CAIRO - Amid efforts to restore its esteemed position in the world, Al-Azhar, the highest seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world, is planning new satellite channels and sprucing up its website to improve religious education and offer an alternative preaching to Egyptians after the revolution.
"The revolution has helped us to reform," Mahmoud Azab, adviser to Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar and top Islamic authority for many of the world's Sunni Muslims, told Reuters on Thursday, December 15.
Established in 359 AH (971 CE), Al-Azhar mosque drew scholars from across the Muslim world and grew into a university, predating similar developments at Oxford University in London by more than a century.
In the last century, it became a modern university, adding secular subjects such as engineering and medicine and expanding to new buildings.
Al-Azhar also came under control of the state, which pressed clerics into service defending autocratic rule.
Bound by tradition and overshadowed by the state, al-Azhar missed the boat when new communications options opened up and Islamists seized them to challenge its mainstream view of Islam.
"We have not adequately coped with the changing modern means of communication and information technology, Ibrahim Negm, senior adviser to Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, Egypt's second-highest religious authority after Tayeb, said.
During Hosni Mubarak's three-decade dictatorship, it kept close to the authorities, leaving the space for other Islamists who embraced the new media and grassroots contacts to spread their views.
"They have succeeded in talking to people in the privacy of their own homes," Negm said.
Eight Salafi satellite channels broadcasting from other Middle Eastern countries can be seen in Egypt while al-Azhar had nothing to match them, he said.
The Muslim Brothers, described by Negm as "people you could talk to," also have well-funded publicity and social programs.
Trying to acquire the missed position, Al-Azhar was about to launch new satellite TV channels.
"We are about to launch two, if not three, satellite television channels in early 2012 that will speak in the name of the institution," Negm said, adding this was a project of Dar al-Ifta, the al-Azhar department for fatwas and Islamic advice.
Negm said his department would also launch a new internet portal about its activities and mobilize its 60,000 imams around the country for a "meet the people" drive that echoes the successful grassroots approach the Islamists have taken.
The new efforts were seen as returning Al-Azhar to its forgotten mission.
"There is a difference between a job and a mission, he added.
They were doing a job, but were not on a mission. It was about time we realized this."
Following the results of the first stage of Egypt's first election since revolution, in which Islamists fared well, new political debates about Islamists had had a positive effect on al-Azhar, recognized as the main point of reference for interpreting Islam in Egypt.
The role of Al-Azhar was also maximizing after the Egyptian revolution that boosted new dialogue between the country's Muslims and Christians.
Dubbed the Egyptian Family House, the dialogue expanded to bring together religious, political and cultural leaders to discuss the challenges facing their country.
"The former regime nourished (sectarian) conflicts to stay in power and present itself as the only protector of Christians," Azab said.
"Some problems arising from security or cultural issues were masked as religious problems."
Doing its traditional work in training most of Egypt's imams and providing thousands of religious rulings (fatwas) daily, Al-Azhar has also been hosting discussions among religious, political and cultural leaders to ponder Egypt's future.
One fruit of these discussions was a Declaration on the Future of Egypt in June, which supported freedom of opinion, faith and human rights in a state that would be "civilian, protected by constitution and law."
Azab said his department would target religious extremism with a new school book on justice and liberty in Christianity and Islam to be studied by Muslim and Christian pupils together.
It was also holding new preacher training sessions for imams to guide them towards what he called the real values of Islam.
"We will need some time to undo the harm that was done to society under the dictatorship," he said.