Al-Azhar Re-Imagined: State Appropriation, Religious Capital, and Political Transnationalism, 1924-2024

Mohamed Mohamed

Advisor: John G. Dale, PhD, Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Committee Members: Lester Kurtz, Eric McGlinchey, Masooda Bano, Faiz Sheikh

Horizon Hall, #6325 and on Zoom
April 15, 2024, 11:00 AM to 01:00 PM


One of the critical lacunas in the existing literature on al-Azhar, Egypt’s official religious establishment, and its intersection with politics is that most studies are anchored in national methodological frameworks. This dissertation represents a deliberate epistemological and methodological shift from conventional methodological nationalistic frameworks within which al-Azhar has been predominantly explored. Adopting a historical sociological paradigm, this dissertation explores the intricate interplay between al-Azhar and political dynamics from a transnational perspective. It delves into the historical evolution of the religious institution’s involvement in global politics over the past century and examines the ramifications of institutional changes it has undergone on its engagement, or absence thereof, in global political affairs.

Drawing upon primary historical sources as well as interviews with officials at al-Azhar Sheikhdom, Al-Azhar University, and Al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Terrorism, the dissertation argues that institutional changes influenced al-Azhar's engagement with global politics across three distinct temporal stages. In the initial stage, spanning from 1924 to 1961, the religious institution maintained a degree of autonomy from the state and actively participated in global politics independently. This autonomy was notably evident in its pivotal role in addressing the “Caliphate Question” and organizing the “Global Caliphate Conference” following the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924. 

This stage, however, concluded in 1961 with dramatic institutional changes encompassing the institution’s regulative, normative, and cognitive dimensions. This crucial juncture was marked by the rise of President Nasser and the enactment of the 1961 Al-Azhar Law, which coercively redefined the Ulamā’s (Muslim Scholars) identity and led to what this dissertation terms the “Egyptianization” of the religious institution where Al-Azhar’s connections beyond the Egyptian borders were limited to state-sponsored channels. 

An extended period of institutional stasis or “equilibrium” followed, in which al-Azhar was coercively restricted from active involvement in global politics, instead focusing on state-sanctioned interactions and bolstering regimes in exchange for control over religious discourse within Egypt. This period of stasis persisted until the Egyptian uprising of 2011 when al-Azhar liberated itself from the constraints imposed by the state, achieving a level of independence unprecedented since the era of Nasser. Concurrently, the institution secured legal and constitutional privileges, empowering it to assume an important role not only within Egypt but also on the global political stage. This was most conspicuous in its relationship with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where the latter leveraged the former’s “religious capital” to advance its global political agendas and to brand itself as the champion of peace in the region. 

This dissertation deconstructs the secular-religious dichotomy by arguing that religion can play an important role within the increasingly secular domains. It highlights how al-Azhar, as the epitome of institutionalized Islam in Egypt, is not just a passive observer but a prime example of how religion can be an active participant in global politics , thereby emphasizing its relevance and importance.

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