egyptian human rights activist Farag Foda an apostate from Islam. Terrorists in Egypt used this ruling to justify his assassination of Foda in 1992. Will Tayeb instruct scholars at Al Azhar from issuing such declarations in the future?

Question Three: Will Sheik Tayeb use his authority as Grand Imam of Al Azhar University to declare ISIS terrorists as heretics?

Background: While scholars from Al Azhar University have declared people like Anwar Sadat, Salman Rushdie and Farag Foda as heretics or apostates from Islam, the school has been less willing to identify ISIS as a heretical organization. After a number of scholars declared the organization as a heretical movement, Al Azhar leaders declared that it was not the school’s job to declare the group’s members as unbelievers. In other words, scholars at Al Azhar give softer treatment to jihadists who murder people in the name of Islam than people who question the religion’s teachings and practices. Is that how Al Azhar wants to present itself to the world?

Question Four: Will Sheik Tayeb use his authority as Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University to condemn religious leaders in Egypt who promote Muslim supremacism and hostility toward people of other faiths? In particular, will Sheik Tayeb use his authority as Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University to condemn the anti-Christian and anti-Jewish teachings of his predecessor Sayyid Tantawi?

Background: Al Azhar has long been a source of supremacist teachings. For example, Sayyed Tantawi, who previously held the post Tayeb now holds, was an inveterate antisemite who used his influence to promote hostility toward the Jewish people. In addition to mining the Koran for passages that depict Jews as enemies of God, he called for the imposition of the jizya (poll tax) on Coptic Christians in Egypt. He also endorsed suicide attacks.

There are many other imams in Egypt who teach similar ideas. Can Tayeb confront them? Will he?

Question Five: Will Sheikh Tayeb apologize for promoting Jew-hatred himself? 

Background: This is another crucial issue for Tayeb to confront. Just recently he appeared on Egyptian television and said hateful things about Jews and Zionism, declaring, “Look how we suffer at the hands of global Zionism and Judaism. We Muslims enjoyed peaceful coexistence with the Christians throughout history. The advent of Islam was 1,400 years ago, yet we still suffer from Jewish-Zionist interference in the affairs of the Muslims. This causes the Muslims great hardship.”

That’s not all. In the same TV appearance, Tayeb declared, “They [Jews] follow a terrible, fundamental, and attested hierarchy, and they are not ashamed of it because it is written in the Torah. It refers to killing, to enslavement, and so on. Therefore, they have constituted a problem impeding relations – not just with the Muslims but with all the other nations.” (For more information about Tayeb’s expressions of antisemitism, go here.)

If Tayeb is serious about confronting the teachings that prompt jihadist attacks against children, he needs to apologize for statements like this.

Question Six: Will Sheikh Tayeb use his authority as Grand Imam of Al Azhar University to promote freedom of speech and end the campaign of intimidation and harassment of people who criticize Islam or how it is practiced in the modern world, Egypt especially?

Background: This is a crucial issue for Tayeb because the school itself participated in the campaign to silence Islam El Behary, a prominent intellectual who, in 2015, was sentenced to a year in prison for casting doubt on the some of the sayings attributed to Muhammed in the hadiths. The initial complaint that landed Behary in jail was leveled by scholars from Al Azhar University.

To his credit, Tayeb has apparently sacked Al Azhar’s former president for declaring El Behary an apostate, but more needs to be done to affirm the right to free speech in Egypt because El Behary is not the only intellectual to run afoul of criticism from fundamentalists in Egypt.

Ibrahim Essa is another writer who has been condemned for criticizing the country’s religious establishment. Members of parliament in Egypt have attacked and vilified Essa. Will Tayeb come to the defense of free speech and religious freedom in Egypt?


These are only a few of the questions that should be directed at Tayeb and the institution he leads. Hopefully, Tayeb and others in Egypt will muster the courage and tenacity necessary to confront the very real problems jihadist supremacism presents to Muslims and non-Muslims in Egypt and the rest of the world.

About the Author
Dexter Van Zile is the Managing Editor of Focus on Western Islamism (FWI), established by the Middle East Forum in 2022.