Sheikh Ahmad Muhammad Al-Tayyeb was appointed as Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar in March 2010, after the passing of his predecessor; Dr Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi. Al-Tayyeb was formerly the president of the Al-Azhar for seven years and prior to that, served for two years as the most powerful cleric in Egypt as its Grand Mufti.
His scholarly influence as a leading intellectual of Sunni Islam spans the globe. He has served as the dean of the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Aswan, and the theology faculty of the International Islamic University in Pakistan. He has also taught in universities in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Over the past year of political uncertainty and unrest in Egypt and in particular during the months that led up to the Egyptian armed forces deposing Muhammad Morsi as President of Egypt, Al-Tayyeb attempted to mediate between Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government on one hand and opposition political forces on the other. Al-Tayyeb managed by virtue of his personal prestige and the prestige of his office to bring the two sides to participate in a meeting he chaired. It was the only time Morsi and the opposition had sat together and given their mutual intransigence Al-Tayyeb’s attempt at mediation did not succeed. Al-Tayyeb holds his position for life but despite his efforts to reconcile an increasingly polarised political arena, the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Student Union of Al-Azhar transformed a food poisoning episode on the secular campus, into an attempt to force Al-Tayyeb from his position. But all sectors of Egyptian society aside from the Muslim Brotherhood rallied in defence of Al-Tayyeb, and the incident was a factor in deepening fear of Muslim Brotherhood rule throughout Egyptian society.
When the Egyptian armed forces overthrew Morsi and his cabinet, Al-Tayyeb appeared the following day alongside the Coptic Patriarch and other leading figures with the head of the Armed Forces General Al-Sisi. With his presence and in his brief remarks he effectively became a ‘king-maker’, but weeks later when the armed forces moved with brutality against a massive Muslim Brotherhood sit-in, Al-Tayyeb declared his disapproval of the bloodshed. These two seemingly contradictory public expressions following the coup in fact reflect Al-Tayyeb’s principled position.
But even before any of these events, Al-Tayyeb was the object of Muslim Brotherhood hostility precisely because of his defence of traditional Islam, including its spiritual (Sufi) dimension, in the face of the Muslim Brotherhood’s effort to transform Islam from a religion into a power-seeking religious ideology.
Advocate of Traditional Islam:
Indeed Al-Tayyeb has emphasised his mission to promote traditional Islam since becoming Grand Sheikh. He has stressed the importance of teaching students about Islamic heritage—considering Al-Azhar graduates as ambassadors of Islam to the world. In an age where the claimants to authoritative Islam seem to be on every corner, Al-Tayyeb has both the institution, and the personal skills to authentically claim to be a representative of traditional Islam, Islam practiced by the majority of Muslims throughout the ages.
Leader of the Al-Azhar University:
Sheikh Al-Tayyeb leads the second-oldest university in the world, where teaching has continued without interruption since 975 CE. Al-Azhar represents the centre of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. It is a key institution that issues authoritative religious rulings and has provided extensive Islamic education to Egyptian and international students since its inception over a millennium ago. This history makes it a bastion of Sunni traditionalism. The university is considered the most prominent Islamic educational institution and the foremost centre of Sunni Muslim scholarship worldwide.
Administers the Al-Azhar Education Network:
Al-Azhar is currently the largest university in the world, having risen from a group of three schools in the 1950s to its current state with 72 feeder schools, and close to 300,000 students studying there at any one time. Including schools that are part of Al-Azhar waqf initiatives, there are close to 2 million students. This immense size and grounded respect make the head of Al-Azhar an extraordinarily powerful and academically influential person.
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The unity between Muslims and Coptic Christians of Egypt is something of absolute importance.