Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb is the former Grand Mufti of Egypt and the former President of al-Azhar University. Al-Tayeb, who is known for his moderate interpretation of Islam, took over as head of al-Azhar from late Grand Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi last month and pledged to reform education at al-Azhar University. Dr. al-Tayeb recently quit the Egyptian Ruling National Democratic Party after facing criticism that he could be influenced by the party’s politics. Asharq Al-Awsat sat with the new Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar and discussed his vision for the future.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When you first took office in March, you announced a plan to develop education at al-Azhar University. What are the major features of this plan?
[Sheikh al-Tayeb] Since I began my work as head of al-Azhar University and until this moment, my major concern has been with reforming education at al-Azhar. Our plan is to develop the educational curriculum at the pre-university stage in order to ensure that students who graduate from al-Azhar are capable of dealing with the variables of this age and that their culture mixes [Islamic] tradition and modernity. We will also continue the process of developing education at al-Azhar University and focus on connecting al-Azhar students with their Islamic intellectual heritage of not violating legitimate [Islamic] principles and decisions. In the coming stage, we will generally be focusing on [establishing] a culture of excellence in Azharite education with regards to the fields of science and religion, as well as working to support and broaden the technological and technical education offered by al-Azhar.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You said that you will concentrate on the process of developing education at al-Azhar University by connecting al-Azhar students with their Islamic intellectual heritage, what’s the aim behind this?
[Sheikh al-Tayeb] There is no doubt that connecting al-Azhar students with their Islamic intellectual heritage will greatly help in creating good students with the correct intellectual heritage, because heritage is the means to ensure the elimination of extremism and fundamentalism. This is because our heritage is one of dialogue and pluralism and it elevates the principle of accepting other people’s opinions, especially since our Islamic science is one of dispute and dialogue and searching for evidence. This educational system and what it results in with regards to psychologically imprinting the characters of its students and preparing them to accept and implement this principle [of accepting other people’s opinions] is something that protects these students from extremist ideology, and this is why you do not see any extremists graduating from al-Azhar.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about developing the curriculum to better prepare preachers and advance the idea of religious discourse?
[Sheikh al-Tayeb] We are working to prepare a curriculum to develop religious discourse that is aimed at preachers who possess the capability of communicating with the world and which includes improving their abilities, and this requires language proficiency and modern technology. We are seeking to restore the role of al-Azhar on an international level in order to promote a culture of moderation and show the world true Islam.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Al-Azhar is suffering from a number of problems, particularly with regards to education, not to mention attempts by political Islamist organization to infiltrate al-Azhar. How are you combating these problems?
[Sheikh al-Tayeb] Firstly, everybody should know that I am closely monitoring the problems being faced by al-Azhar and particularly the problem of pre-university education in my role as the head of the world’s oldest university, and also through my close work with the late Grand Imam [of al-Azhar] Dr. Mohammed Sayed Tantawi at the al-Azhar Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs and the al-Azhar Research Center. I am working within the framework that al-Azhar is a fortress for Islamic culture and represents the highest authority for Islamic ideology wherever it may be, and I will exert to fully open the issue of Azharite education, and we will work and utilize experts and specialists in order to develop the Azharite curriculum throughout various educational stages, and this is something that I believe requires development every 5 years.
As for attempts by some political or ideological or religious groups to infiltrate al-Azhar University, I confirm that al-Azhar is an impenetrable fortress for Islamic culture and that it cannot be infiltrated. I am an Azharite down to my bones, and whoever agrees with al-Azhar and with the principles that were established more than a thousand years ago is my friend and I welcome them, however we will stand up to anybody who attacks these principles or desires to publish ideology [from al-Azhar] which is not Azharite ideology because Azharite education qualifies students to understand true Islam and Islamic faith, Shariaa law, and conduct. This is an understanding that is based upon establishing the principle of pluralism and accepting others, as well a openness to diverse heritage that allows al-Azhar graduates to believe in dialogue and avoid retreating to believing in one single doctrine and being blind to the rest which influenced Islam throughout its long history. This is our [Azharite] heritage which was a major reason behind the creation of a humane culture that exists until now, and which is an object of great surprise among scholars of culture in the East and West.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You received a PhD from the University of Sorbonne where you came in contact with western culture and got to know the western mentality, what is your opinion on the future of dialogue with the West? What are the obstacles that stand in the way of this dialogue?
[Sheikh al-Tayeb] Firstly, I must correct your information that I received my PhD from Sorbonne as in fact I received it from the University of al-Azhar. As for the issue of dialogue with the West, I assure you that Muslims participate in this dialogue as part of having faith in religious and cultural pluralism, and this pluralism reveals the universal truth which is confirmed by the holy Quran which is that if God Almighty wanted people to have a single creed, language, race, and culture he would have created them in this manner. However God Almighty did not desire such symmetry and standardization, and rather it was His will to create a diverse range of people, and it is His will that this law of diversity with regards to creed, language, race, and culture, should exist until the last moment of existence as God said in the Quran “If thy Lord had so willed, He could have made mankind one people: but they will not cease to dispute [Surat Hud; Verse 118].” This reality is caused by another logical fact and that is that if people want to live in peace wherever they are and regardless of creeds and culture then relations between them must be cooperative and based upon mutual respect, and God said in the Quran “”O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another [Surat al-Hujirat; Verse 13].” This [verse] confirms human ancestry and also confirms the necessity of fraternity between people therefore Islam completely sets aside the philosophy of conflict in relations between nations and people. However unfortunately in this current era in particular we have seen sharp attacks on Islam by western religious and political institutes as well as accusations that this great religion is a religion of violence and terrorism, and this is despite efforts exerted to correct this false image in the Western mind.
There are many obstacles that have prevented this, the most important obstacle is that of westerners generalizing Islam and having a negative view of Islam and Muslims, basing their beliefs upon abnormal incidents carried out by groups who do not understand the true nature of Islam. On the other hand, some Muslims also have continued such false generalizations and believe that the entire West is an enemy of Islam and Muslims however this is not the case. Therefore both sides must move away from generalization and instead move towards dialogue and rapprochement and mutual understanding in order to achieve peace and peaceful coexistence between people and culture.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about al-Azhar’s relationship with the Church?
[Sheikh al-Tayeb] Our relationship with the Church is very good, and al-Azhar and the Church both support Egyptian national unity, and stand up to anybody who attempts to tamper with this.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about al-Azhar’s relationship with the media; how will you deal with the media during the coming stage?
[Sheikh al-Tayeb] We respect the role of the media that presents their message with honesty and integrity, and God willing there will be a systemization with regards to how we deal with the media, so that there will be a unifying source of information where the media can obtain its information in order to avoid any confusion. We are currently investigating a number of issues, and these investigations may require some time.