The ʻulema of al-Azhar University responses to structural secularization and the re-"Islamization" in 20th century Egypt



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The paper explores the social, political, and economic condition of the Islamic studies graduates of Egyptian universities, referred to collectively as the ulema. It explains why Egyptian political elites targeted religious institutions, such as Al-Azhar University, for modernization., and how the ulema responded to reforms that challenged their privileged status. The author compares two historical periods- modernization in the 1920s/1930s and globalization in the 1980s/1990s- and examines how macro-forces fragmented Islamic authority. The first chapter discusses the effect of secular structuralization, i.e. the adoption of Western legal codes and educational institutions, on the ulemas social status. The second half uses the case study of Islamic banking in the 1980s/1990s. An analysis of the Shariah Supervisory Boards of Egyptian banks suggests that the favorable response among some ulema to Islamic finance represents an attempt to reclaim legal, social, and political authority. The paper concludes that the effects of two historical trends- secularization and re-Islamizationcan be observed, and correspond to, the tightening and loosening of what the Official ulema consider the bounds of Azhari standards of behavior and thought.