CAIRO - As Egyptians await the official results of a referendum on Egypt's constitution, the status of Al-Azhar, the highest seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world, is sparking a new controversy between opponents and supporters of the new charter.
The Salafis want to make Azhar a part of the political system, which we are against, Abdel Dayem-Nossair, an adviser to Al-Azhar's Grand Sheikh and a member of the assembly that wrote the new constitution, told The Washington Post.
We don't like to put the law in terms of a religious dogma that says this is right' or this is wrong.'
According to a new draft constitution, Al-Azhar would be in charge of interpreting Islamic Shari`ah.
The centuries-old institution would also be responsible for making sure that all laws are in line with the principles of Shari`ah.
But opponents say that the new powers will play into the hands of Islamist groups to take over the prestigious institution.
Abdel Dayem-Nossair said he believes the Salafis insisted on the provision because they think they'll take over Al-Azhar.
Considered the most distinguished center of Sunni Islamic thought, which educates millions of students annually, Al-Azhar has played an important role in that debate for centuries.
Any change to that role is being nervously watched by Arab leaders across the Middle East, who are nervous at the rise of Islamists to the helm of power in the heavyweight country.
Even government officials said they are worried about the potential power of a more doctrinaire Al-Azhar to lead opposition to secular governments and institutions.
This is a major challenge to the region, said a senior Middle Eastern government official whose country includes millions of Sunni Muslims.
A second Middle Eastern government official said he feared that the views of some Muslim scholars would eventually hold sway in Al-Azhar, regardless of who holds the Grand Sheikh's position.
Sunni Muslims will be under the influence of these voices, not just in the Middle East but in Muslim communities in Europe and around the world, the official said.
Unofficial results have shown that the new constitution, fast-tracked by Islamists, won approval of nearly 65% of Egyptian voters.
Official results are expected to be announced on Tuesday.
Supporters deny that the new powers help Islamist groups to take over Al-Azhar, but to ensure the independence of the prestigious institution.
Together, the changes return Azhar to its original status as an independent institution after decades of state control, said Essam el-Erian, vice-chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party.
Under Egypt's new constitution, a new law governing Al-Azhar dictates that the Grand Sheikh be selected by the institution's scholars, not by the president, as was true in the past.
Despite its long history and reputation, Al-Azhar was badly tainted by its close association with a string of Egyptian autocrats, especially during the three-decade rule of toppled president Hosni Mubarak.
Nader Bakar, a top official with the Salafi Nour Party, denied his group has sought greater influence over Al-Azhar.
We are not interested in freeing Azhar just to take it over, he said.
He also rejected claims that Salafis want Al-Azhar to have the definitive say in interpreting Islamic Shari`ah.
Azhar is not like the Vatican, he said.
No one in Islam has the final point of view.
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.
Al-Azhar, which means the "most flourishing and resplendent," was named after Fatima Al-Zahraa, daughter of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him).
The first courses at Al-Azhar were given in 975 CE and the first college was built 13 years later.
Al-Azhar first admitted women students in 1961, albeit in separate classes.Also in 1961, subjects in engineering and medicine were added to course on Shari`ah, the Noble Qur'an and the intricacies of Arabic language.