Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- In this interview, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, speaks to Asharq Al Awsat on a range of issues including fixed interest, setting up a body to monitor fatwas, and the importance of coexistence for Muslims in the East and West in dealing with non-Muslims to create channels of cooperation between religions and civilizations deepening the values of justice, tolerance and mercy on all mankind.
The interview proceeded as follows:
Q: You stated on a television program that interest on bank loans and deposits are ‘halal’ [lawful], drawing objections from many scholars who view it as ‘usury’. How do you reconcile both views?
A: The Islamic Research Academy has decided on this matter, issuing a fatwa that allowed a rate to be fixed for interest on bank investments. Since 1973, the currency was valuated and the Egyptian Pound decreased in value. Banking and times have changed significantly ever since. On account of these new conditions, I am of the opinion that it is lawful to receive a fixed interest on bank investments. Generally, this is a debatable issue among clerics.
Q: You submitted a proposal to the Grand Sheikh of al Azhar to create a body to monitor fatwas issued via satellite channels and the internet. How would this be implemented?
A: In light of the present situation, this should be viewed as an important proposal for the entire Muslim nation rather than for a specific party. The wide approval that it gained from thinkers, scholars, intellectuals and legislators was assuring. This kind of proposal has come from the Ummah [nation] itself because this is an age when the freedom of expression has to be respected. A code of honor is required in this regard. There is no one party that is capable of abiding by such control and therefore it has to be approved by everyone and efforts have to be made to create a public opinion and a prevailing culture that shows the necessary presence of such a tool to control fatwas, in addition to the major role played by the media in this regard.
Q: What do you think should be the specifications of the people in charge of this regulatory body, and will it have the authority and judicial control to punish offenders in the field of religious rulings?
A: Certainly, candidates for the regulatory body have to be competent individuals who are concerned with religious guidance. Their work will involve [giving] religious advice since the duty of the body will be to check for violation of Shariah and the opinions of the Sunni and Muslim consensus and for any violation of Shariah sources and to advise the individuals who issue fatwas of rectification in case of error. The question of authority and judicial control to punish offenders in this field needs to be debated by legislators, which requires discussion on a larger scale rather than by clerics alone in order to avoid the misunderstanding that these clerics want authority for themselves in proposing this issue. Furthermore, this is not a matter of concern for clerics alone; rather it concerns the whole of society.
Q: What do you think of proposals made by some scholars and religious guides in the Muslim world demanding that muftis and fiqh academies set up a universal supreme council to uniform fatwas especially in fields that require Islamic consensus?
A: The idea is welcome in Egypt. It is one that is aimed at unifying Muslims. A few years ago, we proposed the same idea and now we embrace it. Many countries are joining efforts to implement the proposal, such as the Gulf States, Syria, the Sudan, Morocco and Jordan. There is controversy over states that have no muftis; however, it is a good idea that we seek to realize.
Q: How do you view criticism of your book, ‘al Bayan Lima Yashghal al Nas,’ and demands by some clerics to withdraw it from bookstores?
A: This is an old book that was intended to eliminate terrorism and extremism. In that book I ruled that it is lawful for Muslims to work under contracts that do not comply with Shariah in non-Muslim countries and with non-Muslims. One Muslim youth said, for example, that a Muslim is prohibited from living in a non-Muslim country so I clarified in the book that that this is not the contemporary Muslim. The fatwa that allowed Muslims to trade according to non-Shariah contracts has relieved Muslims. It is pursuant to the Hanafi school of thought. What I have stated in that book was intended to prevent terrorism since we, the Egyptians, are trying to confront extremism and terrorism. If intellectuals unknowingly back terrorism, there must be a problem. I say seek out the correct sources to read about these matters that are related to the security of our society, nation and the next generations. We must endeavor to block any evil currents that arise here or there. In doing so we have to cooperate and stand united.
Q: There has been controversy recently over fatwas by al Azhar scholars prohibiting women from working as judges and others that allow so. What is your opinion on that?
A: The Islamic Research Academy has decided on this issue and found that it was widely approved that women can work as judges. In this regard, it reviewed the opinions of jurists, the majority of whom prohibit this. The Hanafis, on the other hand, allow women to be judges in non-criminal cases. Still, a third opinion holds that women can uphold the post of a judge in all cases and this was adopted by the Research Academy. Female judges have already been appointed in Egypt. Other Muslim states, such as Malaysia, took the lead to appoint women to such a post a long time ago. We should not stand still whilst others outpace us.
Q: What is the truth behind reported differences within the religious institution in Egypt, in particular between you and the Sheikh of al Azhar and between Dar al Ifta and the Islamic Research Academy? What degree of coordination do you have in the field of issuing fatwas?
A: There is full coordination between Dar al Ifta and the Islamic Research Academy. Let me point out that I am a freely-elected member of the academy, which has resolved that nobody shall reconsider a fatwa from Dar al Ifta as it is the official body authorized to issue fatwas in Egypt, unless there is investigation of a fatwa issued by the research academy. The reported differences between the Mufti [a reference to himself] and other leaders of the religious institution in Egypt are baseless. All those religious leaders, atop of whom is the Grand Sheikh of al Azhar, are my teachers and friends. We work together. This is evident. It may be a unique opportunity that the religious institution in Egypt is now joining forces. The Sheikh of al Azhar, the Minister of Waqfs [religious endowments], the Chancellor of al Azhar University and I cooperate with one another.
Q: A few years ago, Dar al Ifta proposed an Islamic satellite project to unify the sighting of the moon, which would put an end to different countries beginning the holy month of Ramadan at different times. What happened in this respect?
A: It was agreed that the project would be assigned to Cairo University and an appropriate model was created. It needs $9 million US. With the exception of the Islamic Conference Organization’s payment of $100,000 US and Iran’s $70,000 US, Muslim states have yet to pay their share towards it. Over the next few months the project will be completed.
Q: You have recently visited London on a ‘dawa’ mission to spread the call of Islam. Has it achieved the desired results?
A: I have been visiting London for roughly 3 years now. These visits are having an impact and during these visits we seek to serve Muslims there based on al Azhar’s responsibility to introduce the moderation of Islam to the people and its acceptance among Muslims in general both in the East and West. Based on this we conducted a meaningful dialogue to cooperate and establish the fact that the human community is becoming one and it is no use being isolated and secluded. Islam teaches us to cooperate, know one another and benefit from one another. I went to London as part of a delegation dispatched by Minister of Waqfs, Dr. Hamdi Zaqzouq that included a number of al Azhar scholars. We met with members of the British government, press and educational institutions. We put forward our ideas that we found were included in former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s speech to a recent conference. So we are making progress, and dialogue is having an effect and there are benefits. Remaining isolated is not the best way. Meeting and listening to one another does not mean that we adopt the views of others or abandon our identity. This is the main topic of the meeting—Muslims should coexist with others while preserving their identity. I cited Dr Winter, who collected all Islamic songs written in the early 20th century that contributed to English literature, therefore, they are English people rather than a minority. Wherever they go, they are Muslims who contributed to literary and intellectual life and many of them defended the country and took part in both world wars. They are of British descent. The truth that we need to understand is that Islam spreads everywhere even in Britain. Muslims are not a foreign community that can be expelled.
Q: What is the Islamic approach to coexistence, especially for Muslims living in non-Muslim countries?
A: The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has shown us the right path that every Muslim ought to follow to achieve success in the world. He set a good example of how a Muslim should coexist with non-Muslims everywhere. He set an example by coexisting with those who differed with him. The Prophet’s way of coexistence makes a global person of a Muslim who is open to others, which is proven by the fact that Islam is a universal religion. According to the Holy Quran, ‘We sent thee not, but as a mercy for all creatures’ [21:107]. Islam is an open religion, and Muslims have to follow the Prophet’s way of coexistence. Muslims ought to realize that they have a universal mission and should avoid isolation that leads to misconception on both sides and hinders communication.
Q: With respect to Iraq, how do you regard the sectarian differences between the Sunnis and Shia and how does this affect the reality of contemporary Muslims?
A: First of all, I call upon the Sunnis and Shia in Iraq to unify and stop the violence on mosques and other holy places, to avoid any denominational difference among Iraqis and to unite in building their nation and bringing about security and stability. Moderate and widely accepted, al Azhar recognized the Jaafari School under the late Sheikh of al Azhar Mahmud Shaltut. However, we have a slight criticism that even though Sheikh Shaltut recognized the Jaafari School; no Jaafari Marja’a [reference] has ever recognized Sunni schools. This is not an attack on the Shia as we reach out to them for the sake of Muslim unity; however, we do question why this is yet to happen.
Q: You called for creating a fund to provide medical treatment to the poor and the needy to be financed by donations and Zakat payments. Is it true that the idea is reportedly opposed by al Azhar? Does such funding fall into the categories of Zakat?
A: First, this is a charity called Misr al Khair that was registered in 2007 under [charity] number 555 pursuant to Law 84. The Dar al Ifta is completely independent of this civil organization. However, through my activities within community service, I was included on its list of trustees. Dar al Ifta’s function is to issue religious edicts. Misr al Khair also opened accounts with many banks under the number 100100 in order to revive the concept of Sadaqa [that is voluntary] not necessarily Zakat [that is compulsory]. The project is an evolution of traditional waqfs [endowments] through portfolios and investment funds. The organization’s trustees decided to separate the two categories of Sadaqa and Zakat. Some people want to pay Zakat; however, it was not created to levy Zakat in the first place. The organization is active in five areas namely health, education, scientific research, arts and sports, and social solidarity. When the bank account was opened, it had two subcategories: the Sadaqa or waqfs and Zakat. Once received, Zakat is paid to its specific categories. It does not go into the organization. This never affects charities or Zakat collectors because Zakat money is estimated at billions of pounds in Egypt, but what is actually collected is no more than 2 or 3 million Egyptian Pounds. Bank Nasser has 5,000 branches. There is a lot of money, and we have to make the most of it. The Sheikh of al Azhar did not oppose the idea.