The Arab uprisings have brought the Islamists to power in places such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco. In Tunisia and Egypt, religious institutions are taking on more public significance. Al-Azhar, already present in the public sphere under Mubarak, has engaged with political questions about democracy, the constitution and fundamental rights after the resignation of Mubarak. In Tunisia, al-Zaytuna has not taken on an obvious political role yet. This is because it was reduced under Bourguiba and Ben Ali to a small institution of higher learning, separated from the Zaytuna mosque, and tightly put under the grip of the regime. In post-colonial times, Al-Zaytuna was prevented from playing a political role, even in the service of the authoritarian state, and its educational role was also limited by the regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Therefore, it could not acquire the political leverage that I showed al-Azhar had gained after the 1970s in my book Gardiens de l’Islam (1996).

However, more than a year after the revolution of January 14, 2011, the Zaytuna mosque is slowly re emerging by taking on the challenge of teaching.

Responding to a complaint filed by a group of lawyers, the court of first instance in Tunis ordered on March 19, 2012 to unseal the administrative offices of the “hay’a ‘ilmiyya” (the scientific committee) in the Zaytuna mosque. The offices had been sealed since Bourguiba’s time. These lawyers are linked to the association “Friends and alumni of the Zaytuna Mosque.” As shown in this case, as well as in the case of the trial against the director of NessmaTV for the broadcast of the Persepolis movie, courts and litigations are playing an important part in the politics of post-revolution Tunisia.

As a result, on March 31, 2012  the doors of the administrative offices of the scientific committee in the Zaytuna mosque in the old city of Tunis were unsealed. This was done on the basis of the court order and of a document signed by the current government of Hammadi Jebali and the shaykh of the Zaytuna mosque, Houcine Laabidi.

On May 12, 2012, the reopening was celebrated in a ceremony in which Rashid Ghannushi, the leader of the Islamist Nahdha party, the minister of religious affairs Noureddine Khadmi, and the ministers of higher education and education were present. The government is therefore showing support for the project, but does not seem to want to make the mosque a state administered teaching institution or to be involved in the devising of the curricula. The Zaytuna mosque will offer a four year education track for graduates of primary schools and a baccalaureate that will lead to higher studies at the Zaytuna. Boys and girls will be separated. The boys will study at the Zaytuna mosque and the girls at the close-by mosque Sidi Youssef. But the government, led by a coalition between the Islamist party al-Nahdha and two center left parties, did not initiate the project. Rashed al-Ghannushi evoked his years of learning at the Zaytuna in the 1950s and reminded the audience that modern sciences and Islam were taught together without contradicting each other. For him, it was in the post colonial period that a policy of marginalization and silencing (insilākh) made modernism and Islam contradictory. After the revolution, he added, Tunisians are reconciling with their past history.

Indeed, Bourguiba put an end to Zaytuna’s primary and secondary teaching in 1958, two years after the independence of Tunisia. The Zaytuna higher teaching (in the mosque and beyond it, for instance in the provincial annexes of the mosque) was replaced by a small faculty of theology in the Faculty of letters in Tunis. A whole world, with its culture and traditions were ended by the Bourguibian project of unification and reform of education. The post-colonial reforms were prolonging a long period of colonial transformations of education in Tunisia, which saw the emergence of new schools that were intended to produce new elites at the service of the modern administration.

Bourguiba’s policy was very badly taken by traditional elites, the Zaytunis, students and ulama who had played a role in the nationalist struggle against the French occupier. For Bourguiba, Zaytuni education was backward, and it was necessary to control it and “rationalize” it in order to make it “modern.”

After 1987, Ben Ali continued the same policy, accusing Zaytuna’s graduates of disseminating Islamist ideology in the public schools, where many of them taught religious education. The Zaytuna University, which was co-educational, was censored like all the other Tunisian institutions of education. Its library was emptied of any books that could become politically subversive. A rationalist and liberal interpretation of Islam was imposed to faculty and students. Therefore, the post-revolution teaching project is presented by its proponents as a reversal of the politics of tajfīf al-manābi’ (the policy of drying up the sources of religion). Doubtful commentators recently asked if the new Zaytuna project will help Tunisia improve its ranking at 6700 in the Shanghai academic ranking of world universities. However, the reopening of teaching in the Zaytuna mosque is first and foremost presented as a religious, moral, and cultural enterprise that should reinforce the Islamic and Arab identity of Tunisians. Hopefully, the freedoms that have developed since January 14, 2011 will allow for rigorous intellectual debates on the content of religious education and for a plurality of styles of teaching and interpretations, unless the rift between the secularists and the Islamists continues to overwhelm post-revolution politics.

It is striking that the revival of teaching in the Zaytuna mosque is not the result of government policy making but originates from the mobilization of civil society groups who use the courts of law to change the culture of their society. In addition, it seems that those at the origin of this new project do not call for the help or the control of the state. They have appealed to private donations, and the daily newspaper La Presse of May 8, 2012 reports that around 800 boys and 300 girls have already registered. There seems to be an ambitious project that echoes Nasser’s vision of Islamic education in the Azharite primary and secondary institutes in Egypt: an Islamic teaching founded on a combination of religious and secular subjects, to prepare for any professional field.

It is too early to say if and how the project will take shape, but it is worth noting that religious education has flourished after the revolution, especially for primary and secondary schooling. One question that begs to be answered is if and how the state will regulate these new initiatives. The Zaytuna university, still administered by the state, and situated on the outskirts of the Southwestern part of the old city where the Zaytuna mosque is located, is also experiencing internal transformations in post-revolutionary Tunisia. I will write  about it in a future post.


With the revolution of January 25, 2011, al-Azhar has seized the opportunity to participate in the political debates that began in the winter of this year, in particular on the nature of the new regime, its relationship with religion, and relationships between Christians and Muslims in Egypt. It is striking that al-Azhar has done so not only through its peripheral ulama, who are often immersing themselves in political and moral public debates, but particularly through the voice of its head, the Grand Imam, shaykh Ahmad al-Tayyib.

The “Al-Azhar document around the future of Egypt,” an 11-clause declaration read on national television on June 20, 2011 (see above) by shaykh al-Tayyib himself is significant. It signals the engagement of al-Azhar with post-Moubarak Egyptian politics. The text is the result of the consultations between the Grand Imam and “Egyptian intellectuals from diverse intellectual trends and religious affiliations, as well as important ulama and thinkers from al-Azhar.” It is striking that al-Azhar as an institution would associate itself with intellectual and religious authorities beyond its own circles and produce a public document on such a general and crucial theme as “the future of Egypt.” After having been criticized for its quietism before as well as during the revolution (see my piece in The University of Chicago Divinity School’s sightings here), al-Azhar certainly needed to show that it was on the right side of history and to clarify its own role as a religious authority after the revolution. With so many religious actors of all stripes present in the public arena, from the Muslim Brothers, to their newly formed political party “Fredom and Justice,” to the Salafis and all the mosaic of religious authorities expressing themselves in mosques and beyond, there certainly was also a need to reassert al-Azhar’s central position and to make alliances with religious and intellectual trends that could gather around it and defend the role of the thousand year religious institution. The project supported by al-Tayyeb to revive the hay’at kibār al-‘ulamā’ –the old high council of scholars– that would elect the head of al-Azhar is one way to reclaim a lost independence and boost the institution’s legitimacy.

In the continuity of the traditional narratives that have been used by the official authorities of al-Azhar in the last 50 years or so, the “Al-Azhar Document” recognizes al-Azhar as representative of the “Islamic thought of the middle,” and as the institution Egyptians must refer to “in order to define the way in which the state relates to religion (taḥdīd ‘alāqat al-dawla bi’l-dīn) and to clarify the foundations of the correct siyāsa shar‘iyya that it is necessary to pursue.” It is noteworthy that the al-Azhar Document does not use the phrase “Islamic state.” The concept of siyāsa shar‘iyya can be read merely as “legitimate/legal politics,” but should also be interpreted as a reference to the concept as developed by the Muslim tradition, that is the effort to make governmental politics converge with and be animated by Islamic law. The document demands “the establishment of a national, constitutional, democratic and modern state, founded on a constitution approved by the nation,” the separation of powers, guarantees for human rights, the power to legislate given to the elected representatives of the people “in accordance with the correct Islamic understanding.” The principle of “politics according to sharia” is hence merely defined by the convergence between the principles at play in governance and in the Islamic tradition. Indeed, adds the document, there is no “religious state” in Islam, be it in its history, its legislation, or in its “civilization.” Islam has left to people “the administration of their society and the choice of the tools and of the institutions that realize their interests, with the condition that the comprehensive principles of the Islamic sharia be the main source of legislation, and as long as those who follow other revealed religions may refer to their own religious principles (sharā’i‘ dīniyya) to deal with their affairs of personal status.”

If there is no mention, however, of an “Islamic” or “Muslim state,” the document does not speak of a “civil state” (dawla madaniyya) either, because the adjective “civil” was interpreted by those who participated in the drafting of the al-Azhar document as evoking the possibility of a “secular” state (see the discussion of the al-Azhar document on al-Jazeera). The avoidance of the two adjectives “religious” and “civil” is also a way for al-Azhar to position itself outside of the polarizing debate between Islamists who want an “Islamic state” and the secularists who insist on the necessity of a “civil state.” Al-Azhar ended up describing the future state as “national,” “constitutional,” “democratic” and “modern” (dawla waṭaniyya, dustūriyya, dimuqrāṭiyya  ḥadītha).” In the end, these adjectives make al-Azhar’s perspective on the state not so different from the one laid out in the Muslim Brother’s Party (“Freedom and Justice”) platform, except that the latter uses the concept of a “civil state.”

The al-Azhar Document is much more vague than what the Freedom and Justice Party proposes. What exactly will be defined as “sharia,” and who will control the laws’ compliance to sharia? If it is the Supreme Constitutional Court, as it has been the case up to now, what role can al-Azhar play in this control? These questions are not answered in the document. The vagueness around the question of sharia also made the document come under the critique of some salafis, of members of the jamaa islamiyya, as well as of secularists. However, we should not expect  specific responses from al-Azhar: indeed, al-Azhar is keeping true to its traditional role, which is to provide a narrative under which most of the existing religious interpretations will converge, precisely the language of the “Islamic thought of the middle way” that the document expounds. If al-Azhar is ready to play a central role politically, it seems that it is more as a national institution rallying political actors around broad values, than as a political actor interested in the day-to-day governance and judicial power.