Ep. 1 | Reviving Turāth: Islamic Education in Modern Egypt | Dr. Mary Elston

Mary Elston

The Alwaleed Program team speak with Dr. Mary Elston, winner of the 2020 Alwaleed Bin Talal Prize for Best Dissertation in Islamic Studies, about her dissertation entitled, "Reviving Turāth: Islamic Education in Modern Egypt." Mary shares her findings about the history of reform at al-Azhar since the 19th century and the contemporary movement to revive “turāth,” or Islamic heritage, through the eyes of Muslim scholars, their students, and the Egyptian state. We also discuss how Mary's combined methodological approach of historical textual analysis and ethnography allowed her to capture the complex lived reality of the Islamic tradition in Egypt today and contribute to the broadening, interdisciplinary nature of Islamic studies. 

Dr. Mary Elston recently completed her Ph.D. at Harvard University in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. In 2020-21, she is a visiting fellow at the Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World at Harvard Law School and at the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard University.


Episode 1
Hosts: Meryum Kazmi and Harry Bastermajian 
Photo: al-Azhar Mosque by Jon Ramlan via Pixabay
Transcription: Otter



Tarek Masoud 0:06
Greetings and welcome to Harvard Islamica, the podcast of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University. I'm Tarek Masoud, the faculty director of the Program and a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. In this podcast, our executive director, Harry Bastermajian, and our program coordinator, Meryum Kazmi, will bring to you the latest exciting developments in the field of Islamic studies from scholars at Harvard and beyond. We hope you'll subscribe to the podcast which you can find on SoundCloud, iTunes and Spotify. To learn more about our programs, follow us on Twitter @HarvardIslamic and, as always, we welcome your comments and suggestions at our email address islamicstudies@harvard.edu. Please enjoy this episode of Harvard Islamica.
[Background: streets of Cairo]

Mary Elston 1:02
One morning in early February, I left my apartment in the middle class neighborhood of Dokki to attend a morning class taught by Shaykh 'Amr al-Wardani at al-Azhar Mosque. When I arrived at the mosque at the appointed class time of 7am, Shaykh 'Amr had not yet arrived. Inside of Riwaq al-atrak, I found a small group of women sitting near the back of the hall on the red carpet patterned with repeating mihrabs. No male students had arrived yet. When I found a place on the carpet, I noticed that most of the students looked like foreigners coming, as I would later learn, from Malaysia and Indonesia. When Shaykh 'Amr finally arrived after an hour a crowd of male students, also predominantly from Malaysia and Indonesia, flocked in behind him. I realized that many of the male students had been sitting just outside the door the riwaq studying and reading as they waited for Shaykh 'Amr to arrive. All the women got to their feet when he and the male students entered the riwaq. Wearing a brown cloak and turban, Shaykh 'Amr sat on a low wooden chair the front of the class. After the opening prayer he started reading from Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti's al-Ashbah wa-l-naza'ir on the subject of Islamic legal maxims, al-qawa'id al-fiqhiyya. Shaykh 'Amr read from the chapter called, "The first maxim: matters are to be considered according to their objectives."


[Background: call to prayer in Cairo]

Meryum Kazmi 2:43
Hello and welcome to the podcast of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University, which is dedicated to furthering the scholarly study of Islam and Muslim societies on an interdisciplinary, global basis. I'm Meryum Kazmi,

Harry Bastermajian 2:57
and I'm Harry Bastermajan. We're very excited to be joined today by Dr. Mary Elston, who completed her Ph.D. here at Harvard in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and is the winner of the 2020 Alwaleed Bin Talal Prize for Best Dissertation in Islamic Studies, for her dissertation entitled, "Reviving Turath: Islamic Education in Modern Egypt." This year, Mary is a visiting fellow at the Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World at Harvard Law School, and at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. Congratulations, Mary, on completing your Ph.D. and thanks so much for joining us.

Mary Elston 3:40
Thank you so much. It's wonderful to be here.

Meryum Kazmi 3:44
So we would love to start by hearing a bit about your background, and what it is that sparked your curiosity about religion, education, and society in modern Egypt?

Mary Elston 3:55
Thank you for that question. I think this interest of mine really started in college. I don't come from a Muslim background, and I didn't know very much at all about Islam, or the Middle East or the Arabic speaking world before I started my freshman year at Brown University. Out of curiosity, I decided to take a class on the history of the modern Middle East with Professor Engin Akarli, who's a historian of the Ottoman Empire. He was this really warm, wonderful encouraging professor. When I said to him that I was interested in doing Middle East Studies he said, well, then you must study Arabic. So, that’s what I did. That was the beginning of many, many years of Arabic study, both in college and after. At that time, I think I was driven by a desire to study something that felt salient and that would help me understand beyond the stereotypes and assumptions that pervaded public discourses and media about Islam and the Arabic speaking world. [Concentrating in Middle East Studies] felt very rewarding.


After college, I was fortunate to get a Fulbright grant to study in Yemen, but I ended up going to Jordan, due to political unrest in Yemen. In Jordan, I studied at the Qasid Arabic Language Institute—I think you know about that Institute—and I had a really wonderful experience there for a variety of reasons. One of them was that I became very interested in how ideas about tradition, religion, and conceptions of traditionalism informed the way that I saw Arabic being taught and studied. At Qasid, they have both a classical track where you study the texts of Islamic scholarly disciplines, and then they also have a Modern Standard Arabic track, which was more familiar to me and taught using Al-Kitab. I actually studied in both tracks, and I became really interested and excited by the classical track, thinking about the connections between conceptions of tradition and language and language pedagogy.


I then went to the University of Chicago to pursue a master's in anthropology. And after that I again studied Arabic, but this time in Egypt through CASA, the Center for Arabic Study Abroad in Cairo. It was an amazing year to be in Cairo. It was the year after the Egyptian revolution, so a time of continuing protest and unrest, but also of so much hope and a sense of possibility for the future. It was fascinating to be there. At CASA, one of the teachers was Shaykh 'Amr, the shaykh who I just mentioned in the excerpt that I read. Shaykh 'Amr is a very charismatic, gregarious, warm, friendly human being. He taught a class called the Sociology of the Fatwa which I was very interested in, and he invited me and the other students to come to al-Azhar, where he was teaching morning classes in Islamic jurisprudence. I went [to these classes], and I was just hooked. I became really fascinated with categories of knowledge, how people were talking about and understanding the relationship between religious, traditional, modern and scientific knowledge. It was at that time that I started applying for Ph.D. programs and ultimately came to Harvard to do this project on al-Azhar.


Meryum Kazmi 7:37
Thank you, I love that there's a Qasid connection to your story. I would love to transition to talking about your dissertation about modern education at al-Azhar. Al-Azhar was founded around 970 by the Fatimids, which makes it an incredibly old and historic institution. Can you tell us a bit about the history of al-Azhar and what kind of changes it's gone through, especially since the 19th century?

Mary Elston 8:06
Thank you. As you said, al-Azhar was founded in the 10th century, under the Fatimid Empire, which was a Shi'i empire. It became a Sunni institution under the Ayyubids in the 12th/13th centuries. After the Ottomans conquered Egypt in the 16th century, al-Azhar emerged as the preeminent institution of learning in Cairo. I think, in part due to its preeminence, in the 19th century [al-Azhar] became the subject of anxieties and aspirations as they were expressed by Muslim reformers. Secondary scholarship sometimes refers to [these reformers] as modernist thinkers, individuals such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and also Muhammad Abduh. This group of thinkers asked the question, what happened? How is it that the Islamic world, which used to be the source of knowledge, the source of science, a place where philosophy was debated and developed, how is it that we have fallen behind the West—Europe in particular—not only politically and economically, but also intellectually? The reason that this group of thinkers fell upon was how education was being conducted and the way that knowledge was being produced by the 'ulama, the religious scholars, at al-Azhar. There was a sense that the 'ulama's traditions were characterized by excessive taqlid, this idea of unthinking imitation, rather than reason, and that these traditions were leading the Islamic world into a time of stagnation. That’s why they [asked]: “We're falling behind the West; what can we do?” Their answer was reform, islah. What followed these discourses at the end of the 19th century, and which continued into the 20th century, was almost 100 years of reform laws [implemented in] al-Azhar. The first law was proposed in 1865, and reforms have continued until the present moment.


I'll just give you a few concrete examples of how education changed through these reforms. The history is quite complex and not linear, but at the end of the 20th century, things really had changed. Pre-reform education at al-Azhar took place in the form of the study circle, the halqa. If a shaykh were a distinguished shaykh, he would sit by a pillar and teach from a text. For example, it could be a base text, a matn, a commentary, a sharh, or super commentary, a hashiya. He would read, in most cases, this text to a group of students who might record his commentary on the text, which actually might be used as a teaching text. It was a way of teaching that was very personal in the sense that it was up to each individual shaykh to decide what they wanted to teach at what time, and it was up to the students to attend to attend or not. It was also up to the shaykh to decide when a student was qualified to teach. When he felt that a student could teach a text, he would issue them an ijaza, a license, which would locate this student within a chain of transmission, going back centuries.


Through the reforms, things changed at al-Azhar. This personal mode of authority—embodied in the ijaza—was replaced by a diploma, a shahada, which was issued by the institution of al-Azhar to a student when they had passed exams, for example. The study circle was replaced by lecture halls and classrooms, outside of the mosque, in schools and universities, new buildings. The curriculum changed somewhat as well. In the pre-reform period, [al-Azhar] taught the 'ulum 'aqliyya and naqliyya, the rational and transmitted sciences. In the early 20th century, al-Azhar started teaching the “modern sciences,” the 'ulum haditha, such as hygiene and geography in the beginning of the 20th century, and then after the 1961 reform, medicine and engineering were added to al-Azhar University. In addition, studies moved away from a text-based approach where a shaykh would read from a particular text, which was the subject of study, to a subject-based approach. So instead of reading al-Suyuti's al-Ashbah wa-l-naza'ir, you would take, you know, comparative fiqh as a lesson where you'd be studying from modern textbooks written in simplified Arabic. These are just some examples of how the form and content of education changed. I should also note that al-Azhar expanded very significantly [over this period]. I think in the early 19th century that al-Azhar probably had maybe 10,000 students—that even might be a high estimate—but by the end of the 20th century, al-Azhar had become a K-12 education system with about 2 million students, and also a university system. It’s part of the Egyptian public school system, essentially parallel to the schools run by the Ministry of Education in Egypt. That’s an overview of the changes. They’re important context for the turath revival that I explore in my dissertation, because the students, teachers, 'ulama of this revival, in many cases, look at these modernizing reforms as the cause of many of the problems that Egypt is facing today. There's a sense of wanting to return to these pre-reform texts and practices.


Meryum Kazmi 14:21
What does the conventional historiography say about al-Azhar during this period of reforms?

Mary Elston 14:27
I'll just give a brief overview of the historiography. There used to be a sense—in the 1960s 70s 80s—that as society became more modern, its traditional elements, and maybe specifically, its traditional religious elements, might disappear. Informing this idea was modernization theory and secularization theory. As a result, there was a lot of focus in those decades on the rise of new religious intellectuals—individuals unlike the 'ulama who were not trained in the traditional madrasa system, but who still claimed to speak in the name of Islam. In the 1990s, scholars realized, wait a second, the 'ulama have not disappeared and al-Azhar is still there, going strong and actually doing a lot of interesting and complex things. So scholarship shifted to ask the question of what are the 'ulama doing? How are they engaging in politics? How are they making themselves relevant using modern technologies in a modern context? It’s this latter body of scholarship that I see myself contributing to through my dissertation, but by focusing really on how the 'ulama are trying to influence understandings of Islamic knowledge and education through this idea of turath.


Meryum Kazmi 15:57
What is this concept of turath? And can you tell us a bit about the importance of this term for your project?


Mary Elston 16:04
I'll speak just a little bit about the etymology of the term. Turath comes from the Arabic root wa-ri-tha, to inherit. Before the 20th century, Arabic dictionaries and lexicons gloss turath specifically to mean inheritance, in the sense of property…or [in the sense of] social status or reputation. But it referred to what was left to descendants. In the 20th century, the term changed. It actually came to signify the idea of heritage from ancestors, so a more general idea of heritage, like patrimony. Turath is used to [denote] intellectual heritage, cultural heritage, etc. It's this more general meaning of turath that I focus on [in my dissertation], because it is the one that the 'ulama whom I study are most interested in explicating and mobilizing.


In my dissertation, I look at this idea of turath primarily through the lens of one shaykh, Ali Gomaa, who is the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, and today a prominent Muslim religious scholar in Egypt. He’s also, I'll note, a controversial one because of his engagement in politics during the 2011 revolution and the 2013 coup. He came down on the side of supporting the coup and supporting the violence against Muslim Brotherhood protesters. Ali Gomaa is a complex figure because on the one hand, he lost a lot of support. I think many young people in particular felt betrayed by the positions that he took. But on the other hand, he's still really respected and seen as a representative of a traditional and authentic approach to the Islamic heritage and scholarship. There's a lot of ambivalence about Ali Gomaa in Egypt today. He’s all over the media, he's on satellite television, and he's written many books, and many of them [discuss the notion of] turath. So that's one thing I focus on.


For Ali Gomaa, turath refers to human intellectual production in the Islamic world prior to the modernization or westernization of Egypt, which he locates as happening under the rule of Khedive Ismail at the end of the 19th century. Gomaa is very specific. He says that the last representative of turath was Shaykh Ibrahim al-Bajuri, who was a rector of al-Azhar who died in 1860. In a second, I'll explain what happened and how these intellectual traditions of the 'ulama became turath according to Gomaa. But for him, the intellectual production of the 'ulama and their intellectual and educational traditions [that constitute turāth] are characterized by two primary aspects. The first, Gomaa says, is that in the way that the 'ulama produced knowledge throughout the centuries, they always put the Quran and the Sunna at the center. This meant that when they pursued astronomy, they did it in “service” of religion just as much as when they were engaging with texts of jurisprudence. So that's one aspect. The other aspect is the importance that pre-modern religious scholars placed on [authentication], so this idea of tawthiq. He explains that Muslims wanted to understand truth, they wanted true knowledge with a capital T. So verification or authentication was extremely important, as evidenced by the sanad or the isnad, the chain of transmission. I thought I would just read a very short description that Gomaa gives for the kind of authentication that happens in the sanad:


He writes, "Every person in a chain of transmission could say the following: I heard this speech letter by letter with inflection and according to this script that is present before us from my shaykh, who was born on this day and died in this year, and his name was so and so. He used to laugh and say this and that, and he used to cry in such and such situations. The history of his whole life can be found in a file of this discipline. This shaykh would also say that he heard this speech from another shaykh who had all of these particular characteristics. There isn't anyone in this chain of transmission who is unknown to us."


From this short excerpt, you see that there's a real importance placed on sort of personal embodied knowledge, your personal relationship to your shaykh, where not only are you able to name facts about him, when he was born, his name, but you also actually know something about his emotional life—when he cries, when he laughs, etc. It's this intimate kind of knowledge. It’s the intimate knowledge between a student and a shaykh—where knowledge is transmitted in person from the shaykh to the student—that for Gomaa is what ensures the correctness, the soundness, of knowledge. So [those were the characteristics of] turath before the rupture, before [this knowledge] actually became turath.


As I said, under Ismail, there was a process of westernization in Egypt. Gomaa suggests, and secondary scholarship agrees, that Ismail looked to Europe—to France perhaps in particular—as a model to be emulated in Egypt. As a result of a variety of social changes, there came to be a disharmony between the way society was organized—the way its laws were structured, the clothes people wore, the way people told time—and worship. [Gomaa] gives many examples, but I'll just give one specific one. The opera came to Egypt…in 1869. Gomaa tells the story of how the upper-class elites in Cairo started going to this European form of entertainment, which started late at night, and ended late at night. That meant that elites started sleeping through the dawn prayer. But there was sort of a snowball effect that resulted from this. Not only did the elites sleep through the prayer, but their servants did as well because they had to stay up late at night waiting for the elites to come home. As a result of watching and listening to this European form of entertainment, people stopped praying. That's the story he tells. Also, [he says that] people started wearing socks, which made the ritual ablution more difficult. He gives [all of these examples] of how society became Europeanized, and that this led to a situation in which people were less oriented to worship. There was also an effect that pervaded the education system, where education came also to be based on European models. The result was that the 'ulama and their traditions became marginalized. They were derided and scorned. And what also resulted was the transformation of the 'ulama's traditions into turath, into this kind of heritage that is not a living heritage. It's not living in the present day. It reflects a rupture with the past. It's this rupture that Gomaa and his colleagues are trying to overcome by reviving turath. They want to reconnect Muslims to the…intellectual and educational traditions of the 'ulama. And in doing so, they claim to be countering many of the challenges and problems that Egypt is currently facing, really specifically al-tatarruf, “extremism,” which they attribute to the marginalization of the 'ulama and their traditions in the modern period.


Meryum Kazmi 24:51
You talked about reformers like Abduh and al-Afghani. Can you tell us a bit about how Ali Gomaa's ideas about rupture differ from the modernist notions of decline?

Mary Elston 25:03
I think Gomaa's relationship to Abduh and modernism is very interesting and somewhat complex, because, on the one hand, you know, there's some similarities we see, both articulated a certain kind of decline, [but they] are different kinds of decline. For Gomaa, it's the proliferation of “extremist tendencies,” which for him is this broad amorphous category that refers to any group that doesn't follow the 'ulama's approach to knowledge, but specifically, Salafi and Islamist trends. That's the [main] problem that he sees facing the Islamic world in addition to the spread of atheism. Where Abduh and his followers were more concerned…that the 'ulama and Islamic knowledge was no longer the pinnacle of knowledge. They were more concerned by what they saw as an absence of reason…in how Muslims were approaching knowledge. [But Gomaa and the modernists] have similar solutions to these related but different problems, or similar but different problems. They both look to a past to figure out the way forward. But for Abduh, and his followers, that past was not the post-classical traditions of the 'ulama…not the texts and traditions of the [16th] to 19th century, but an earlier period. Abduh wanted to revive the teaching and studying and publishing of texts written between the 8th and 12th centuries C.E. For him, these text…provided an ethical blueprint for how to be authentically and correctly Muslim but in a way that prioritized reason and was written in this, he said, better kind of Arabic. For him the post-classical traditions…were characterized by pedantry—excessive focus on detail—and imitation. For him, those traditions for the problem. For Gomaa, those traditions are not the problem; he's all about returning to the hashiya and to Shaykh Ibrahim al-Bajuri of the 19th century. He’s looking to revive the classical and the post-classical [texts]. For him, the rupture is really about westernization. But Gomaa's relationship to Abduh is interesting, because on the one hand, his project is distinct from Abduh's. On the other hand, he does see Abduh as a precursor to what he's trying to do. He sees Abduh as a kind of renewer. And when it comes to the importance of reason in Islamic scholarship, I think Abduh and Gomaa would agree, even though they would disagree about other things such as the problem of the schools of jurisprudence. It's kind of it's interesting to see the parallels, and yet they're calling for a return to different pasts that are being mobilized towards different presents, if that makes sense.


Meryum Kazmi 28:33
Another question I have about Gomaa's ideas of this rupture is whether he sees European colonization as playing a significant role.

Mary Elston 28:44
He definitely is blaming westernization. But he doesn't call out colonialism [explicitly]. He doesn't call out the British. I'm not entirely sure of exactly how to grapple with that. It's much more blaming…internal domestic elites for their turn towards Europe, and their ill treatment of the 'ulama. That's how he sees it.


Harry Bastermajian 29:10
In chapters three and four, you situate the turath revival in relation to critiques made against al-Azhar and the 'ulama in the modern period. Can you tell us more about these critiques and their salience to your project?


Mary Elston 28:28
One of [these critiques] is [expressed as] Islamic reform and modernism, which we talked about—the ambivalent relationship that I think the turath revival has with [Islamic reform] and modernism at the end of the 19th century. They're actually looking to revive a tradition…that the reformers of the 19th century were very critical of. And yet, the [nineteenth century] reform movement is a precursor to the turath revival as they articulate it. So that's one [critique].


The other is not as much a critique of al-Azhar but more this idea of extremism, which, in the 'ulama's discourses really acts as a foil, or a counter model against which [the ‘ulama] are defining the turath revival. The alleged extremists…refer to anyone who doesn't follow the 'ulama's approach when it comes to Islamic knowledge. And, you know, there's a caricatured description [of extremists] that I've heard in the 'ulama's discourses—they’re people who don't take knowledge from shaykhs, who take knowledge in a very fragmented and arbitrary way, which leads to an arbitrary and unsound interpretation, which itself essentially leads to violence in society and also atheism. That's the narrative that you hear. [They construct that narrative], they perpetuate [it] in their texts, and I'll say too that the Egyptian state is part of [this] construction of extremism. You know, since the 90s at least, but going back further, the Egyptian state has had a problem with oppositional Islamist tendencies. Efforts to repress the Muslim Brotherhood—and really like non-state religious actors [in general], non-state condoned actors—has intensified [since] the 2013 coup. And, you know, Sisi has put pressure on [al-Azhar] and the 'ulama to…renew the religious discourse, implying that they're to blame for the existence of groups like Da'ish and al-Qaeda…[The ‘ulama’s] solution to extremism is to return to turath, to revive turath. [In addition], the 'ulama are responding to what in the 20th century became a very crowded religious field. Eickelman and Piscatori have their classic articulation of this [idea], that with the rise of communication technologies, education, literacy rates, etc. more and more people who didn't come from madrasa-style education were speaking in the name of Islam, and that…this led to a fragmentation of authority. Others have said the proliferation of authority, but really, the point is that the 'ulama are not the only ones…trying to define or decide what counts as sound Islamic education and knowledge. So this turath revival is a recent effort [by the ‘ulama] to reassert themselves and their interpretations and their practices in the field of religious education in Egypt.


Meryum Kazmi 33:04
In chapters four, five and six, you use ethnography to describe the turath revival at al-Azhar today. Can you describe for our listeners some of the main institutions, practices, and individuals that you highlight in these chapters?


Mary Elston 33:18
In my project, I wanted to bring together textual analysis and historical analysis with ethnography. In particular, I was interested in looking at the construction of turath in texts, and in official discourses, but then also in the practices of students and the individuals who populate the study circles. Most of my ethnographic chapters focus on the majalis 'ilmiyya, which are the study circles in al-Azhar Mosque. These circles were revived in the 1990s really through the efforts of Ali Gomaa. They teach turath according to what they describe as the manhaj al-Azhar—the Azhar methodology. This methodology they define in a simple way: it's Ash'ari in creed, meaning it follows the Ash'ari school of theology and creed, it's madhhabi in fiqh, so it approaches Islamic jurisprudence through one of the established schools, and then it's Sufi…in practice. In their discourses, if you study Islamic knowledge, according to this manhaj, you will arrive at a wasati or a centrist—as opposed to extremist—understanding of Islam.


If you go to al-Azhar Mosque, literally any time of day, [you] can go sit in a halqa, a majlis, and listen to a shaykh read a text from the post-classical period or the classical period. And it's quite interesting because they're re-framing or re-mobilizing these practices, that in the pre-reform period, were aimed at graduating an elite [of] scholars, who would work as judges, and lawyers and teachers, but they're making these practices and these texts available to anyone. They're free and open [to the public]. The students in them are quite diverse. Most of them are students at al-Azhar University, many of whom are foreigners, but they're certainly not only students [from al-Azhar]. There are Egyptians, men and women, people who don't have religious studies backgrounds who are doctors but just want to understand Islam. [The study circles] are trying to appeal to a broader swath of society. I think they're also trying to provide some kind of counterbalance to the kinds of mosque lessons that Saba Mahmood describes in her book, The Politics of Piety…those kinds of lessons were not happening…under the purview of the 'ulama and al-Azhar.


The Azhar study circles, as I described them in my dissertation, are at the heart of a network of institutions that I've called the Parallel Azhar Sector. [These institutions are] parallel, because that's how students described [them] to me, parallel to official Azhar education, so the education that you receive in al-Azhar University, and the K-12 institutes. The idea that I heard students express is that, because education in official Azhar institutions was modernized…that education is [seen as] inferior to the “true” “authentic” traditional education that you can get at al-Azhar Mosque. In addition to al-Azhar Mosque, there are other mosques in the Azhar neighborhood that teach the Azhar manhaj. There are also the guest houses, madyafa is the term, that teach the same kinds of classes. And then there are these nonprofit institutes, Shaykh al-Amud is one of the most well-known, where they also teach the Azhar manhaj, but they seem to be targeting a different group of people, a more middle-class Egyptian student population. What I've tried to highlight in some of the ethnographic chapters is that even though there's general agreement about the importance of turath and the Azhar manhaj, these institutions have different ideas about the best way to…make turath accessible to modern and contemporary students. Most of these [differences] are about the form that the lessons take. I'll just give one specific example. There's a difference of opinion about the approach to time. Shaykh 'Amr…he was the person whose lessons I attended most in my ethnographic [research], he described his approach to teaching as being “above time.” What he meant by that was that he isn’t teaching for the paycheck or exam, [for] some kind of immediate goal that would require working through a text quickly. Instead, he is teaching the text as a practice of worship. What that means is he reads these texts—which are extremely long, such as al-Suyuti's al-Ashbah wa-l-naza'ir—and he would pretty much read every word of the text. In a lesson, he might read one sentence, and then discuss the sentence at length with the students for the whole hour. I started attending his lessons in 2012, and when I returned in 2016 for my field work, he was teaching the same books and hadn't really gotten that much farther as far as I could tell. So there's an idea that I heard expressed among students in the study circles that the modern academic calendar—in which teaching is divided into semesters and five days a week—that this is just not conducive to teaching turath. You can't get through a turath text teaching that way. So [from this perspective] Shaykh 'Amr's approach is the one that is the “true” “authentic” approach. Now…did the 'ulama in the pre-reform period really teach that way? I think the answer is [probably] no. Maybe some people did. But in my dissertation, I described a reform law 1865, where the shaykh is also frustrated that the 'ulama are just teaching to get through the text [as quickly as possible], and [he urges the ‘ulama] to pay attention to whether students are understanding.


When I say there's disagreement about the approach to time, [I mean that] Shaykh 'Amr's approach is seen as the most traditional and authentic, but not [as the most] conducive to the demands of students. The nonprofit institutes [of the parallel Azhar sector] tend to teach in time-limited courses that students sign up for, pay a registration fee, and take an exam at the end. [They provide] a sense of progress. These are just some of the, some examples of the difference in approach of how to make turath accessible and meaningful for students in the contemporary Egyptian context.


Meryum Kazmi 40:05
I thought it was interesting that the turath revival is often contrasted with the official Azhar system. But at the same time, it's state sanctioned in a way. Can you talk a bit about the relationship between the turath revival and the state and why the state is invested in this project? Because you touched on it.


Mary Elston 41:03
Yeah, I touched on it a little bit. It's interesting, because on the one hand…Gomaa's project of countering the so-called extremists is really in line with state goals, there's no doubt about it, and [it reflects] the 'ulama wanting to reassert themselves as the authorities when it comes to Islamic knowledge. [This] education is something that I think the Egyptian state gets behind, it's really in keeping with what [the state is] trying to do in repressing oppositional tendencies in Egypt. At the same time, there are various disagreements, you could say, between state media commentators, and the 'ulama about this question of turath. I touched on it a little bit in my dissertation. If you look at media debates, in the past five years or so (but this debate actually goes back much further), you see that…there's a sense amongst state media commentators that turath is actually the cause of extremism, that there are passages in turāth [texts], in the hadith texts and jurisprudential texts in particular, that are the reason that Muslim youth are joining groups like Da'ish. Some [commentators say to] al-Azhar, you need to take that stuff out of these texts, these problematic parts, passages on jihad and things related to slavery, etc, you need to take things out... There are different opinions amongst the 'ulama [regarding these calls to edit turath], which [relate to] their position. For example, in the study circles… [the ‘ulama] read the whole text…[They argue that] that if you're studying at the hands of a shaykh, you're imbibing his ethical outlook…as much as his knowledge, and that's what leads to centrism. It's by studying at the hands or feet of a shaykh…But [there are other opinions]…For example, Ahmad al-Tayyib, who is the rector of al-Azhar, he has undertaken a project of reforming the curriculum of the Azhar institutes, so the K through 12 institutes. His predecessor, [Shaykh] Tantawi, had taken the jurisprudential schools out of that curriculum, and taught something called “simplified fiqh,” which was a summary of all of the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence. Ahmad al-Tayyib brought back the four schools [or jurisprudence], and [in doing so] he described himself as bringing back turath. But he [also] established a committee that [took out] some of passages that were seen as problematic from [turath] texts.


It's this question [about how to engage with turāth] about which there are different opinions. There's agreement about what turath is, but there's disagreement about how you engage with turath. What's the right way to deal with this heritage in a modern context, when we're dealing with problems, like so-called extremism and things like that? I find that the study circles are interesting in relation to these [questions], because…the study circles are a place that, on the one hand, there's a strong discourse of countering extremism, which is very state supported. But on the other hand…[the ‘ulama] really are just teaching the texts that they want to teach with glosses that point towards more tolerant interpretations. So, yeah, it's a complex relationship [between the state and turath], I think.


Meryum Kazmi 45:50
You talk towards the end of your dissertation about al-Azhar's use of social media. Can you talk a bit about what kinds of challenges social media poses for the authority of the 'ulama and the project of reviving the turath?


Mary Elston 46:05
There used to be a sense that media technologies like print, and today social media, challenged the authority of the 'ulama in negative ways. That was part of the modernization, secularization idea. These days, generally the idea is that [the ‘ulama] using these technologies too, so let's see how they're using them. That's the question [that people today] are asking. I found the 'ulama's relationship to social media in Egypt today really interesting during my fieldwork because, on the one hand, there's a lot of anxiety about social media. There's a lot of connecting between social media and the problem of extremism, because, and it makes sense in a way, because social media is very hard to control. On the one hand, there are these discourses expressing anxiety and describing the problems of social media. And then on the other hand, social media is hugely important and in how the halaqat, the study circles, are run. You can watch almost any study circle [at al-Azhar] on YouTube or on Facebook. [Social media] is also partially [what makes] the administrative aspects of the halaqat happen. So social media is a really important aspect of how the 'ulama are promoting their brand of Islam and their approach to Islamic knowledge. What I described in chapter six of my dissertation is that there are these discourses, which I call it “a discourse of differentiation,” that [the ‘ulama] developed, through which they make [certain kinds of] distinctions. One of the big [distinctions] is between 'ilm—this idea of authoritative knowledge that is received by a student from the 'ulama in person—the in-person aspect, is really important. And then [there is] this idea of ma'lumat, or information. Information, in the discourses of the 'ulama, is connected to social media, it's connected to approaching knowledge without a systematic methodology. It's what leads to extremism. On the one hand, [the ‘ulama] are making 'ilm available on social media. On the other hand, they're trying to discursively limit the influence social media can have. What I describe is that for the students, including students who are very devoted to someone like Ali Gomaa, these distinctions almost fall flat, they're not necessarily that meaningful. And the reality is that [social media] is, for a student, it [can make] them perhaps more committed to the 'ulama and engaged in their project of reviving turath [because] [the student feels] that they can receive 'ilm from a shaykh on social media. It allows those practices to be accessible to a broader group.


Meryum Kazmi 49:16
I would love to hear about your experience doing this fieldwork, more broadly and also especially as a white American woman who is not Muslim.

Mary Elston 49:29
I'll just say it was a really wonderful experience doing fieldwork. I loved it so much. I met the most generous people I've ever met in my life, people, approximately my age, late 20s and 30s, who are students of al-Azhar and teachers there, who just really welcomed me and helped me in innumerable ways. I feel like I really learned the meaning of generosity from these people, including from someone like Shaykh 'Amr. I was just really, really welcomed. So I'll say that. Of course, there were many challenges, but I'm not sure most of them were related to being not Muslim, or a foreigner or a woman. Doing research in Egypt, after the 2013 coup is very difficult. And people understandably, are very suspicious and worried about their safety and their position. What that meant is that I did encounter a lot of suspicion. [When I told people that I'm a researcher], [they] weren’t sure exactly what this meant, and wondered whether I would take their words and use them against them. So, trust, very understandably, was an issue that I had to figure out. I had to find the people who understood what I was doing and who felt comfortable talking to me.

There was a moment in the beginning of my research when I wanted to attend classes at al-Azhar University, in the women's college, and I needed permission to do that. The person whom I went to for permission said, you're not Muslim, this is a Muslim university, so sorry, you can't come. But then, like many things in Egypt, it was through a connection that I was able to eventually get access. I had a connection to Ahmad al-Tayyib, the rector of al-Azhar and he was very, very kind and welcoming. And he said, "We're a tolerant institution, we want non-Muslims here." So he facilitated my ability to attend classes in the women's college at al-Azhar University. There were some challenges. But overall it was a wonderful experience. And I hope to go back.

Meryum Kazmi 51:56
Thank you. Your research is definitely making me want to go to Egypt. So hopefully can I make that happen. So you used an innovative combination of historical textual analysis and ethnography. What made you choose these particular methods?

Mary Elston 52:15
Well, as I mentioned earlier in our discussion, my interest in getting a Ph.D. began through the field of anthropology. I was, at first really interested in anthropology. I appreciated how anthropology as a field is interested in looking at non-elite voices, although not all anthropologists do that, and I don't exactly do that in my research. But I liked how there's a sense [in anthropology] of looking at social life, which is very messy, it's hard to make sense of, and I think some of what anthropologists do is try to illuminate the logics and the reasoning and the order that actually exists in the messiness, in what looks messy when you're an outsider, when it's not the system that you're used to. I'm also really drawn to people. I think that's the thing that I love most actually, in my research, it's all the people that I've met. And so my beginning was ethnography. And then I did a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, which is, you know, not a department where many people do ethnography, but I'm very grateful that I did, and that I took this more textual turn, because texts are really important to the community that I study. I hope that by bringing these methods together, I can better illuminate the interaction between texts and social life, which I think are mutually transforming of each other. I try to capture that in my dissertation.

Harry Bastermajian 54:00
Thank you - sort of building on that, Islamic studies, traditionally, has lived in the humanities and is increasingly interdisciplinary. How do you, how does your research contribute to this broadening nature of Islamic studies?

Mary Elston 54:22
I hope my research shows that these seemingly disparate methods—ethnography, a focus on social life, and the way meaning is made in social life, and an understanding of the textual tradition and the texts themselves—I hope it shows that these different approaches can be meaningfully brought together. And, as I've gotten older, I've observed—maybe it's an exaggeration to say this—but Islamic studies sometimes seems divided. There’re the anthropologists, and then there are the people who [work on] pre-modern texts, and I feel that sometimes, there's not a lot of mutual admiration when maybe I think there should be. That could be an overstatement. But the reality is that life is messy, it's not divided between the humanities and the social sciences. I see that [overlap] so much in this concept of turath. It’s in the present, it's constructed in texts and practices, but it's a particular conception of the past. It's based on a particular construction of history and also a history, such as the changes that took place in education. I do think that interdisciplinary approaches lend themselves to being able to capture this kind of complexity, the kind of complex temporality and the messiness of it, which is how I experienced life in this world at al-Azhar, and which I try to capture in my dissertation.


Meryum Kazmi 56:07
So what's next for you and your research?

Mary Elston 56:10
Well, first and foremost is turning the dissertation into a book. And I have, of course, a long list of things I want to do to keep improving it and doing research for it. And publishing articles. Down the road, I will move to my next book project. I'm thinking of taking a more historical approach, but hopefully using oral history methods to try to look at how traditionalism was understood and experienced by 'ulama in the 20th century. I have the sense that in Islamic studies, [scholars] have primarily looked at Islamists and Salafis in the twentieth century, but the fact is, the study circles continued, these traditional practices actually didn't cease. And there were 'ulama engaged in them and doing them. I want to try to look at that history a little bit more.


Meryum Kazmi 57:12
Well, thank you so much, Mary.

Harry Bastermajian 57:14
Yes, thank you Mary.

Meryum Kazmi 57:15
Thank you so much for being our our first, our first guest.

Mary Elston 57:19
I'm honored. 
Meryum Kazmi 57:21
All right. Take care.

Harry Bastermajian 57:22
Take care, Mary. 

[Background: call to prayer in Cairo]

Meryum Kazmi 57:30
You've been listening to the podcast of the Alwaleed Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University. You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and visit our website Islamic studies.harvard.edu. Thanks for listening.

[Background: streets of Cairo]