UCSB Africa & the Middle East Workshop

Question 4: What are the implications for teaching about religion and global affairs?

Waleed El Ansary

The current post-revolutionary period in Egypt is a critical one for the future of the country. The basic parameters of governance that are set out now are bound to endure for the foreseeable future.  One of the most pressing questions being asked is what role religion and religious forces will play in the still-emerging political scene. Will the various segments of society -- social and economic classes, religious and sectarian groupings -- coexist? If so, on what terms? What do the recent results of parliamentary elections and the upcoming presidential election have to say about Egypt's relationships with its neighbors, Western powers, and the Muslim world in which it has figured so prominently for centuries? Analysts rightly ask if Egypt can "achieve a smooth transition amidst a massive economic downturn, rising crime, unreasonably high public expectations, sectarian conflict, and tensions with Israel."

These are critical questions. Both their number and significance underscore the very large challenges ahead for Egypt. What most analysts have missed, however, is the critical role of religious institutions such as Al-Azhar University, arguably the most prestigious Islamic university in the world (founded 971 in Cairo), and Dar al-Ifta, the international flagship for Islamic legal research with close ties to Al-Azhar, in changing the political landscape of Egypt and facilitating a smooth transition so vital to the future of the country. Most recently, for example, Al-Azhar has issued guidelines for the new constitution guaranteeing full citizenship before the law to all members of Egyptian society regardless of religion, race, or creed, and Dar al-Ifta has challenged questionable campaign practices of the Islamist parties themselves.


The religious scholars of Al-Azhar (the ulama) have, in fact, long held the position of intermediaries, often acting as the social conscience of Egypt and custodians of popular sentiment and tradition.  The cultivation and strengthening of democratic values, then, requires a legitimacy that is not on offer from any quarter but those who have continuously played this historic role in Egyptian society, that is, the Azhari ulama.