What the Azhar Believes

al-Azhar 1912
al-Azhar Mosque in 1912

I recently attended a gathering at al-Azhar University, where the World Organization of Azhar Graduates presented with Egyptian Radio about the work and need to spread “Ashari, Wasati” Islam, and define the parameters of true religion. This is done, they said, to help combat terrorism and extremist interpretations of Islam.

That is all well and good, perhaps, provided we know what Ashari and Wasati mean.

The World Association has over 131,000 members – within Egypt but also throughout Asia, Africa, and the West. Formally an independent organization, it is headed by the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the foremost spokesman for Sunni Islam in the world.

There is much debate these days, even within Egypt, about whether or not al-Azhar is part of the problem. Some say its reliance on ancient interpretations pulls from the same ground as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. It is noteworthy, they say, that al-Azhar has not declared these groups non-Muslims.

The particulars of this debate are beyond this small posting, and unfortunately still beyond my expertise. But here are the basics about Ashari and Wasati.

Abu al-Hasan Ashari died in the first-half of the third century of Islam, in 935 AD.

Early Islam was wracked by internal conflicts and philosophical debates, with the two chief sparring partners the Ahl al-Hadith, the family of tradition, and the Mu’tazila, the translation of which is not especially important here, but represented what they called a rational understanding of Islam.

Ahl al-Hadith relied on literal readings of the Quran with strong dependence on the many traditions and sayings of Muhammad that circulated widely. Among their important beliefs was the uncreated nature of the Quran and the absolute sovereignty of God in the details of man’s destiny.

The Mu’tazila gave metaphorical meanings to much of the Quran, believed it was delivered in time to Muhammad and was not eternal, and that man possessed free will or else God would be unjust in populating Heaven and Hell.

Depending on the caliph, either Ahl al-Hadith or the Mu’tazila would have the upper hand and persecute their opponents. For the record, Ahl al-Hadith bear some resemblance to today’s Salafi/Wahhabi Muslims, while the Mu’tazila no longer exist.

Abu al-Hasan Ashari was raised in Ahl al-Hadith but studied and eventually joined the Mu’tazila. But he repented of this viewpoint in a famous speech at the mosque in Basra, Iraq, and eventually forged his own school.

Concerning the Quran, it was God’s eternal, uncreated word but delivered at a certain point in time. Concerning destiny, God determined certain aspects of a man’s life but did allow him free will. The Ashari position sought to moderate between the two trends at the time, and eventually became the official position of al-Azhar.

But among the most important principles promulgated was the idea that all are Muslims, no matter their philosophy or sins. Al-Azhar today accepts equally the four primary schools of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam, and will call no Muslim an infidel.

Here then is the context for why they do not excommunicate, so to speak, the Islamic State. They are great sinners, al-Azhar repeats continually. But their belief in Islam’s essentials is correct, so they may not be put outside the faith. It is a position that has since saved the Muslim world from much of its early discord. Terrorists like the Islamic State as well as other non-violent but still extreme groups, label most everyone an infidel.

Wasati, meanwhile, simply means “of the middle.” You might think this is related to the story above, but it is of relatively modern coinage. The Quran speaks of Muslims being “the middle nation,” but in early commentary this tended to be interpreted as a people of justice and a religion that is meant to ease the life of mankind.

Wasati is often paired with another term – moderate – to basically say Islam is not a violent, extreme religion. Fair enough, as it often faces the accusation among some who view it through the terrorist lens.

If this is how Azhar graduates and Egyptian Radio are defining Islam to Muslims worldwide, that seems an encouraging matter.

Of course, the issues run deeper, but this post is long enough. I will thus close in imitation of how traditional Muslims ended their commentaries: Any mistakes are mine, and God knows best.

Those with knowledge are invited to provide a better, broader explanation of the above.


al-Azhar Today
al-Azhar Mosque Today