Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb has been appointed the new Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, replacing Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed al Tantawi who passed away last week. Dr. al-Tayeb, 64, is a former Grand Mufti of Egypt and the former President of al-Azhar University. He has spent more than four decades at al-Azhar, graduating with a PhD in 1977, before joining the faculty and eventually becoming the head of the al-Azhar philosophy department. Al-Tayeb served as Grand Mufti of Egypt for one year, before being appointed as President of al-Azhar University. Dr. al-Tayeb is known as a moderate and a critic of the Muslim Brotherhood.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How did you learn of your appointment as the new head of Al-Azhar?
[Sheikh al-Tayeb] We were informed of this by Dr. Zakaria Azmi, chief of the presidential staff. I received a telephone call from him following the end of Friday prayers whilst I was in my hometown in Luxor [governorate]. He informed me that President Hosni Mubarak congratulates me on my appointment as Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar. I expressed my thanks and appreciation to the President on his valuable trust. I pray for God Almighty to bestow him [the president] with good health, happiness, a speedy recovery and a return to the homeland to complete his journey.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you feel about being appointed as the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, and what strategies do you plan to implement during the next stage?
[Sheikh al-Tayeb] Of course I am happy. At the same time I feel responsibility and guardianship [towards this position] and I pray for God Almighty to help me perform this role. Throughout my life I never sought office, but God Almighty ordained that I should be in this position.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about your operational strategy during the next stage?
[Sheikh al-Tayeb] God willing, when I begin my work at al-Azhar tomorrow [Sunday] I will put into action a plan to advance al-Azhar’s operation and role, which is to serve Islam and Muslims all across the world. The most important priority during the next stage is for al-Azhar to achieve universality and to disseminate the moderate Islamic approach embraced by al-Azhar throughout all parts of the world. In addition to this, we must develop and promote education at al-Azhar and pay attention to teaching Islamic heritage in order to ensure that al-Azhar students are connected to their genuine Islamic heritage. This is something that helps to build civilized and Islamic ideology based upon tolerance and the rejection of extremist ideology and will result in the graduation of generations of scholars who are able to accommodate the changes of modernity. I will also seek to complete the path undertaken by our grand teacher and Sheikh Dr. Mohammed Sayyid al Tantawi, may he rest in peace, and we will build on what be left behind, God willing.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will you return to wearing the traditional al-Azhar religious garb once more? You stopped wearing the traditional al-Azhar dress after you stepped down as Grand Mufti in 2003.
[Sheikh al-Tayeb] I will wear the al-Azhar garb because according to tradition these garments are always worn by the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar and the Grand Mufti…and tomorrow I will visit my office at al-Azhar to start my work as the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Were you satisfied with your time as President of the al-Azhar University? Were you able to achieve everything you wanted to?
[Sheikh al-Tayeb] Thanks to God Almighty, I am completely satisfied with the efforts that I exerted during my time as President of al-Azhar University, and this is a prestigious university that I cherish greatly. We will – God willing – seek to complete the journey that we began at al-Azhar University in cooperation with the new president, so that in the end al-Azhar will have graduates who understand the reality of the situation and who can accommodate variables and different cultures. We desire preachers and any al-Azhar graduates to be fluent in languages and to have a true understanding of a moderate approach to Islam, as well as to combine their [Islamic] heritage with contemporary [life] and possess mechanisms for fruitful and positive dialogue with others. This is something that will not result in prejudice towards established religious truths or approaches to Islamic Shariaa law, as some believe. We seek to develop education at al-Azhar at the pre-university level in order to achieve complete excellence, and to ensure that generations of graduates are able to diligently perform their duties.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the dialogue between al-Azhar and the West?
[Sheikh al-Tayeb] There is dialogue with the West, particularly interfaith dialogue. As you know, al-Azhar was the first to take part in such dialogue many years ago, and it established the al-Azhar committee for interfaith dialogue, and this committee’s work is ongoing. Al-Azhar conducts numerous examples of [interfaith] dialogue, particularly with the Church, such as the Anglican Church in Britain, and others. Al-Azhar has spared no effort on the issue of dialogue, and we will not relent on this, because dialogue is the basis of getting to know one another. We continually call for such dialogue to avoid discussing beliefs, as this is something that results in useless controversy and only produces hatred. Productive dialogue must be on common issues, the most important of which is mutual respect, as well as promoting social peace and tolerance and coexistence between mankind. The World Association of al-Azhar Graduates last year organized an international conference entitled “Al-Azhar and the West…Dialogue and its Limitation” and we invited a prominent group of Church leaders and western thinkers to attend this conference from all over the world. The dialogue that took place during this conference was fruitful. This was also a good result for the World Association of al-Azhar Graduates which represents a new window to communicate with al-Azhar graduates at an international level. Al-Azhar graduates are ambassadors for al-Azhar and Islam in their countries, spreading the true religion and its moderate approach through their behavior and their daily transactions with others, which must reflect the spirit of Islam, as well as via positive and productive dialogue which represents the best way to deal with the West…and this is the best advice.