Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Asharq Al Awsat interviews Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed al Tantawi, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque. - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Q) There has been much debate in Egypt concerning the Niqab recently. From a religious standpoint what is the proper dress code for a Muslim woman?

A) God says: “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms.” Since the Quran says this, we, men and women, should say: We hear and obey. What I think is meant by God’s words “except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof” is the face and hands. As long as a woman’s face and hands are the only revealed parts of her body, she is following the required religious dress code. As for covering the face or what is called the Niqab, this issue is more to do with traditions.

Q) What is the position of Al-Azhar regarding the Pope’s lecture in which he denounced Islam as a violent religion, especially since it formed a committee for Islamic-Christian dialogue with the Vatican several years ago?

A) Al-Azhar and all its scholars and institutions, and in fact every Muslim in Egypt and elsewhere, has condemned the Pope’s speech on Islam. The Islamic Research Academy in Al-Azhar held a meeting to discuss this issue. The academy received the manuscript of the lecture delivered by the Pope in Germany. When the academy read the text, they found that the Pope quoted the words of a Byzantine emperor, who died hundreds of years ago. The emperor met with a Muslim from Persia and they discussed a few matters. The emperor told the Muslim, among other things: “What did Islam bring? Islam brought the sword and was spread by the sword. Jihad in Islam is aggression. The Prophet of Islam brought nothing but evil.” The Pope quoted what the Byzantine emperor said, but did not report what the Muslim said. The Pope also did not comment on this speech and did not correct it. When the Muslims read this speech, they wondered why the Pope had told this story. Thus, the quotes used by the Pope from the Byzantine emperor were considered his own words. We replied to this at the time and we issued a statement and said that this speech is a grave error against Islam, especially since you (the Pope) related a story that insults Islam and remained silent and did not comment upon it. It is as if you said these words yourself. Otherwise, if you had given Islam the benefit of the doubt, you would have said that the emperor’s comments on Islam are untrue and I do not agree with him and I apologize for this. The Pope said that he did not think that his words would be interpreted in this way.

Q) In what way has the Pope’s speech had an effect Al-Azhar’s relationship with the Vatican?

A) Dialogue with the Vatican is continuing, but the Pope must give a clear apology for what he said about Islam, the Muslims, and the Prophet (PBUH). If he does not, matters will remain unchanged. What the Pope said recently does not amount to an apology. He regretted the fact that the Muslims did not understand his intention and said that he did not intend to insult Islam. The issue must be settled. The Pope told a story of a Byzantine emperor without commenting on it. Naturally, if you do not comment, this means that you agree with what you say. The Pope of the Vatican should present a methodological, religious, and scientific response to correct his mistake. If he does not explicitly apologize, there will be no dialogue with him.

Q) It has been argued that the Islamic-Christian dialogue has not achieved its goal. What is your assessment of this?

A) I think that dialogue has more benefit to it than harm. Dialogue with a Muslim and a non-Muslim is something desirable because through it, I can get to know a person and that person can get to know me; knowledge is better than ignorance. Regarding dialogue with non-Muslims in general, and the Vatican in particular, we agreed that we should not discuss beliefs and that it should be set within a certain framework, which is championing a person who has suffered injustice, helping a person who is in need of help, and supporting those who suffer from discrimination and aggression. As for creed, this is not the subject of dialogue because dialogue about creeds is futile and creeds cannot be bought or sold. We conduct dialogue about the matters upon which we agree and this has positive results.

Q) How can the attacks upon Islam waged by Western religions and political figures be stopped?

A) The attack on Islam is not a new phenomenon. A person who is ignorant of something will show hostility towards it. Our duty as Muslim scholars is to respond to those who attack our religion through sound logic and persuasion, which makes any rational person see that Islam gives each person his due and that Islam extends its hand in peace to anyone who extends its hand in peace to Islam.

Q) In your opinion, does the misconception of Islam as demonstrated by the Pope support the argument that we are experiencing a clash of civilizations and religions?

A) Civilizations cooperate, rather than clash. We support the dialogue of civilizations, and not the clash of civilizations. Cooperation and dialogue bring about positive results. In fact, those who call for the clash of civilizations harm dialogue, coexistence, and cooperation among nations, cultures, religions, and civilizations. Consequently, we say to all rational people in the world from different religions, civilizations, and schools of thought that Islam views the diversity of religions, nationalities, cultures, and civilizations as one of God’s laws, which shall not change. Coexistence, knowing other people, dialogue, and cooperation between nations is the way to maintain this diversity. Islam calls for cooperation between all these parties based on righteousness and piety, and not based on sin and transgression. Besides, the cooperation of nations and peoples is dependent on the supremacy of the system of ethical values and faith.

Q) There are some individuals, especially in the West, who believe that attacking Islam is part of freedom of opinion and expression. What is your comment?

A) Freedom of expression is advocated by Islam. Every human being has the right to express his opinion as long as this opinion is supported by divine religions and sound human thinking. There should be respect for religious values and for the Prophets of God. Everybody should respect this. Any insult to the prophets and messengers, peace be upon all of them, is an insult to humanity at large.

Q) Many have criticized Islamic religious rhetoric saying that it is defective and ineffective. What is your opinion of the Islamic religious rhetoric?

A) In my opinion, for religious rhetoric to be persuasive and effective and for it to have a good impact upon the people, it should use quotes from the Quran and Hadith. In addition, the speaker should be aware of current developments and his rhetoric should keep up with the changes and the reality experienced by the nation and should influence these developments. This is what God has told us in his holy book and what Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) taught us.

Q) Since the 9/11 attacks, the image of Islam and Muslims has been distorted. How can we rectify this image?

A) To rectify the image of Islam, a larger number of scholars who specialize in religious affairs should be designated to explain to others in Europe and America the tolerant rulings of Islam, its noble laws, and sublime ethics while showing that the religion of Islam gives each person his due, fights terrorism, preserves the human soul, and considers the killing of one human being tantamount to the killing of all of humanity. Our duty in Al-Azhar is to show the whole world that Islam is against terrorism, murder, bloodshed, destruction and anything that leads to chaos and disorder in any society. The Quran says that killing one human being is tantamount to the killing the whole of humanity and that saving the life of one human being is like saving the whole of humanity. We have to explain this to people in the East and West. This is what we have advised, demanded, and suggested to other preachers in the East and West. We tell them to explain the tolerance and mercy of Islam to people.

Q) What is your opinion on religious differences between the Sunnis and Shia?

A) We have repeatedly said that religious disagreement between the Sunnis and Shia is over minor issues and does not concern the fundamentals of the creed because any person who testifies that there is no god but Allah and that Mohammed is the Prophet of Allah is a Muslim. We support any call for proximity between the Islamic schools of thought. Al-Azhar issued this call a long time ago, and I think that it is high time that it be adopted by those concerned with the affairs of Muslims worldwide in order to maintain the unity of Muslims.

Q) A new phenomenon whereby people who are not specialized religious scholars issue fatwas (religious rulings) through satellite channels. What is your comment on this phenomenon?

A) Ignorant people must not issue religious fatwas because there are conditions that must be met by any person who engages in issuing fatwas and ijtihad (giving independent judgments). This task is set to spread the truth and to make the word of God prevail. This is why the Prophet (PBUH) said, “If a person practices ijtihad and his judgment turns out to be correct, his reward will be doubled, and if his judgment turns out to be incorrect, he will receive one reward.” My advice to those people is to fear God because God will ask them about their actions on a day when neither their money nor their children can help them.