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Al-Azhar: navigating the difficult center

The visit of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, H.E. Professor Dr Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, to the World Council of Churches (WCC) last Fall brought together two premier institutions strongly oriented to leadership in peacebuilding and interreligious dialogue.

Both institutions also carefully navigate the turbulent waters of their respective religious traditions on the global scene.

As the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, the graduate program of the WCC, celebrates its 70thanniversary, Al-Azhar, both the esteemed Cairo mosque and its affiliated university, marks 1050 years of theological education and stands at the apex of Islamic institutions of higher learning, especially in studies of the Qur'an and of Islamic law and philosophy.

The preeminence of Cairo's Al-Azhar in the Muslim world stems from its centuries of educational leadership and its faculty's authoritative statements of Islamic jurisprudence, providing a baseline of religious knowledge for the Muslim world and mediating between the successive ruling elites in the Arab world and the population at large.

For a worldwide religious tradition that has no central governing body or structure, the theological faculty of Al-Azhar has assumed an influential role. Islam is also closely bound to a legal system and so cannot afford to sever its identity from the ethics of daily life or the policies and practices of governance.

Today Al-Azhar includes not only the historic mosque and theological program. It is also a full-fledged university, Sunni Islam's most prestigious, with preparatory, undergraduate and graduate programs in a whole network of teaching institutions that boasts two million students.

Yet, particularly in Egypt itself, Al-Azhar has also had continually to position itself in relation to nationalism, governmental power, and politics, as well as to other strands in Islam. It was made a state university in 1961, and the imam himself is appointed by the government.

Under the leadership of the present Grand Imam the preeminence has been put decisively in the service of peacebuilding. Dr al-Tayyeb has been a strong voice for moderate Islam, decrying the use of Islam by violent extremist groups. He has initiated programs to reform religious instruction and he has organized scholarly conferences on Islamic identity, the role of shariah, and countering extremism.

The council, based outside of Egypt, extends Al-Azhar's international influence in furthering a moderate Islam, promoting dialogue and understanding and countering violence.

In association with the council's elders, the Grand Imam has reached out in dialogue not only to other branches of Islam but also in dialogue and partnership with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Pope Francis and, now, the World Council of Churches.

World Council of Churches website

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