Al-Azhar and Cairo University Clash over Religious Discourse

Road to Renewed Religious Discourse Hits Bumpy Highway

Ever since he was elected President of Egypt, Abdel Fatah El Sisi has had an objective of renovating Islamic religious discourse to combat extremist religious teachings which have become widespread in the wider Arab-Islamic world. As this is an ongoing and difficult process, the President has called on various religious leaders, experts and intellectuals in the country to take on a concerted effort towards this end goal. As this is a delicate topic, the president has noted that a renewal of Islamic discourse, should not happen at the expense of Islamic values.

On January 28, 2020, Al-Azhar, a historic and widely prestigious Islamic institution based in Egypt, hosted the International Conference on the Renovation of Islamic Discourse as part of the government’s wider efforts. A number of religious scholars from 41 Arab and Islamic countries attended and one of the notable attendees included was Mohamed Othman Elkhosht, the President of Cairo University. ElKhost is a professor in Philosophy of Religion and has written 24 academic books on Islamic heritage. As such, his background would qualify him as a valued contributor to discussions pertaining to Islamic discourse, however, during the conference he clashed with Sheikh Ahmad El Tayeb the Grand Imam of Al Azhar who has a career spanning 50 years studying Islamic jurisprudence.


During the conference, Elkhosht argued that the way the current scholarship of Islamic jurisprudence is outdated and needed updating to appeal to modern times. “It is necessary to renew the science of Usul al-Deen (Roots of Religion) by returning to the pure sources of the Quran and what is true of the Prophet’s Sunnah”. Elkhosht stated. He would then go on to say that Al-Shafi‘i, one of the founders of the four Islamic schools, would seek to renovate jurisprudence had he existed during these present times. Elkhosht would also state that modern scholars rely too heavily on the Ash’ari theology which he states relies on Hadith Ahad. Hadith are sayings and quotes from Prophet Mohamed that pertain to how Muslims should act and behave in certain situations. Along with the Quran, it forms an important backbone for which Islamic laws are based upon. However, unlike the Quran, which has been written down from the Prophet’s dictation during his lifetime, and compiled in book form during the third Caliph’s Uthman Bin Affan’s reign, the Hadith were written down 200-300 years after the Prophet’s passing. This has created some controversy regarding which Hadith are valid, and which are not. However, it is commonly accepted that Hadith with a long chain of narrators who passed it on to each other are more valid than those that have a short chain of narrators. In his argument, Elkhost said that Asha’aris relied too heavily on Hadith Ahad, Hadith narrated by only one individual, which would serve as a reason why scholars should steer away from this school of thought.

For his part, Sheikh El Tayeb rebutted most of Elkhost’s arguments claiming that Elkhost was seeking abandonment of Islamic teachings rather than a renewal of Islamic discourse. He compared Elkhost to a person who seeks to renovate his father’s home but opts to buy a new one rather than repairing the old one. He also argued that Islamic teachings weren’t as medieval as Elkhost claims, but admitted that some areas, such a marriage, and divorce laws and inheritance laws, needed to be reviewed. Finally, he said that most Ashari scholars base their teachings on Hadith Mutawatir (Hadith with a long chain of narrators) and not Hadith Ahud.

Elkhost would then write on a Facebook post that part of his speech was cut off from the televised broadcast of the conference. The post also included the full lecture that he was meant to deliver, and the parts he claimed were removed from the broadcast.

Government officials chose not to get involved in the argument between both men and instead emphasized the importance of quickly renewing Islamic discourse. Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli, attended the conference and gave a speech on behalf of President El Sisi who was not present:

“President Sisi urges accelerating efforts to renovate religious discourse, warning that procrastination would give the opportunity to those who claim knowledge to brainwash youth into adopting wrong beliefs and misconception of religion”.