Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Islamic thinker and former chairman of Al-Azhar Fatwa Commission Sheikh Jamal Qutb talks to Asharq Al-Awsat regarding the Al-Azhar institution in post-revolutionary Egypt, stressing that Egypt has recovered from its psychological illnesses after the eruption of the January 25 revolution.
In an in-depth interview with Asharq Al-Awsat the former Fatwa commission chief stated that after the revolution the situation within Al-Azhar still is deteriorating and that the grand imam of Al-Azhar does not want the institution the honor of being independent.
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Your speech during “the Friday of the stepping down” sparked controversy among demonstrators after you left the square. What are your thoughts on this?
[Qutb] I delivered a speech on the Friday of the stepping down of former President Mubarak, and I called on the demonstrators to persevere and stand firm. I refused to deliver the Friday sermon in order to give the opportunity to Al-Azhar youthful Islamic callers, and in order to address a message to the former and current regimes saying: “Not everyone the people select for a job should think himself to be sent by divine providence.”
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you see Egypt now after Mubarak?
[Qutb] Egypt recovered from its psychological illnesses after the eruption of the 25 January revolution, after the stepping down of the head of the previous regime, and after the trial of the symbols of the previous regime. The complexes that filled the souls with bitterness were resolved after the end of the period during which the men of the previous regime used to favor themselves and forget all those who have rights, and when hunger, poverty, and backwardness reached a level man would not impose on animals.
All these events have opened new horizons. Now the state is on the verge of new beginnings. We do not deny that there are labor pains; however, there is a newly-born modern and vanguard Egypt that will come and restore its position in the arena of Arab, Islamic, and international action.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you support the opinions that call for putting Mubarak in prison?
[Qutb] The circulating ideas of putting Mubarak in prison on the one hand are motivated by reliving the previous pains, and on the other hand stem from the right of every citizen to practice his rights. However, the final word in this issue is not up to me or to any individual, but it is subject to a number of controls represented by the conclusions of the judicial investigations which have to be political, solid and acceptable to the people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have said that there are individuals from the previous regime who still are managing the country. How is this?
[Qutb] The news reports presented to the Egyptians about the trial of the men of the previous regime, with Consultative Council Speaker Safwat al-Sharif and People’s Assembly Speaker Fathi Surur at their forefront, do not satisfy them or me. The men of the previous regime ought to be put on trial politically and criminally, they ought to lead to the money they obtained, and they ought to be put on trial for killing the demonstrators. If these men insist on not giving back the money, the Egyptian people and judges have the right to treat them in the same way.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, why was the official Al-Azhar institution accused of being far removed from the revolution?
[Qutb] We want to distinguish between two issues, Al-Azhar as an official body, and the ulema who belong to Al-Azhar. Al-Azhar ulema not only supported the revolution, but they also called for it. The voice of Al-Azhar men was not lowered during the revolution, but the voice that was lowered, diminished, moved aside, and became a companion of injustice and corruption was the voice of the official opinion of the previous and current chairmanship of Al-Azhar, together with the voice of the equivalent posts of the Fatwa House and the minister of religious trusts. These people undertook the crimes of expressing what satisfied the ruler, invented compromised linguistic styles that showed those resorting to them as sitting on the fence for the benefit of the authorities. This has led to moving the religious institution backward, and to the exclusion of the ulema that are capable of speaking the truth, as their posts were prevented from practicing Islamic call and teaching. There is nothing more indicative of this than the involvement of the symbols of the three institutions for years as full members of the Political Bureau of the dissolved National Democratic Party.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has the Al-Azhar institution changed after the fall of Mubarak’s regime?
[Qutb] The situation still is deteriorating within Al-Azhar, and it is similar to a soap opera. We see Sheikh of Al-Azhar Dr Ahmad al-Tayyib welcoming the election of the Sheikh while he does not know from among whom he will be elected, and then we see him retreat, and push away the Islamic callers of the Ministry of Religious Trusts, who demand to be included in Al-Azhar, as if he is protecting the previous political regime.
The Sheikdom of Al-Azhar so far does not know that the churches of Egypt are not supervised by the government, and do not have a minister to hold them to account, because they are an independent institution. The Sheikh of Al-Azhar does not want Al-Azhar to get the same honor as the Egyptian church, as he wants the mosques to stay at the disposal of the government, and its Sheikdom to stay as an educational institution.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is talk of a secret conflict between the Egyptian Fatwa House and the Sheikdom of Al-Azhar?
[Qutb] This is the nature of the situation, even if they say otherwise. The Egyptian people of all classes understand what is between the lines, and know that each of the Fatwa House and Al-Azhar is playing a role for the benefit of whoever is in the seat of power. Everybody sees the deteriorating fatwas that have been issued as statements calling on the people to refrain from continuing with the revolution, as if they were exerting pressure on the subjects while preaching to the ruler. They did not say their words in the same way as the revolution youths, men, and politicians did. Their thinking of the revolution called for commitment to the guardian even if he was corrupt or wanton.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] For the first time in Al-Azhar there were demonstrations calling for the removal of the counselors whose advice the grand imam sought. What is your comment?
[Qutb] Resorting to councilors is a calamity whose equal Al-Azhar has not witnessed in a 1,000 years. This is done under the pretext that there is corruption within the Al-Azhar Sheikdom, while the fact is that these councilors are the factors of corruption. For instance, the post of head of the office of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, which used to be occupied by the senior Sheikhs in Egypt, has been delegated to a Major General from the Administrative Supervisory Authority. Thus, Dr Al-Tayyib wants to militarize or tame Al-Azhar, and to turn it into a government tool, or into a large-size mosque but not a great entity.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, what is the cause of the feebleness of those leading the Egyptian religious institution?
[Qutb] The feeble policy of those leading the religious institution is due to a system followed by the previous regime during the past 50 years in selecting the leaders of the institution; no one assumes the post of president of the university or Sheikh in an Al-Azhar college except those who are satisfactory to the state security. This is not in order to preserve security, but it is in order to tame these institutions, control the situation, and secure obedience to any proposals.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How did Al-Azhar relinquish its status to the Salafi callers?
[Qutb] There was a conspiracy in which all Al-Azhar symbols participated in 1997 when former Religious Trusts Minister Dr Mahmud Hamdi Zaqzuq decided not to appoint Al-Azhar graduates in the Ministry of Religious Trusts, and former Sheikh of Al-Azhar Dr Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi decided to not appoint Al-Azhar graduates in Al-Azhar claiming that they were weak. This is despite the fact that the minister of religious trusts, the mufti of Egypt, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, and all the symbols were the ones who taught these graduates; therefore, they taught them, and then prevented them from getting the jobs so that they could contract non-Al-Azhar graduates to deliver Friday sermons. When Al-Azhar members continuously refrained from performing their roles in the pulpits, the Egyptians moved toward the religious and Salafi groups and organizations in order to compensate for what they missed.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, will the election of the grand imam achieve the independence of the Al-Azhar institution?
[Qutb] The election of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar is the least step toward reforming Al-Azhar. The reform cannot be achieved except through the reform of the curricula, and through the participation of the mosque preachers and Al-Azhar college teachers in the selection of a local ring, the local rings gather to select branches at the level of the governorates of Egypt, the governorates and colleges gather to form a general congress to select from it the senior ulema council, and then the council selects the Sheikh and his aides. Al-Azhar needs urgently a new law. Al-Azhar has to be changed and shaken; the first condition for this is that all the ulema who are over 50-year old should undertake the training of the Islamic callers who are under 50-year old for 10 years, and then the leaders of the religious institutions are selected from the trained generation. All my generation should not have the right to be candidates for the posts of Sheikh of Al-Azhar and the senior ulema commission. As for the political charlatanry represented by forming committees, it is not suitable because the crisis is not a crisis of a new law, but it is a crisis of practice.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why did you leave your post as chairman of the Fatwa Commission of Al-Azhar?
[Qutb] My colleagues and I had tried for nearly three years to amend the behavior of the Sheikdom, and to put it on the right path. However, our suspicions became conviction when we saw two officers from the state security establishing a permanent office in the Sheikdom, and no decision is taken without their approval. I advised the leaders, but I realized that the situation was going to turn into a confrontation between the chairman of the Fatwa Commission and a Sheikh who was volunteering to issue fatwas without being qualified to do so, and hence I opted to withdraw. This pleased the state security officials who found me to be a person who did not accept security interference. When the state security officials discovered that, they polarized people other than us, and the commission was dissolved, and its chairmanship was made to alternate. After that, the former Sheikh of Al-Azhar died, and the current Sheikh came and practiced what we saw at the time of the Egyptian revolution. In the past year, the role of Al-Azhar in the hearts diminished twice as much as it diminished during the entire term of the previous Sheikdom; and during the time of the two Sheikdoms the role diminished twice as much as it did from the fifties until now.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has Dr Al-Tayyib tried to restore you to your position?
[Qutb] You cannot hope for anything good to come from anyone who does not see the situation, and does not understand it. I was chairman of the Fatwa Commission, and Dr Al-Tayyib was the mufti; he knew that I left the job and went home, and that I was not the only one to do so, because many of the Al-Azhar people had left their positions, joined missions abroad, and refused to come to Egypt, and many of them were prevented from standing in the pulpits.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you not see this as a retreat, and an abandonment of the arena to the others?
[Qutb] To be said that you have retreated is better than to be said that you are trying to earn a crust, or accept a position in a corrupt place.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you think of the state of the fatwa now in Egypt?
[Qutb] Its state is the same as the state of the Arab world, suffering from backwardness and fragmentation after the fatwa has become accused of a lack of credibility, randomness, and being hard line.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you consider that pressure is being exerted to abolish Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution?
[Qutb] There is no one worthy of consideration or who has power, or any number of Egyptians who demand the change of Article 2 or emptying it from its content. Article 2 is part of the identity of the Egyptian people, and there is nothing harmful in it. Moreover, the Christians consider that Shariaa is closer to our hearts than law, because we cannot change it, as countries can change their laws but they cannot change their religion.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have said before that Islam does not object to the building of churches; are you still of this opinion?
[Qutb] In that television interview there was a priest sitting next to me, and he said that there were 7,000 Christian citizens who had no church, and I said to him: “Islam does not object when there are 100 adult citizens, who are permanently resident in a hamlet or a village, to have a church built by their own money in order to perform their religious rites. I still am committed to this pronouncement.”
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have said before that the sectarian sedition is fabricated by the previous regime?
[Qutb] Islam has been in Egypt for more than 1,400 years. What Amr ibn al-As did is clear; he did not come to Egypt to convert or attract the Christians to Islam. The aim of Amr ibn al-As and Omar Bin al-Khattab, who sent Amr to Egypt, was to chase the Roman forces of occupation. Had Amr aimed at imposing Islam, there would not have remained a single Christian in Egypt.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the relationship of dialog between the Muslims and Christians will change after the collapse of the regime?
[Qutb] The sectarian sedition crisis in Egypt is – as we said – the result of the presence of a feeble Islamic religious institution and an excessive Christian institution. The difference between the two institutions is large; the former has been excessive in its feebleness to the extent that the people turned away from it, and the latter in its excess has reached the level that some of its followers have become fed up with it. The state nurtured the sectarian sedition and sometimes fabricated it in order to establish for itself a legitimacy to stay in power as an arbiter between the two sides; the Hadith of the cat is the most prominent proof of this, because can any Muslim imagine that Islam recommends looking after the cats but incites the killing of the Christians?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion of the fast ascent of the Salafi tendency?
[Qutb] All the Muslims in Egypt, and everywhere else, are followers of the good predecessors. The predecessors are from a period of time that encompasses the generation of the Prophet’s companions, the generations of their successors, and the successors of their successors. Therefore, Salafi (the word in Arabic means follower of the predecessors) is a style and a model, and not a school of thinking, because a school of thinking is a vision, a framework, and a complete structure. The predecessors have not left such structure to us, but they left scattered ideas by different minds in various situations. As for the claim that the Salafis constitute a school of thinking and a tendency, it violates the truth. All the practices on the arena are mere opinions of Islamic callers of limited vision, which are copied from other societies.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about some Salafis who undertook the severing of the ear of a Christian in implementation of Shariaa punishment?
[Qutb] In Salafi jurisprudence there is no practice of implementing Shariaa punishment by the individual, and there is no punishment in Islam that dictates severing the ear. Moreover, all Shariaa punishments are suspended by doubts, and being above human law makes them a maximum. Therefore, a Shariaa punishment is a maximum punishment; let me give you an example on this, the Shariaa punishment of severing the hand of the thief does not apply to those who embezzle public funds, as the Shariaa punishment only applies to private money.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, will the Muslim Brotherhood ascend to power?
[Qutb] The Muslim Brotherhood as a concept emerged when the people felt that Al-Azhar started to weaken, and its influence started to shrink. Now, here is the Muslim Brotherhood performing a role after it has organized its ranks. I hope it will enhance this by distinguishing between Islamic call and political action. We ought to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood according to what they say, namely that “the Muslim Brotherhood is not pursuing to rule,” until the truth or otherwise is proved. As for attacking the Muslim Brotherhood in a demagogic way, this is unacceptable, have we not given the Socialist Union 25 years to experiment with words that the people did not understand?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why has not Al-Azhar trained its sons to practice politics?
[Qutb] There are sciences that are taught in the universities that help in shaping the minds of its graduates to become members of parliament or presidents; however, the sciences in Al-Azhar are restricted to religious sciences only.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion of the names nominated for the presidency?
[Qutb] I do not want to make a critique of all candidates. However, I would like to make a critique of the general conditions. The revolution has opened the gates completely within less than three months. Two factors are imperative in order to help in making a good choice; the first is allowing the establishment of parties, and the second is the restoration of the trades unions so that new leaders emerge, and we can choose from among them whether for the presidency or for parliament. Now, those in the arena are individuals, and I cannot choose from among them while I have a wide society before me.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Then, you agree with the call by some Sufi groups, some Islamic callers, and the Muslim Brotherhood to establish new parties in order to enrich the political life?
[Qutb] Enriching the dialog is one thing, and correcting the political climate is another. Every Egyptian has the right to establish a party and to belong to a party, but someone who officially is specialized in inviting people to Islam does not have the right to carry another political identity. The Islamic call body is like the judicial authority, it has to be independent and far removed from any tendencies so that we do not see fatwas that are in the interest of certain parties, as this will lead to dysfunction in the religious institution, the state, and t he parties themselves.