Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Ramadan is the month of worship. Each Islamic form of worship has its own virtue; the virtue behind fasting is that enables Muslims to move closer both to God, and their fellow human beings. During the holy month of Ramadan Muslims the world over fast from sunrise to sunset, perform their daily prayers, give Zakat [alms], contemplate the nature of God, as well as show kindness and generosity towards others. All of this enables Muslims to spiritually move closer both to God and their fellow human beings.
Asharq Al-Awsat met with the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Dr. Ali Gomaa, in his office at the Dar al-Ifta where he gave the following interview on the importance of Ramadan and the Islamic customs which are observed during this holy month.
– What are the most significant attractions of Ramadan in your opinion?
When I was a child, I – like all the other children – loved the holy month of Ramadan, and looked forward to its arrival with joy. I was always keen to accompany my father to the mosque to perform the tarawih prayers. There were many customs and traditions that Egyptians used to greet the holy month of Ramadan with, but many of them have faded away, and the others have become extinct. Among the commendable customs that are still being practiced by families throughout the month of Ramadan, especially in the Egyptian countryside, is the exchange of food. Families are keen to send some food to their neighbors, relatives and friends, even if they do not need it. This is why the month of Ramadan is a great opportunity to improve relations, and an opportunity to reconcile family quarrels.
– Can you tell us about the missionary trips that you regularly take during the holy month of Ramadan, and the role that Ramadan has played in forming your cultural and emotional background?
Among the things that make me happy as soon as I recall them are the trips that I take during the month of Ramadan, to perform the umrah, and also my missionary trips to certain Western countries, particularly Britain, as well as Arab countries, such as Morocco, where I was invited by the late King Hassan II to deliver some sermons prior to my appointment as Mufti. I also traveled to other Arab countries such as Syria, Kuwait, and elsewhere during Ramadan, however nothing is better than spending Ramadan in Egypt. Ramadan in the al-Azhar and al-Hussein district [of Cairo] has the aroma of history, and this is something that will forever remain in my memory. I have become accustomed to the spiritual atmosphere of Ramadan at the al-Azhar University, and this is where I used to perform my tarawih prayers, attend lessons [as a student], listen to the Holy Quran, and attend the book fairs that take place here throughout Ramadan.
I wish I could go back in time and experience Ramadan as I used to. The month of Ramadan had a sweetness and blessing that is lacking today due to modernity and people’s preoccupation with their daily affairs. Before the television, Ramadan was a time rich in spirituality, where people were devoted to worship. However after the television appeared, Ramadan has become characterized in terms of quiz-shows such as “The Questions of One Thousand and One Nights” and there were several others programs on Egyptian television that I admired such as “The Best Stories” that discussed the biographies of the prophets. There were also the writings of Abdul-Hamid Jouda al-Sahhar and Rashid Kelani, which enriched people’s cultural lives, especially with regards to the biographies of the prophets. The cultural life outside of school reflects the significance of this, and by reading and following the stories of the prophets, we came to learn our own history. This is extremely significant, because when I look at the young generation, it is as if they do not know anything of the biography of Prophet Muhammad [pbuh].
– What is the role of al-Azhar as a religious reference in the lives of Muslims?
The Holy Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet form the basis of the Muslim religious reference. Due to the fact that an ordinary Muslim may have difficulty understanding the exact meaning of the Quran and the Sunnah – as this requires further study, such as the study of linguistics, rhetoric, Islamic jurisprudence, and tawhid – Muslim clerics have always been the tool to convey religion [to the public] and represent religion by honestly conveying Islamic Shariaa.
As Al-Azhar is the oldest religious institute to teach and circulate Islam through its large number of clerics, al-Azhar is considered to be one of the most important religious references. This is not to mention the affiliated religious institutions such as the Islamic Research Academy that is affiliated to al-Azhar University and presided over by the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar University, Dr. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi. The Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar University is considered to be one of the most prominent religious references in the Islamic world, along with the Muftis belonging to the Muslim countries and Fiqh institutions such as the Islamic Fiqh Academy in Jeddah. First comes the Holy Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet, then the clerics of the ummah [global Muslim community], and then the institutes mentioned above; this is the [order of religious reference] in respect to the current era that we live in.
– How do you view the controversy that was raised by some of the fatwas issued by the Dar al-Ifta, as well as the methodology used by the Dar al-Ifta in issuing them?
Our approach to issuing fatwas is based upon our commitment to the Islamic sources of the Quran and the Sunnah, in addition to the intellectual products of Muslim clerics over the centuries. Our understanding of this is based upon our understanding of the principles of Fiqh, the Arabic language, and a consensus [of Muslim legal scholars] acting to apply the objectives of Shariaa law. This allows us to look at these sources with one eye, and look at the reality of the modern-day with another; we are merging our heritage with modernity, or [merging] our Islamic identity with modern life.
This assimilation is complex and there are a number of different elements to it. There is the material world, and its recognizable scientific approach, there is also the [assimilation] of ideas and events. A different analytical approach must be taken for each of the above, and one hundred years ago things were much easier, as the world was not as advanced as it now. This is why now there are several issues, and a balance must be created between them….the goal of all of this is to clarify and explain our religion in a correct manner, and convey it to the future generations in a striking way, while also correcting the image of Islam and Muslim to others in the East and West, and convey a true image of Islam to non-Muslims around the globe.
Another issue is to eradicate the seeds of evil that have been planted here and there, and which have subsequently developed into extremism which in turn has developed into terrorism. Therefore we should all be working towards exterminating these issues by ideas and education and through the media, as well as by properly dealing with extremist and terrorist ideologies before they develop further and bear fruit.