Cairo, Asahrq Al-Awsat- Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb, succeeded the late Grand Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi earlier this year. He is the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, and the former President of al-Azhar University. Al-Tayeb was also a member of the Egyptian Ruling National Democratic Party, which he recently left in order to maintain an impartial stance in his current position.
As the overall head of Egypt’s primary Islamic institution, Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb has become known for his moderate interpretation of Islam, and furthermore has pledged to reform education at al-Azhar University. Asharq al Awsat recently spoke with the Grand Sheikh, in order to discuss his opinions on the current upsurge of religious tension in Egypt, the modern-day role of al-Azhar, prospects for inter-faith dialogue, and his commitment to academic reform. The following is the text from the interview:
Q) We have seen a fierce debate between Anba Bishoy, and former Secretary General of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, Dr. Salim Al-Awa. We have also witnessed the results of this debate. In your personal opinion, what was behind all this?
A) The last thing we need is to arouse civil unrest. I call upon all Egyptians to rise above any provocative behaviour, and to underscore the sense of national brotherhood that unites our people. I call upon them to join forces and work for the prosperity of this nation, for equality among its citizens, and for its progress and development. Al-Azhar, for its part, stands up to all those who dare to infringe upon religious freedoms. Al- Azhar considers the religious beliefs of Egyptians as a red line that should by no means be crossed.
Q) Do you feel that the national unity between Muslim and Coptic Egyptians has been affected by such an ‘irresponsible act’, as some described it?
A) Our national unity is remarkably intact. It is a key feature of our people, who seamlessly blend into a firmly established social fabric, which is rarely found in any other country. Muslim and Coptic Egyptians have struggled as one throughout the history of the national movement, and have laid down their lives to defend this homeland. Both sects closely cooperate toward the progress and development of this country. Diversity in religion and denomination is the way of God in this life. Such diversity encourages acquaintance and harmony rather than contention and discord.
If we consider the reception given to the Christian delegation of Najran, by the Prophet (PBUH), and the pledge he made to them; and if we examine the pledge made by the Prophet (PBUH) to the Jews of Medina, after he emigrated there, we would come to the definite conclusion that Islam lays the foundations for the state of justice and equality amongst all citizens, regardless of their creed. The history of Islamic civilization bears testimony to its tolerance and kind-heartedness. This civilization has served as an encompassing crucible for the entire population regardless of their religious beliefs.
Under the Islamic rule, Christian, Jewish and other non-Muslim communities made significant cultural contributions. Suffice to say historians consider the era of Islamic Andalusia to be the golden age of Jewish culture. Evidence of this can bee seen in the works of Andalusian Jewish Philosopher Ibn Maimoun.
Q) Some believe that the role of al-Azhar is now less significant, amidst the emergence of other satellite and Islamic pulpits. What is your opinion of this?
A) Al-Azhar is an extremely well-established entity that has been around for over a thousand years. It has stood in the face of invaders, tyrants and changing times, and it still stands high in consequence and status. It is enough to know that the number of students enrolled in Azharite institutes exceeds 2.5 million and that one-third of university graduates in Egypt graduate from al-Azhar University. Al-Azhar is the fortified stronghold of Islamic sciences and heritage. Muslims from China, to the heart of Africa, hold al-Azhar in great esteem. Its institutes and universities are open to thousands of scholars from all around the Muslim World. Its representatives and preachers can be found everywhere across the globe. And mind you, impact is not measured by sheer vociferousness, but rather by the profoundness of the influence exerted. Your question suggests a comparison that is out of place. It is as if you are comparing a deep-rooted, towering mountain, to grains of sand that get scattered by the wind.
Q) There are accusations that al-Azhar has ceased to be an accredited authority for the Muslim World, especially with the presence of hard-line doctrines. It is also said that al-Azhar has lost its credibility due to the head of state appointing the Grand Imam, thus ruling out of a free election system, whereby a top Muslim cleric would be elected to hold the post. What is your view on that, Your Reverence?
A) Almighty God says in the Holy Quran: “Thus, have We made of you an Ummat justly balanced, that ye might be witnesses over the nations, and the Messenger a witness over yourselves.” The Prophet (PBUH) says: “This faith is solid, so delve into it with gentleness.” Islam is the faith of mercy, good-heartedness, forgiveness and respect of diversity. Almighty God commands the Prophet (PBUH) to invite all to the Way of the Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching. Almighty God has made “Allowance” the essence of all things and has been gracious to us by making our religion full of ease. Hardliners who have no knowledge are like barren land. They neither contribute to progress nor preserve what has already been accomplished.
The proof that al-Azhar carries great credibility can be seen in all those hearts enamoured with it. Muslims from very great distances seek no other religious institute except al-Azhar despite all the hardships they might experience. As for the office of Grand Imam of al-Azhar, it is a post that requires great learning and religious scholarship. Though the appointment decision is made by the head of state, it is in truth an expression of the dominant opinion existing among top clerics, scholars and specialists.
Q) Some people believe al-Azhar and its university is not approaching the issue of renewing religious discourse seriously. Meanwhile, repeated calls are being made to that end by professors in foreign universities, how do you see that?
A) When al-Azhar calls for the renewal of religious discourse, this means the revival of Islamic thought based on the secure foundations of the Holy Quran and the Prophetic Tradition. It also means highlighting the teachings of Islam and its virtues and the removal of the suspicions of ignorance and extremism. Concerning the call made by some foreign professors and their followers, this is unacceptable, and utterly rejected by al-Azhar. Their call aims to distort well-known facts. They want to carry out a superficial study; a study that would eventually break the bond between us on the one hand, and our heritage and religious and cultural identity on the other.
Q) This leads us on to talk about inter-faith dialogue. What does it mean? And what does the future hold, in terms of engaging in dialogue with the Vatican and Christian institutions around the world? Would this dialogue be restricted to Christians, thus dismissing the Jews? And would holding dialogue with Jews be considered a kind of normalization?
A) Agreements have been concluded between al-Azhar, the Vatican and Protestant Churches to hold regular and periodical dialogues on landmark occasions. However, religions are established divine creeds, which do not accept adjustments or change. The dialogue which takes place is not between religions, but rather between the followers of each religion and one another. The aim of this dialogue is not to try and change the creed of the other, but to emphasize that the relation between followers of different creeds should be founded on mutual respect, amicability, brotherhood between all humans and adherence to higher moral values; the values of freedom, justice, equality and compassion.
We have not ruled out the idea of holding dialogue with the followers of Judaism, but we refuse to have such dialogue taken as a pretext for normalization. Therefore we abstain from engaging in any dialogue with the Zionists who deny the collective rights of Arabs and Muslims and persist in occupying Arab territories, violating sanctums and inflicting injustice, aggression and blockades.
Q) This leads us to question the call made by the Minister of Religious Endowments, Dr. Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq, urging all Muslims to visit Jerusalem. What is your personal and professional opinion of this call?
A) Dr. Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq is one of the most prominent intellectuals in the Muslim World. He is a man of scholarship, knowledge and ethics. In his call to visit Jerusalem, Dr. Zaqzouq believes that such a move serves the interests of Arabs and Muslims. Personally I judge an opinion by assessing the measure of interests it would serve. Whatever serves the interests of people is therefore compliant with the Islamic Shariaa Law. Any religious ordinance revolves around reasons for doing, or not doing something.
In my own opinion, visiting Jerusalem whilst it is under Israeli occupation, does not serve any interest, nor does it help to protect the sanctum. What proves my point is that Israel does not allow the actual Arab residents of Jerusalem, or those from the 1948 Arab population who hold Israeli nationality, to visit Jerusalem except under stated terms. And since Israel has the power to permit or refuse visits to Jerusalem, it is inconceivable it would allow an influx of Arabs and Muslims from across the world to visit al-Aqsah Mosque. That would undermine Israel’s attempt to Judaize Jerusalem, and change the dynamics of al-Aqsah Mosque. However, Israel would try and capitalize on the idea of Arabs and Muslims visiting al-Aqsah Mosque, by advocating further steps toward normalization. It would claim that no one is prevented from visiting al-Aqsah Mosque, and would state that visiting al-Aqsah Mosque, with an Israeli entry visa, is completely a natural occurrence. This would encourage Arabs and Muslims to gradually become familiar with such a situation, without disapproving of it, and that in itself constitutes great harm.
How would you describe what is happening in Palestine between Hamas and Fatah? Does that dispute jeopardize the establishment of the pending Palestinian State?
Al-Azhar had previously issued a statement calling upon all Palestinian rivals to effect reconciliation in compliance with the Holy Quran which says: “And fall into no disputes, lest you lose heart and your power depart; and be patient and persevering: For God is with those who patiently persevere.” We have set certain terms for this reconciliation. It should be based on an agreement on the established rights of the Palestinian people, and on the commitment of the Arab and Muslim World to support the Palestinian people, in its efforts toward reconciliation and the obtainment of its legitimate rights.
We as Arabs and Muslims should work on alleviating the suffering inflicted on our brothers in Palestine as a result of the unjust blockade and the hostile Israeli practices. We hope that the closing of the Palestinian ranks would act as a step toward liberating the occupied territories, restoring the al-Aqsah Mosque, and allowing the Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland.
Q) In some statements, Your Reverence noted that the Muslim world had become a war zone. However, you argue that Islam was not spread by the sword, and you contend that the word “Sword” was never mentioned in the Holy Quran.
A) When I noted that the Muslim World had become a war zone, I meant that it had fallen victim to wars that threaten its security and the safety of its peoples. Most of those wars are hostile aggressions imposed by overseas powers. With respect to those who claim that Islam was spread by the sword, I ask them this: How did Islam spread across East Asia, China and regions of Africa, considering that they are all now an essential part of the Muslim World? Even more, the Mongols, who had vanquished the Muslim armies in many battles during the Middle Ages, ultimately came to embrace Islam and hoist its banner. This is a very indicative fact. While Muslims were in a state of material defeat, Islam as a faith was in a state of intellectual and moral victory. The same thing is happening today with those who willingly convert to Islam in the West despite the weakness of the Muslim World and its underdevelopment.
Q) You also stated that the Western Church had paved the way for colonialism and that Orientalists had always accompanied any colonial movement. Could you kindly elaborate on that?
A) The role of Western Churches in supporting the colonial project in Africa and parts of Asia is completely clear, and has been historically proven, with the acknowledgement of Western sources. With regards to Orientalism and the study of the Muslim World, there are two sides to it: A scientific side, stimulated by scientific motives, and a colonialist side, stimulated by the desire to serve the interests of the countries that the Orientalists belong to.
The French campaign in Egypt was a clear example of that. French Orientalists achieved great and valuable scientific works, but those works were mainly employed to serve a colonialist military campaign.
Q) With the approach of the al-Adha Feast, Islamic countries differ in marking the beginnings of Hegira months. There is a lack of alignment between Muslims across the world, in terms when to begin the fasting process, and determining the exact date of al-Fitr and even the al-Adha Feasts. What is your opinion of this?
A) I am among those who believe that Islam has ample room for agreement. Modern science has provided methods for accurately determining the beginnings of Hegira months. I hope Muslim scholars will agree on a fixed system to determine the beginnings of Hegira months. That would make the entire Muslim World start fasting on the very same day, and observe its two major feasts concurrently. Such a consensus could act as a prelude to a reunion that would make Muslims head toward progress and advancement, and act as one entity in facing the challenges confronting the Muslim World.
Q) Some people accuse al-Azhar graduates of being below acceptable academic standards, especially graduates of practical colleges and some theoretical and Shariaa-oriented ones. This accusation is further emphasized by the failure of al-Azhar University to rank among the best universities in the world, despite it being one of the oldest.
A) The poor academic standard of al-Azhar graduates is part of a larger phenomenon dominating the educational scene in Egypt and the Arab World. At a certain stage, the education policy became orientated towards increasing quantity without paying attention to maintaining an acceptable quality level. This led to the unfortunate failure of all Egyptian and Arab universities to rank highly amongst world universities. Nevertheless, I would like to assert that we have begun adopting a new policy in al-Azhar University and its institutes. This policy focuses on quality rather than quantity, and tries to combine achieving a high academic level for an elite group of excellent students, along with improving the academic and cultural standard of the broader spectrum of undergraduates.
And just as al-Azhar has been the beacon of knowledge and culture across the entire Muslim World throughout history, I sincerely hope it will transform into a catalyst in the modern day, to lead Arab and Islamic universities and institutes to a status that befits our great civilization, in terms of education levels and participation in scientific research developments, and cultural contributions.
Q) Why are you so keen on redistributing scholarship programs amongst all Islamic countries including Iran? Doesn’t that raise fears that the Shiite tide might expand within al-Azhar University?
A) We are still studying how to ideally benefit from al-Azhar scholarship programs. We want those scholarships to meet the actual requirements of Islamic countries in respect of number, academic level and specialization. Al-Azhar University has a sound and solid methodology of its own; a methodology based on moderation and tolerance. It is a methodology that is firmly established in Islamic sciences and Islamic heritage. Those who study at al-Azhar are influenced by this methodology. This is why al-Azhar will remain to serve as a beacon of knowledge and moderation as well as a crucible for profound and broadminded understanding of different Islamic doctrines.
Al-Azhar tries to rally Muslims in favour of what they agree on, and advocates tolerance with respect to what they disagree upon. Al- Azhar shall remain, as it has always been, a beacon that invites people to the righteous path without encouraging extremism, radicalism or negligence.