Voices from al-Azhar on Egypt, Islam and elections
Following are lightly edited excerpts from my conversations in Cairo with two senior officials of Al-Azhar, the prestigious Cairo mosque and university that has been the centre of Sunni Islamic learning for over 1,000 years. I quoted both of them yesterday in my story Egypt’s al-Azhar to preach Islamic message on satellite TV. Ibrahim Negm is senior adviser to Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, Egypt’s second-highest religious authority who is responsible for the Dar Al-Ifta office that issues fatwas. Mahmoud Azab is the adviser on dialogue to Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar and top Islamic authority for many of the world’s Sunni Muslims.
Ibrahim Negm, December 12, 2011
Q. Where does Al-Azhar stand amid all the changes in Egypt?
A. Al-Azhar is in a historic situation to upgrade itself and not just be content with speaking through the media. The people voted for the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis because they know them. We need to break the thick layers of barriers that have been built over the past three decades between the religious establishment and the people. We have to upgrade our Islamic discourse by talking about the simple concerns of the people. The issues that they have been battling with, the issues that the other camp has succeeded in addressing. Those are issues relating to behaviours, dress, rituals, day-to-day dealings. For example, they have managed to tell the people that to be a good Muslim, you have to wear a beard. That restricts the meaning of Islam to formal looks.
The religious establishment has not explained to people what Islam really means, that Islam goes beyond the outer looks, that Islam is all about values we need to inculcate. It doesn’t matter so much to wear a beard or full veil while you have problems with your neighbour. They have managed to get the people preoccupied with these kinds of issues. The result is that people basically have a crooked understanding of what it means to be religious nowadays.
Q. What was Al-Azhar doing these past three decades?
A. Al-Azhar has been doing its job. But when satellite television was invented, when the Internet was introduced in Egypt, al-Azhar did not cope adequately with the modern means of communications. These voices have managed to talk to people in the privacy of their own homes. So far, al-Azhar does not have a single satellite television, not even one. The Salafis have eight, from all over the region. Al-Azhar has just a couple of websites while the other ones have hundreds of websites. Also, in terms of literature, we don’t put out much literature while you have thousands and thousands of pieces of literature from the other camp. They’ve been very active running popular religious programs in the suburbs and in the countryside that have been raising awareness. They have managed to go to these places and preach to them.
We’ve just realised this, so we have started to awaken. It’s not too late. To me, extremism is a short-lived phenomenon. The Egyptian community has resisted this phenomenon throughout its long history. It didn’t exist like this before.
Recently both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis have declared that al-Azhar is their religious frame of reference. This is a very good step. They will have to sort out so many issues that have been sorted out already by al-Azhar, issues relating to international affairs, the economy, tourism, even to the political understanding of sharia. This is a long heritage that they cannot do without. So I think it’s a positive sign that, through their leadership, they have reiterated the importance of al-Azhar as a frame of reference.
We are there and we will be there to help Egyptians, to help governments, to help people seeking a moderate interpretation of Islam that is both faithful to the principles of our faith and also echoes the modern needs of the people. A lot of people come to us to guide them. Elites, normal people, media people, everybody – we have been receiving a lot of requests, especially in the past two weeks. I find it amazing. There is news every day about Al-Azhar in the media. Just yesterday, we had almost 90 news items about our establishment Dar Al-Ifta, which is just a branch of al-Azhar. Today there were about 45-50 news items about it in the Egyptian media. This is something very profound. Before, we had 5 or 6 news items a day. People are coming to us looking for guidance. The same goes for the other establishments within al-Azhar. We offer an interpretation that is both faithful to the tradition but has an eye on the modern needs and challenges facing us. The other camp might go by the tradition, but might miss the modern or contemporary needs of the people. You cannot just go by the tradition by itself. You have to understand the lived reality around us so you can offer the best prescription.
When it comes to engagement in politics, we make a crystal clear difference between politics and polity. Polity is those overall guidelines that regulate and organise the relationship between the people and the government and parliament and the difference between the executive authorities and the legislative authorities. We tell the people that it is important for them to vote. We tell the people the criteria for choosing your representative should be honesty, the one who has a good program, the one who has a good record of success in his or her field. We tell people they cannot choose people on the basis of their looks. We tell the people that it is absolutely permissible to choose a Christian nominee for the parliament, as long as he’s the best one suited for the job. We tell them that man and woman are equal representatives before the law and so it is absolutely OK to choose a woman over a man, as long as she is the best one to do the job. But we never tell the people to choose a particular political party.
We have almost 60,000 imams employed all over Egypt. That’s practically in every village. We have 8,000 religious institutes – elementary, preparatory and secondary – affiliated with al-Azhar that have almost two million students. Al-Azhar University has almost half a million students spread in 65 different colleges all over Egypt. So we have strength.
We are about to launch two, if not three satellite television channels that will speak in the name of the institution. This should be early 2012. The ball has started rolling now in the right direction. Dar Al-Ifta is going to launch a portal for news and stories about our activities. We already have a website, but this will be something like a gateway for news related to the religious establishments and activities of our institution.
Q. Why didn’t all these imams make more contact before?
A. There is a difference between a job and a mission. They were doing a job but they were not on a mission. It’s a question of direction, vision, enthusiasm, monetary compensation, guidance – all of these tools were absent. It was not a political problem. It was lack of vision. To some extent, we were successful, but we did not utilise some means and tools to upgrade and to engage more with the people. It doesn’t mean they were complete failures. They did their job. But they could have done more.
One thing that will make a real difference is that we will engage with people directly. People should find us everywhere, extending our hands for help and guidance. This is the most effective way. We will try to spread our message with a mass production of CDs, audio tapes, handouts, brochures and simple leaflets.
The Muslim Brotherhood have changed their discourse. They have put together an initiative for the marketing of tourism. This is something they have come a long way on, to bring their discourse to a mainstream inclusivist discourse acceptable to all Egyptians.
Mahmoud Azab, December 13, 2011
Q. Please tell us about the Centre for Dialogue at al-Azhar.
A. At the Centre for Dialogue, we no longer use the term dialogue of religions, even though religions are part of the dialogue. We dialogue with everybody, within Islam and its different currents, with non-Muslims – believers or non-believers – and with monotheists and others. Dialogue is wider and more global than religion. We talk about common values among the monotheist religions. We talk about liberty, justice, development, science and its role in developing society, living together and the fight against poverty, ignorance and illness.
Diversity is the will of God. So we dialogue with the other, with one condition: that we recognise the relativity of things, have mutual respect and a basis in one’s own culture and maybe that of the other, so that we recognise each other. That is what has happened since Oct 2010 with the founding of this Centre of Dialogue. I came back to lead it from Paris, where I was a professor of Islamic Studies and Civilisations at INALCO and Paris 3 Sorbonne.
We dialogue with everybody but with extremism in all forms, especially the far right and Israel. There is not a minimal basis with them for understanding each other. The Palestinian problem remains at heart of our problems. We dialogue with Jews around the world, with non-believers, no problem. But not with Israel.
Q. What about with the Vatican?
A. We have an agreement with the Vatican. In February, we were supposed to go to Rome. At the beginning of the year, there was a message of Pope Benedict concerning Islam and the Middle East that al-Azhar found was not right. For example, he made an appeal to Europeans and the European Union to protect the Christians of Iraq and Egypt. That made us angry. When Iraq was hit by extremism, the extremism did not distinguish between Muslims and Christians. Churches were attacked, but also mosques. We expected the Pope to appeal for protection for all Iraqis. The Copts in Egypt have been part of the Egyptian people for millennia. They are not a foreign minority community. For us, it doesn’t matter if they are one million or 10 or 15 million. Everyone is an Egyptian citizen living in his home country, who is part of Egyptian society that recognises its problems, its Muslim-Christian conflicts and is working to solve them.
As for the Pope, we notice he doesn’t talk enough about Christians in Palestine, who are persecuted more than the Muslims. Does Europe, including the Vatican, find it taboo to discuss the problems in Palestine? We don’t find this discourse very credible. So we suspended this dialogue for the moment – not cancelled it – because the terrain is not fertile or productive. The Vatican must improve its discourse, it has to find more balance and encourage more dialogue. We dialogue with all the churches, with the Americans, with Sant’Egidio and others, but only not with the Vatican.
Q. What should the Pope do?
A. He should give a sign of recognition of the role of Islam in human civilisations, especially its scientific role in the Middle Ages, during four centuries when Islam was the most productive and strong civilisations were produced in Baghdad and in Spain. In Germany, at Regensburg, he spoke of the signs of violence in Islam. This was not corrected. For us, the imam of Al-Azhar is not infallible. He can make mistakes and correct himself. So the Vatican can row back, too, on a discourse that does not correspond to the truth about the grand culture of Islam and the Muslims.
Why, at end of 2010, why did he call for aid for Egyptian Christians? Before that attack in Alexandria, but after the attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, the imam of Al-Azhar launched a project called the Egyptian Family House. You don’t know about this in Europe. He launched it with the Egyptian churches, the Coptic Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican and Catholic. There are also participants outside of al-Azhar and the churches, both Muslim and Christians – leading specialists in sociology, political science, comparative religion, history and law. We have been working together since March.
Q. What kind of issues does the Egyptian Family House focus on?
A. The first thing we want is a reform of religious discourse, both Muslim and Christian. There is Muslim extremism, but also Christian extremism, all around the world. And a Jewish extremism, but nobody talks about that. Even the Vatican talks only guardedly about it. We want to return to the common values of Islam and Christianity and diffuse this through the media, in the mosques and in the churches. We are preparing a book about justice and liberty in Islam and Christianity to teach young Muslims and Christians in the same class.
We are putting on the table all the conflicts that are no longer taboo. We will analyse where that fanaticism comes, first Muslim fanaticism, but also Christian. There are Islamist and Christian television channels that trade accusations and evils. There are Christian stations outside Egypt that broadcast in Arabic attacks about the problems with Islamists. For us, they’re all extremists and we fight against them. The former regime nourished the conflicts to stay in power and present itself as the only protector of Christians. The Europeans and especially the Americans, sometimes even the (Coptic Orthodox) Church, were convinced of this. We see that problems of security and culture were masked as religious problems. It’s the job of the Egyptian Family House to see what is socio-cultural and what is religious. In a society that lacks liberty, there are always problems and religion will have its part.
In Mubarak’s time, when there was a problem, the state ordered a meeting between priests and imams to get together and kiss and say there was no problem. We recognise there is a problem and it needs to be analysed so there is a suitable solution. That’s a lot of work.
To the Pope (Benedict) and Christian institutions that want to protect the Christians, we say they should help us protect all Egyptians, including the Christians, of course. We don’t have many different peoples here. It’s one people. The Copts go back to ancient times, part of them converted to Islam and part continued in their religion. We are conscious of our identity. Neither the Muslim nor the Christian Egyptians came from abroad. We’ve never had a religious war in Egypt.
Q. What effect has the revolution had?
A. The revolution changed lots of things. The Egyptian Family House gave priority to Egypt during its revolution. In the middle of the revolution, the Grand Imam was the first to say that those who fell on Tahrir Square were martyrs. He called to save the blood of young Egyptians. He called for a dialogue. Young revolutionaries from Tahrir always come to consult him. The Imam also mediated between people and police. In time of difficulty, he takes the side of the people.
The Muslim Brotherhood has come to dialogue at al-Azhar, and after them the Salafis. We have to accept everyone who is not violent. After them, we had Coptic laymen. We finished with a large dialogue with professors, writers and other. In all, we had six meetings, each 3-4 hours, asking what people wanted for the new Egypt.
The Declaration of al-Azhar on Egypt’s Future came out in June. It supported a national, democratic, constitutional and modern state, based on the constitution and on citizenship. Egyptians are citizens above all, so it should not be a military or religious state. It should respect the Islamic sharia in questions concerning the family, the education of children, marriage and divorce. Marriage is performed in the mosque for Muslims, in the church for Christians. The contracts for marriage and divorce are done in the communities. The rest is civil.
The Egyptian Family House was launched in December, after the events of the Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad. The Imam said “we’re not going to wait until Al Qaeda arrives in Cairo.” Right after that, there was the terrorist act against the church in Alexandria. The day after, we saw (Coptic Orthodox) Pope Shenouda and the Imam presented the project. A month and a half later, we had the positive response and we started to form the House.