After publicly squabbling over divorce law and religious language, Egypt’s presidency and its leading Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, have moved their clash to a much more arcane level. Today, they disagree over how much society is threatened by debating the authenticity of hadiths—the accounts of the statements and actions of the prophet Mohammed and the early Muslims—and their role in Islamic law.

If the subject matter is puzzling, the tensions come from a constrained but portentous struggle over the president’s and Al-Azhar’s relative roles in the moral leadership of Egyptian society. Both Ahmad al-Tayyib, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, and President ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi delivered formal addresses to dignitaries assembled for the prophet’s birthday on November 19. Tayyib denounced those who questioned the authenticity of hadiths, since hadiths form the basis of much of Islamic law. While the Qur’an takes precedence, the holy book’s clearly legal statements are far fewer and sometimes more general in nature than hadiths, as Tayyib pointed out. It was not surprising that he did so, since hadiths comprise the sunnah, or the practice of the prophet and the early community that gives Sunni Islam its name. There was little with which a pious Muslim Egyptian respecting the moral and religious leadership of Al-Azhar could disagree.

But when Sisi rose, he added extemporaneous comments to his prepared text, indirectly but unambiguously rebuking Tayyib. He did not question the authenticity of hadiths (this would be a bridge he showed no interest in crossing), but he dismissed the significance of the problem. The real threat, he averred, came not from questioning hadiths, but instead from perverse interpretations of religion. “The current dilemma worldwide is not about following the sunnah or not. It is about the wrong understanding of our religion,” Sisi said, before asking: “Are those calling for the abandonment of the sunnah more wrongful than those who misinterpreted our religion?”

What was going on? Why did the president feel compelled to do battle with a figure who poses as someone above politics on an issue that would appear abstruse to most political leaders? In one sense, the dispute was political and has burst out on public occasions before as the presidency strives to consolidate its hold over the Egyptian state and society.

The Egyptian state today—however wide its reach—has come to be dominated by the presidency and security institutions. Previously autonomous state actors, such as the administrative courts, have found their wings clipped. In society, almost all leading political figures have seen their voices and influence eliminated. As Michele Dunne has written, “most Egyptians who had played important roles in public life between the mid-2000s and the 2013 coup [are] either in prison or in exile abroad in what [amounts] to a massive brain drain.” The regime has also reined in trade unions and professional associations, other past sources of independent activism in Egypt.

But Al-Azhar and the religious sector has retained something of an independent voice. This is true in a formal sense, as the institution’s leaders have blunted efforts by the state to reverse the autonomy Al-Azhar won in 2011. However, Al-Azhar’s autonomy relies on more than chains of command. Tayyib also has constituencies willing to support him. Millions of graduates of Al-Azhar’s educational institutions, members of Sufi brotherhoods and southern Egyptian tribes linked to the grand imam, and members of the religious public alienated by the regime’s 2013 violence, all will rally not to challenge the regime but to defend Tayyib’s integrity and position.

For its part, the regime has many tools to deploy that go far beyond public spats. It controls all media, so that when Al-Azhar scholars issue their opinions on religious controversies in the form of statements, media outlets can be told to ignore or delete coverage of these. This occurred recently, after the council of Al-Azhar’s senior scholars publicly attacked a Tunisian draft law granting equality in inheritance to men and women as representing a violation of very clear religious texts. Pro-regime media in Egypt may have been told not to report on the statement.

There are other tools as well. The Egyptian armed forces recently organized its tenth seminar for Al-Azhar students, which reportedly aimed to “increase the awareness of school and university students of the heroic actions of the armed forces to eliminate terrorism.” Thus, for the well-armed regime, the grand imam of Al-Azhar may be annoying (and Sisi has said as much), but he is not threatening.

So is the tension only about power politics, not principle? Actually, religion is very much at issue, and the ostensible dispute—over the significance of challenging hadiths—is quite relevant to the matter. The president is focused on perceived security threats, and is therefore calling for support in combating radical ideas, an effort he sees as being hindered by the fetters and distractions of bookishness. 

For Tayyib, the sunnah is central and those who are trained in interpreting an intellectual tradition that is over one thousand years old should be accorded respect and deference. Reform is very much in order, but to the grand imam textual fidelity is a sign of piety, expertise, and righteousness, not obscurantism. Those who wish to squeeze new interpretations out of that tradition cannot abandon unambiguous Qur’anic texts or authentic hadiths.

In short, the conflict between Sisi and Tayyib is both religious and political, centering on leadership and the relative roles of civil authorities who lead the political system and religious scholars trained in textual interpretation. The president and grand imam are not engaged in a dramatic war of maneuver, but instead in a grinding war of positions, over the oversight of sermons in mosques, the issuing of fatwas, and reform of the curriculum used to train imams.

And it is this last area—what is taught—that may actually be the most important field of battle in the long term, even though the controversy is more complicated and quieter, as the regime attempts to wrest the matter out of Al-Azhar’s hands. The Ministry of Religious Endowments is pushing an initiative in which imams will be trained at the National Academy, which is attached to the presidency, rather than at Al-Azhar. The ministry recently announced that it had finished preparing its curriculums and will start training imams at the academy by the end of January 2019. The curriculums will reportedly include not only religious science but also law, politics, sociology, and psychology. That’s because officials have often criticized Al-Azhar’s training programs for including only religious science, which they say does not encourage enlightened thinking.

Going forward, the regime may have to double down on its attempts to subordinate Al-Azhar through more subtle means so as not to push directly against a still widely venerated institution in Egyptian society and the Muslim world. Tayyib’s autonomy and constituencies allow him to strike an independent voice, making periodic bouts of public tension again likely in Egyptian political and religious life.