Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—During times, especially in recent years, when Islamic extremism seems to almost monopolize the media spotlight, attention often turns to the question of who truly represents the religion of Islam and carries the flame for the “authentic” interpretation of the faith. Invariably, Cairo’s historic Al-Azhar is touted as a prime contender in this regard. As the oldest Islamic institute of higher learning in the world, and one of the world’s oldest universities, the institution is seen as a bastion of moderation and scholarship throughout the Arab and Islamic world, and beyond.
With the recent advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) across swaths of Iraq, and the atrocities it has committed against Muslims and non-Muslims alike—among other headline-grabbing incidents committed by other Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, such as Boko Haram—Islamic extremism is once again a regular feature on the global news agenda.
During a visit to his office in Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Sheikh Shawqi Allam, Al-Azhar’s Grand Mufti—the highest authority on Islamic law in the land—about the jihadist phenomenon, as well as Al-Azhar’s efforts to combat its underlying ideology through scholarship, and the recent calls by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz for the creation of an international counter-terrorism center.
Asharq Al-Awsat: You have confirmed the support of Al-Azhar’s Dar Al-Ifta [the University’s research body responsible for issuing fatwas] for King Abdullah’s call for an international center to combat terrorism. What can Dar Al-Ifta offer this initiative?
Shawqi Allam: Islam came for peace and development. Anyone who thinks Islam calls for destruction, violence and terrorism is wrong. We find that any terrorist act starts with radical ideas, and so in order to eliminate terrorism you must dismantle these radical ideas, responding to and refuting these views with evidence in order to nip terrorism in the bud. This is why we support the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz’s call for the establishment of an international center to combat terrorism. We are ready to provide all forms of scientific and legal support for this center.
For our part, we have already established an observatory to deal with Takfirist fatwas and deviant and extremist ideology, to respond to these in a logical and scientific manner.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit more about this observatory?
This observatory is a very important tool. Through this, we are able to monitor all the Takfirist statements and discourse in all media and on the internet and social media as well. A group of excellent researchers, media figures, politicians and scholars are working within this observatory to monitor everything to do with this ideology in the media and on the internet 24 hours a day. They are publishing special reports and studies about this phenomenon, which they submit to the relevant authorities who are able to remove and counteract this destructive discourse. The observatory succeeded in monitoring 150 fatwas and deviant views, and we were able to directly respond to some of them to correct the picture.
Q: How was King Abdullah’s call for the Islamic world to stand behind the Palestinians viewed within Dar Al-Ifta?
What was striking was the strongly worded nature of the statement issued by King Abdullah, in which he described what is happening in Gaza as a crime without equal and criticized the international community for its silence. This is based on King Abdullah’s passion for the Arab community and Muslims across the world. He also wanted to send a message to those who accuse the Arabs of failing to support the Palestinian cause, telling them that we are present and that we will not fail the noble and steadfast Palestinian people in the face of Israel’s brutal aggression.
Q: Dar Al-Ifta launched a massive campaign in New York aiming to promote the “correct” image of Islam. Can you tell us a little bit about Dar Al-Ifta’s experience abroad?
Egypt’s Dar Al-Ifta has always sent its scholars abroad to work to improve the distorted image of Islam, and put forward positive examples of Islam that will remove the lingering and false mental image of Islam that remains in the hearts and minds of some non-Muslims in America. These visits will bear fruit, God willing.
Q: What about those who say that now is not the right time for interfaith dialogue?
Of course, some people want cooperation and dialogue, while others only want clashes and confrontation. First of all, we must understand the views of those who want cooperation and dialogue and deflect or change the views of those who want confrontation. It is not enough to say that someone isn’t interested in dialogue. We must prove their bad faith and corrupt views. In any case, we must sit down with others and conduct dialogue and listen to their views, rather than practicing isolation, which usually produces a negative image of both sides. Through dialogue, we can reveal and respond to all the suspicion that is being directed against Islam, while also promoting a moderate and centrist image of Islam, which is being distorted by some parties. We can show the [true] essence and morality of our religion . . . moving away from extremism and exaggeration.
Q: Taking a look closer to home, Islamic extremism is spreading throughout the Sinai Peninsula. How can we move to counter this? What role can Egypt’s sheikhs and imams play in this regard?
Preachers must move away from discussing marginal issues and carry out their primary mission, which is to preach [about God] with wisdom, providing good counsel and advice to the people . . . Getting involved with controversy takes preachers away from their primary mission of advocacy and providing good guidance. Preachers sticking to their [original] work represents a good [for society], and [can be] a guarantee for social goodness and a safety valve for society at large.
Q: What is your view regarding religious discourse in Egypt today?
I believe that it is vital to create a legitimate religious discourse in line with the requirements of the time and which opposes extremist ideology and discourse, inspired by the true teachings of Islam and the Sunnah. Those who are responsible for Islamic discourse must meet a set of rules and standards to help them get their message across.
Q: There have been calls for violence to mark the first anniversary of the raid on the Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in on August 14, 2014. What would you like to say to those calling for more protests or violence on Thursday?
We warn everyone, and particularly the youth, against getting embroiled in fighting [which is] forbidden by religion. There is no benefit in this, except to harm the homeland. All Egyptians should protect and safeguard the institutions of the state from any attacks against them. I also call on the security apparatus to apply the principle of the rule of law and not transgress against this.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.