London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Sheikh Omar el Deeb, the Deputy of the Grand Sheikh of al Azhar, inaugurated the first al Azhar affiliated institute in London earlier this month. This comes at a time when Scotland Yard believes that the Indian Deobandi movement, which rejects all Western values, and is led by a British Imam, runs over 600 of the UK’s 1350 mosques.
Dr Mohamed al Sharkawy, the director and founder of the al Azhar-affiliated institute ‘Ar Rahman Academy for Cultural and Religious Activities’ in east London, told Asharq Al Awsat that the new institute would not be limited to Muslims only and will accept all applicants irrespective of religion or nationality. Al Sharkawy, a former Imam of Regent’s Park Mosque [London Central Mosque] is the first of its kind that teaches religious sciences alongside the British curriculum.
After participating in the Joint Committee that was attended by the Anglican Communion and al Azhar permanent committee members and was held 1-3 September, 2007, Sheikh Omar el Deeb stated, “Al Azhar will supervise the Academy regarding what is affiliated to the al Azhar curriculum since exams will be sent by the al Azhar institutions.” He highlighted that the opening of the academy is an important step towards illustrating moderate Islam. Furthermore, it will allow students to study according to al Azhar standards without having to travel to Cairo, Egypt where the university is based.
Dr. al Sharkawy, the dean of Ar Rahman Academy in Britain indicated that its establishment emerged as a result of an agreement signed by the Deputy of the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar, Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, and Dr al Sharkawy. He explained that Al Azhar education will be available to everyone, “regardless of religion, color or race. Learning about Islam is not limited to Muslims; it is there for whoever wishes [to learn about it] in order to spread the teachings of the religion.” He said, “The objective is to train children of this community in the academy to graduate as moderate imams believing in moderation as a way of life.”
Dr al Sharkawy pointed out that the government would not be supporting the academy immediately, expecting that it would receive its support in the future after proving its success in qualifying imams and people who have memorized the Quran according to Al Azhar system, similar to the schools founded by Yusuf Islam, who is a leading figure amongst the circles of the Muslim minority [in Britain] and other Islamic educational institutions that are supported by the government. “Graduates memorize the Quran, speak English, understand Western culture, and can work as imams in mosques, or teachers in schools or preachers in British prisons,” he said. Al Sharkawy emphasized that Britain welcomes the application of al Azhar education due to its moderation. Approximately two million Muslims live in Britain, representing 2.5% of a total population of 60.7 million people. It is noteworthy that there are approximately 170 mosques in London that are classified as run by the Deobandi sect, which graduate 80% of clerics in Britain. Three years ago, British anti-terrorism police attacked one of these mosques in Blackburn. Deobandi curriculum supports the idea of armed jihad as a pinnacle of Islam. These schools have branches in Leicester, Blackburn and Birmingham.
For his part, al Sharkawy explained that Ar Rahman Academy was a dream that he conceived when he arrived in Britain as imam of Regent’s Park mosque twenty years ago. He had noticed the level of dispersion amongst the Muslim community and that it sides with doctrines that are originally the viewpoints of imams regarding the meaning of the Quran and Sunnah. These Imams are meant to be sources of guidance for a clearer understanding that is more appropriate to the age in which we live.
Dr al Sharkawy told Asharq Al-Awsat, “I wish that when the day comes that everyone who accepts God and Mohammed [PBUH] as his Prophet and Messenger is asked ‘what is your religion’, their response would be ‘I’m a Muslim’ and nothing else in the same way that the Messenger of God and other prophets and messengers were only Muslims,”. He explained, “I kept having this dream to the extent that it became part of my life. I am not exaggerating when I say that it has become my life.” Furthermore, he added, “In recent years, Islam has been accused – owing to the acts of some of its followers – of being a violent, terrorist and extremist religion. In fact, Islam is a religion of love, peace and moderation. But the rigid understandings of the Quran and Sunnah have caused a major void between Islam and today’s civilization in which the dreams of Muslims and their glories have disappeared. I become frightened when I think of what I will say to God on the Day of Judgment when He asks me, as well as every Muslim, about the religion and about every drop of blood that was shed, and about every moment that a child, a woman or old man, Muslim or non-Muslim, experienced terror. Everyone is a worshipper and servant of God.”
“The beginning of realizing the dream came on the day when I ended my work at the Islamic Center in Regent’s Park (London Central Mosque).” He asserted, “We are in desperate need to show the world the radiant face of Islam away from extremism, fanaticism and tensions. Islam is characterized by its civilization, greatness and sublimity. Islam is love, loyalty, agreement, good relations with neighbors, and a valuable religion which is the true creed of Abraham.”
“I did not exert all this effort to establish an educational institute and to offer courses and provide students with non-accredited certificates that do not guarantee job opportunities or a future, which would make them feel that their time and money was spent in vain. Not only is their reward in the hereafter, there is also a future [for them] whereby everyone could be an active member of the society in which they live and a true Muslim. The Messenger of God [PBUH] likened this person to the palm tree, the trunk, branches and leaves of which are good whether alive or uprooted from the ground.”
Al Sharkawy stated, “My journey began by reaching scientific agreements with a number of scientific and religious institutions so that the certificates given to graduates by the Academy would help them in this life and on the Day of Judgment.” He culminated these efforts in an agreement with al Azhar signed by the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar so that the Academy would be the first al Azhar-affiliated institute in Britain that teaches moderate Islam to confront the claims of fundamentalists. In addition, it is marked by its detachment from sectarian fanaticism that is nothing but an extension of the pre-Islamic tribal fanaticism that Islam sought to eradicate and replace with a fraternal bond, similar to what the Prophet (PBUH) established between the migrants [from Mecca to Medina] and the al Ansar [residents of Medina who granted the Prophet refuge after the Hijrah], the good neighborly ties that he had with the Jews of Medina until they breached the terms of the treaty, and the tolerance, mercy and kinship that was demonstrated when he granted a general amnesty to the people of Mecca who wronged him and drove him out.