Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Egypt’s Minister of Waqfs [Religious Endowments], Dr Mahmud Hamdi Zaqzuq, has affirmed that the issue of Jerusalem is primarily an Islamic issue that concerns 1.5 billion Muslims in various parts of the world. Yet we have reduced it and dealt with it erroneously as being a Palestinian issue. He also stressed that Al-Aqsa Mosque is an Islamic holy shrine and that his call on Muslims to visit Jerusalem stems from a desire to emphasize Islamic rights in Jerusalem.
The Minister of Waqfs denied that his invitation to visit Jerusalem was a ‘free normalization’ of the situation with Israel, as some have claimed. He said that there was a clear Israeli scheme to Judaize Jerusalem and that this scheme is expanding day by day. This is in light of Israel’s failure to commit to any international resolutions and its disregard of any denunciations or protests that condemn the scheme. He added: “I say to those who insist on not visiting Jerusalem until it is liberated, that my greatest fear is that there will then be nothing to visit, after Israel has implemented its scheme in Jerusalem and elsewhere “.
On the issue of terrorism, and the attempt by some to render it as Islamic, Dr Zaqzuq said that “if the Middle East problem were solved, it would [subsequently] solve 90 percent of the terrorism phenomenon”, which is a global threat. He pointed out that terrorism came to prominence following the American invasion, because “we have not put and end to terrorism, but it is they who have widened its reach”.
In an interview with ‘Asharq Al-Awsat’, conducted at his office at the Ministry’s premises in Cairo, Dr Zaqzuq referred to the successful experiment of unifying the Adaan call to prayer. He said it would gradually be expanded to all Cairo districts, commencing in the holy Month of Ramadan, and becoming universal throughout the rest of the Republic’s mosques, by the end of the year. Dr Zaqzuq said the aim [of the project] was to eliminate the random nature of the call to prayer and to end “the war of the microphones”. The Minister said that “the problem of the Muslims lies in underdevelopment, and it would be better for the satellite channels that broadcast rubbish on their screens to work to solve that problem”. Elaborating, he said that the religious discourse is not a ‘seasonal’ issue, but a continuous one, because it is subject to changing circumstances such as time, place, and the demands of each generation. The interview covered several Muslim concepts and issues concerning Muslims in various parts of the world. The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Your statements about visiting Jerusalem have caused a negative reaction in terms of public opinion. Do you still maintain your position on this? What is behind this issue [visiting Jerusalem]?
[Zaqzuq] We deal with the issue of Jerusalem in the wrong way. We have reduced it to a Palestinian issue, which is not true. This is a purely Islamic issue that concerns 1.5 billion Muslims. This is something that is stipulated in the holy Koran, with the Almighty’s saying “Glory be to the One [Allah] who moved his slave [Prophet Muhammad] at night from the Haram Mosque [in Saudi Arabia] to Al-Aqsa Mosque the environs of which We have blessed” [Koranic verse]. This is also clear in the saying of the Prophet of Allah (Allah’s prayers and peace upon him) “pilgrimage is performed only to three mosques, the Haram Mosque, this mosque of mine, and Al-Aqsa Mosque”. In the past, it was the custom of the Muslims to go to Al-Aqsa Mosque before going to the pilgrimage. Now we find a clear Israeli scheme to Judaize all of Jerusalem, expel the inhabitants of East Jerusalem, and wreck Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israel does not heed any resolutions or denunciations that condemn this scheme or demand a halt to it. My call to visit Jerusalem is not new; as it was made 14 years ago, when we were at a seminar at the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate, attended by His Holiness Pope Shanudah and His Eminence the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. I stressed then that the Muslims should deal with the issue of Jerusalem in a different way, and travel in tens of thousands to visit Jerusalem. We as Muslims have a defined objective, but we lost it in the midst of auctioneering, denunciations, and condemnation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some have described this call of yours as being equivalent to a ‘free normalization’ of the situation with Israel. What is your opinion?
[Zaqzuq] I am not calling for more than what the Prophet (Allah’s prayers and peace upon him) did with the unbelievers in the third year of Hegira when he wanted to perform the Umra pilgrimage along with 1,400 disciples, and concluded with them [the unbelievers] the truce of Al-Hudaybiyah. I want to underline the Islamic right of all Muslims to this place. As for those who claim this promotes the Israeli economy and encourages Israeli tourism, I tell them as I tell those who insist on not visiting Jerusalem until it is liberated, that my greatest fear is that there will then be nothing to visit, after Israel has implemented its scheme in Jerusalem and elsewhere”.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did Israel welcome this call?
[Zaqzuq] The Israelis welcomed the visit, thinking that I would be going as the Minister of Religious Endowments and thus the boycott would have ended. This is not true, because I am, as a Muslim, making the invitation to 1.5 billion Muslims across the world to go to Jerusalem all year round. If Israel had rejected this then the Muslims would be entitled to go to the international community on the grounds that Israel is disrupting a Muslim religious rite. This would consequently be a strong pressure card, in contrast with the current negative boycott by the Muslims.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] One of the statements that also caused wide controversy both inside Egypt, and outside, was about your intention to go ahead with the experiment of unifying the Adhan [call to prayers]. What is about? Is this an American design, as they say?
[Zaqzuq] We [currently] have an inconsistent Adhan, in addition to a war of microphones and a cacophony that is unbecoming of the Adhan religious manifestation. We are ordered to repeat after the Mu’adhin [one who makes the Adhan], so how can we do so when every Mu’adhin is doing his best to drown out the other? So we wanted to put an end to this through the unified Adhan in order to restore the holiness of the Adhan, because it informs the people that the time for prayers has come. What is required is to attract the Muslims to the mosques, which is the opposite of what is happening now.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] And when will it go into effect?
[Zaqzuq] We have completed the preliminary test without problems, thank Allah, and we shall start implementing it in the district of Heliopolis at the beginning of the blessed month of Ramadan, then apply it gradually in other Cairo districts and subsequently all mosques of the republic by the end of this year.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How will this be achieved?
[Zaqzuq] This is being done in collaboration with the Arab Organization for Industrialization in manufacturing the receiver equipment designed by engineers of Cairo University’s Faculty of Engineering. We selected a group of Mu’adhins through a committee comprising Sheikh Abu al-Aynayn Shiisha and Dr Ahmad Nuaynah, amongst others. They will go to the radio studios at the time of Adhan and the engineer in charge will press the button to open the receiver (receiving equipment in the mosques). Thus the Adhan will begin in a unified, beautiful and attractive voice in all mosques at the same time and in the correct manner, unlike the inconsistent variations existing at present. Would this not be better?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you regard the Fatwas of satellite TV channels, and channels dedicated to Fatwas that have become the fashion of the current era? Can they in your opinion produce sound Islamic awareness?
[Zaqzuq] Most unfortunately these satellite TV channels have preoccupied people with secondary elements of religion and ignored its essence. This is very strange. I summarize the problem of the Muslims in one word, underdevelopment. The modern products, high-rise buildings and the like in our Arab and Islamic world are only a superficial veneer of civilization but they are not civilization at all. We have become permanent clients in the supermarkets of the others. I ask: Where are the campaigns to deal with the illiteracy of the Muslims. It is a disgrace that more than half the people of the Islamic world should be illiterate and do not read or write. At a time in which the Western world is eradicating technological illiteracy we are still grappling with alphabetical illiteracy. Is this not a disgrace? I call upon these satellite TV channels to stop this superficiality and focus on solving the problem of underdevelopment in our Arab and Islamic world.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you not believe that the inability of the international community to resolve the Middle East crisis has a lot to do with the spread of terrorism in the region?
[Zaqzuq] I agree with you and stress that if the Middle East problem were solved, more than 90 percent of the terrorism phenomenon would be eradicated. Our brothers the Americans must be aware of this and realize that no problem in the world has continued for more than 60 years except for the Middle East problem. Terrorism entered [the global scene] after the American invasion. We have not put and end to terrorism, but it is they who have widened its reach.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] From time to time the issue of adding the Baha’i religion to identity cards is raised. Do you believe that by keeping this issue unresolved, there is a pretext for external intervention in our internal affairs?
[Zaqzuq] I am amazed at our brothers in the US Congress who raise this issue from time to time whereas we in Egypt do not pay much attention to it. The identity card is requested only in limited circumstances and religion is not mentioned from near or far. So why do they raise it? I do not understand?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It is said that you have an opinion regarding the law on unified rules for building houses of worship in Egypt. We want to learn more and understand what is the alternative?
[Zaqzuq] I have not been briefed on the draft of this law at all. It was not submitted to us in any committee. My personal stand is that I am not against regulating construction. I submitted to the Council of Ministers in October 2001 a draft on regulating the construction of mosques and it was approved. It contained nine articles on building mosques. The most prominent among them required approval by the Minister of Agriculture or the Minister of Irrigation personally, if the mosque was to be built on waterways or tributaries. There are other tough stipulations that ensure seriousness and sincerity in work and limit the arbitrary building of mosques. But there are many who violate the law and they put us before the status quo.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You took a decision to cancel the national unity [Ramadan breakfast banquet] tables which were organized by the Church. This is in contrast with the issue of national unity. Does this not conflict with what you advocate about unity between Muslims and Christians?
[Zaqzuq] Indeed we cancelled these tables last year in agreement with His Holiness Pope Shanudah because of the wave of swine flu disease. But this year there is no reason to cancel them and they will be organized in the Cathedral as usual during the blessed month of Ramadan.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are an advocate of dialogue among religions. What is the importance of this dialogue considering the persecution suffered by Muslim minorities in the Western countries?
[Zaqzuq] Dialogue among religions is an Islamic tradition since the times of the Prophet (Allah’s prayers and peace upon him). We presently aim to reach an agreement on the bases of building cooperation, trust, and peace. This is what is stipulated in the blessed verse “say to the people of the Book [Christians and Jews] come to agree on what is correct between you and us, that we worship Allah and do not worship any one else and that none of us should worship gods other than Allah” [Koranic verse]. This is the basis in all our discussions and conferences. I am not responsible for the acts undertaken by others in contravention of these principles.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your view, is the renewal of religious discourse the result of a foreign agenda, as some say?
[Zaqzuq] My answer is in the Prophet’s saying “Allah sends to this [Islamic] nation at the start of every 100 years somebody to renew its religion for it”. Thus religious discourse is not a ‘seasonal’ issue, but a continuous one, because it is subject to changing circumstances such as time, place, and the demands of each generation. We pay great attention within this framework to selecting Imams well. We published the book “Renewing Religious Discourse: Why and How?” After this we published a book titled “The Imam’s Guide to Renewal of Religious Discourse” so that renewal would be adapted to the requirements of the times and their circumstances. It was distributed to imams in all mosques. We also published a series of booklets under the title of “Correcting Concepts” so that the Imam would be able to deal in depth with the issues he talks about. We also pay great attention within this framework to holding a competition to choose the best Imams. No fewer than 20,000 graduates participate in it but no more than 2,000 pass usually. This is due to the meticulous criteria, thank God, which are stipulated in the competition for choosing the Imams. Thank Allah this has enabled us to recruit promising youths you find in major mosques such as Al-Hussein, unlike what was happening in the past when only those past 50 went to these mosques to make sure that they have the experience.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] On the subject of dealing with Imams and how to prepare them, let us talk about the institutes for preparing Imams and how we can ensure to protect the pulpits from the Salafi current and extremist ideology?
[Zaqzuq] I would like to assure everybody that these institutes are all under the supervision and control of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. We asked the Shari’ Society and the Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyah Society for the curricula of study and we have regulations to organize work in these institutes. There has to be organization and commitment to the programs adopted by the Ministry. We also asked them to provide us with lists of the faculty members regularly and ensure that there is moderation and that a middle-of-the-road approach is followed.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there cooperation and coordination with Ministries of Religious Endowments in the Arab world in this or any other domain?
[Zaqzuq] There are protocols for cooperation to work together with various Arab countries, and also with the Saudi-based Executive Council of the Ministers of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs. We meet every year to prepare for the conference of Ministers of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs in order to discuss upgrading work in the domain of Islamic propagation and increase the people’s awareness about Islamic issues.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some believe that the role of the Higher Council for Islamic Affairs has diminished, and become confined to convening an annual conference which Muslim Ulamas abroad have become accustomed to attend. What is your reply?
[Zaqzuq] The Higher Council for Islamic Affairs has a very clear role internally and externally. As I mentioned before, we work in silence. As proof I give you a brief glimpse about the Council. It is a scientific [theological] establishment of the first rate, and is composed of 13 specialized scientific committees. These include a committee for Islamic Shariaa and its comparison with secular laws, a committee for religious miracles [highlighting miracles within the Koran], a committee for the Koran and its disciplines, Sunna, and the Prophet’s sayings, and acquainting people with Islam and Islamic ideology. The Council publishes two monthly books within the series “Islamic Issues” and “Islamic Studies” at the beginning and middle of each Arabic [Hegira] month, in addition to the magazine “Minbar al-Islam”. The Council organizes a cultural season throughout the year, which includes a lecture every Sunday at Al-Nur Mosque in a hall accommodating more than 1,000 people. There is the Abu-Bakr al-Siddiq Camp in Alexandria in which we receive 2,400 university students of both sexes in four batches. Seminars are held in which many thinkers, officials and ministers address these youths. When the month of Ramadan starts we hold the Islamic Thinking Forum every day and we invite Ulamas and thinkers to attend the daily seminar which is held in a pavilion in Al-Hussein Square. There is also the “Islamic Encyclopedia” project which has been in progress for 15 years and which we have defined in 15 fields. We have issued 10 encyclopedias with every field in a volume of about 1,300 pages. There is a preliminary encyclopedia entitled “the General Islamic Encyclopedia”, and encyclopedias on “Famous Islamic Thinkers”, “Islamic Civilization”, “Studies of the Prophet’s Hadith Sayings”, “Groups and Doctrines in the Islamic World”, and “Islamic Legislation”. We make them available to researchers for free. There is currently under publication the encyclopedia of “the Islamic Faith” which will be issued after a few weeks. There are two committees now preparing the “Islamic History” encyclopedia and “Islamic Ethics” encyclopedia. We use modern technology to merge these volumes into one Islamic Encyclopedia. We have also issued the unique “Islamic Jurisdiction” encyclopedia of which 34 parts have been published so far. It comprises eight different theological doctrines namely Al-Jaafari, Al-Abadi, Al-Zaydi, and Al-Zahiri, which are Islamic doctrines based on Allah’s Prophet, (Allah’s prayers and peace upon him), in addition to the four famous doctrines: Abu-Hanifa, Al-Shafi’, Malik, and Ibn Hanbal. There is no encyclopedia in our Arab and Islamic world that covers these eight doctrines. This shows the tolerance and broad-mindedness of the Islamic mentality. We offer it to all people to acquaint them with Islam’s tolerance and, as I have said, 34 parts have been published.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about interpretation of the Koran?
[Zaqzuq] We have published a simplified interpretation of the holy Koran, “Al-Muntakhab fi Tafsir al-Quran al-Karim”. We have made seven translations of the concepts of the holy Koran through a committee comprising experts in languages and have made translations into the English, French, German, Russian, Spanish, Indonesian and Swahili languages. All this is done free of charge for Allah’s sake. This is in addition to the existence of a committee to revive the Islamic manuscript heritage. As for the conference, it has become a prominent feature because Muslim Ulamas in various world countries wait for it, to the extent that those who do not receive an invitation go to the Egyptian Embassy in their country to ask for it. The conference’s date is synchronized with the Prophet’s Birthday. It always starts on 8 Rabi al-Awwal, a fixed date every year. We are currently preparing for the twenty-third conference. We always publish the studies of these conferences. This is just a small part of what we do.