Al Mu’tasim Billah, Sufyan al Omari and Omar al Masri are 21-year-old students at Cairo’s al Azhar University, the oldest and most prestigious institute of Sunni Islamic learning in the world. But none of them is planning to graduate.
Al Mu’tasim Billah – the name means “he who seeks Allah” – traveled to Syria six months ago to join the Islamic State. Al Omari wants to follow as soon as possible. Al Masri is looking closer to home: He hopes to join Wilayat Sina, an extremist group in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula that has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State.
The names are not real. They are the noms de guerre the men have chosen for their new lives as holy warriors. And that, they say, is the logical consequence of the education they received at al Azhar.
“The Islamic State is only putting into practice what we have been taught by al Azhar,” said al Omari. “It is doing what people always hoped al Azhar would do one day if they were not a mouthpiece of the ruling regime.”
In a world where the Obama administration, its allies in the Arab world and counterterrorism officials everywhere are searching to understand how Muslim youth become radicalized, it is possible, many say, to look no further than al Azhar, whose influence spreads far beyond its Cairo campus.
Al Azhar is more than just a local university. It sends imams to Islamic centers all over the world. It offers scholarships to thousands of foreign students to study Shariah – Islamic law – in Cairo. It decides which religious books may be published. In Egypt, it recommends which films can be shown and holds classes beginning in elementary school years.
Its curriculum, its critics note, also uses many of the same texts that the Islamic State cites to justify the beheading of Christians in Libya or the use of captured Yazidi women as sex slaves.
Ahmed Abdo Maher, a lawyer and former secret policeman who for years has been one of al Azhar’s fiercest critics, cites a passage from a book used in al Azhar high school classes that deals with cannibalism.
“It says that a Muslim is allowed to kill apostates and eat their flesh if they are hungry, as long as they don’t cook or grill it. This is taught to high school kids,” he said indignantly in his office in Cairo.
“It is a fantasy to think that al Azhar is moderate,” he said. “ISIS, Boko Haram, al Qaida . . . all these groups stem from the way al Azhar has been interpreting Islam.”
Abdo Maher won’t be able to use the cannibalism quote much longer. Its removal from the curriculum is one of the changes that al Azhar is making to its curriculum after Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi gave a fiery speech New Year’s Day at al Azhar in which he called for a “religious revolution.”
“The texts and ideas that we’ve made sacred over the centuries, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, are antagonizing the entire world,” Sissi told the assembled scholars. “You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world is waiting for your next move.”
Response was swift. Al Azhar’s grand imam, Ahmed al Tayeb, speaking at a conference in Mecca in February, said extremism was linked to “bad interpretations of the Quran and the Sunna,” referring to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as told by his companions in the so-called hadiths. Al Tayeb called for schools and universities to tackle the extremists, and in the months since some major changes have been made.
The teaching of jihad was removed altogether from the curriculum for ages 12 to 14 and will now be taught only to high school students, ages 15 and up. Chapters dealing with slavery and female captives in war also were removed, and hadiths promoting tolerance and coexistence were added.
“Some hadiths that could be misunderstood by those with bad intentions have been removed,” Abbas Shoman, al Azhar’s undersecretary, said in a recent interview with Egyptian TV station Youm7. “Like the hadith of the prophet that says, ‘I have been commanded to fight people until they testify there is no true God but Allah.’”
Al Azhar’s critics remain skeptical.
“It is not enough to remove them,” said Mohamed Abdullah Nasr, an al Azhar graduate who’s become a fierce critic of the school. He’s written a book about it called “A Thousand Years of Lies.” “In fact, they should leave them in, but criticize them. Because they will still exist on the Internet and in al Bukhari,” a collection of hadiths considered Islam’s holiest book after the Quran.
Like Abdo Maher, Abdullah Nasr, a frequent TV guest who is better known as Sheikh Mizo, lays the responsibility for extremism at al Azhar’s feet.
“What is written in their books is what Daash does,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
“Even if (al Azhar students) don’t join Daash, they keep these ideas in their minds; they spread them in their communities,” he says. “This is especially true if they are imams.”
Timothy Winter, the dean of the Muslim College at Cambridge University who studied at al Azhar, vehemently disagrees.
“The roots of ISIS are in Wahhabism,” the ultraconservative form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, he said, “and that is the polar opposite of al Azhar.”
“Al Azhar teaches the Ash’ari theology, which according to ISIS is unbelief and blasphemy,” Winter said. “Its sister institution in Mosul was closed by ISIS and its scholars exiled or executed. In Ash’arism, armed uprisings against established governments are unlawful. Al Azhar also follows the Sufi brotherhoods. Again, ISIS condemns Sufism as blasphemy.”
However, Assem Hefny, an al Azhar professor who also teaches at Germany’s Marburg University, is not surprised by radicalization and says al Azhar bears some responsibility.
“Al Azhar may seem moderate in the statements of its leaders, but it suffers from a very classic way of teaching, which relies on memorization and discourages critical thinking,” he said. “It teaches old rulings and interpretations without teaching the conditions under which they came about, their relevance in modern times, or whether they can be changed or not. This leaves the students with the impression that these rulings are infallible, even if they were made by mere mortals.”
H.A. Hellyer, an expert on Arab and Islamic affairs affiliated with the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Brookings Institution in the U.S., agrees with Abdullah Nasr that simply removing the most offensive hadiths from the curriculum is at best cosmetic.
“Let them stay in, but have the teachers explain what they mean, and how they do or do not apply in modern times,” he said. “Simply removing them will just give others the opportunity to say al Azhar only took them out because Sissi told them to.”
Sufyan al Omari and Omar al Masri have already reached that conclusion. Both students cite as contributing factors in their radicalization al Azhar’s siding with the July 2013 coup that removed Muslim Brotherhood figure Mohamed Morsi from Egypt’s presidency and its endorsement of the killing of hundreds of Morsi’s supporters weeks later.
“They have sanctioned the wrong blood. They put the state above the religion,” al Masri said in a coffee shop in Cairo.
That one of the changes to next year’s curriculum is the inclusion of an existing fatwa making it impermissible to challenge the ruling regime only adds to his disillusionment with al Azhar.
“We don’t follow al Azhar, we follow the texts, and right now the Islamic State is the most serious about applying those texts, so we follow them,” he said.
Al Azhar, he said, “has taught me to follow the religion strictly, but it doesn’t tell you exactly what to do. Should I do jihad? Should I go to Syria, or help bring about an Islamic state in Egypt?
“If it was only al Azhar, nobody would join ISIS,” he said. “But there are other sources, including on the Internet, that tell people what to do.”
For Timothy Winter, this is precisely why the state should leave al Azhar alone.
“Al Azhar has been effectively part of Egyptian state bureaucracy since the time of Nasser,” he said, referring to Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was president of Egypt from 1956 until his death in 1970. “Young people look for an alternative narrative and find only extreme Wahhabism in its various forms. There is no adequate counterbalancing force. Hence the need to keep al Azhar and similar institutions out of the clutches of the regimes.
“If the Egyptian regime, seeking Western support, forces al Azhar to censor its curriculum yet again, al Azhar will be further discredited and the Wahhabi alternatives will breed faster,” he said.
Abdo Maher, the lawyer, says he’s given up on the current crop of al Azhar students and has a different solution.
“Changing their minds is impossible,” he said. “We should shut down al Azhar and look towards the next generation.”
Hellyer doesn’t go quite that far. “I don’t believe that al Azhar is extremist,” he said. “I would say they are conservative – even very conservative. But it is clear they are not training people sufficiently to be immune to extremist recruitment. This is a problem.”
McClatchy special correspondent Ahmed Medhat contributed to this report.