Guestview: Negotiating change in the Islamic religious establishment
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Ali Gomaa will soon step down from the position of Grand Mufti of Egypt that he has held since 2003.
By Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa
It has been said by many that Egypt is going through difficult and trying times. Today, however, I would like to share with you my true feelings of optimism and hope for our country and our people.
We are a mere two years from the 25 January revolution. These past two years have indeed witnessed great challenges and difficulties. And though it seems that we are still struggling, I believe it is imperative to join hands together to bring about a strong, independent and stable Egypt. And while there will continue to be disagreements among the different political parties and segments of society, this is a natural outcome of a truly functioning democracy. I am calling upon all political leaders to put aside their individual interests and work together, putting the interests of the nation and its people at the forefront. This political stability will pave the way for growth in the economy and development of the various sectors of Egypt’s economic life.
The Islamic religious establishment in Egypt, too, has not gone untouched by the momentous changes and developments brought about by the revolution. One of the great demands of the revolution was the restoration of transparency and accountability to all of Egypt’s great institutions. This has enabled the establishment, symbolized by its central institution, Al-Azhar, to gain some distance from the state itself, and become more independent – a move I anticipated some years ago by working to gain the independence of Dar al-Ifta or the Egyptian House of Fatwas from the Ministry of Justice. As a result of this greater independence, Al-Azhar has been bolstered in its historic role in the religious landscape of Egypt. This burgeoning independence has allowed us at al-Azhar to make concrete plans for enhancing its profile and reach throughout the world. This includes plans to launch a satellite television channel to spread the true message of a moderate Islam from the authority of Egyptian Islam. When it is on the air, this channel will render a great service in countering the misguided opinions which populate the various satellite channels today, and distract from the true meaning of Islam.
Perhaps the most central result of this development is the restoration of the famous Council of Senior Scholars (Hay’at Kibar al-Ulama). CSS is now on its way to becoming a full-fledged entity, with its own charter and by-laws. It is now the supreme body in Islamic affairs in Egypt as per the new constitution, and it is immune from government interference and the orientations of political parties. As a result, it has gained the confidence of the Egyptian populace, and this will enable it to expand its role not only in Egypt but throughout the world. I am a member of the CSS, and I can say with full sincerity that all 26 members of the council are intent on transforming it into a world-class institution.
One of the indications that the Hay’at Kibar al-Ulama has independent jurisdiction without outside pressure is the professional and free process by which they elected the next Grand Mufti. This procedure is a milestone in the religious establishment and gives the Mufti himself a wide sphere of opportunity to administer the Dar al-Ifta freely and in a manner he deems appropriate.
Amongst the religious establishment, also, I should mention the Central Authority for the Sufi Orders (Mashyakha al-Turuq al-Sufiyya), the great reservoir of spirituality and religiosity in Egypt. This is as important pillar of the religious establishment, regularly infusing spirit and humanity. I am pleased to say also that this institution is following suit, and planning to make similar changes so as to develop the infrastructure and organization of the Sufi Orders so that it can continue to play its crucial life in the religious life of Egypt.
This is why I spend my last few days in the position of the Grand Mufti of Egypt with a great sense of optimism, enthusiasm, and confidence in the capacity of Egypt to grow in faith and prosperity. The opportunity to serve in this office has been a great honour, which is only compounded by the wonderful relationships that I have been able to cultivate both within the remarkable Dar al-Ifta team, in Egyptian society and in the whole world at large. I look forward to continuing to solidify and further develop these relationships in my capacity as a member of the Council of the Senior Scholars after my tenure.
I would also like to take the opportunity to acknowledge my successor in this role, Dr Shawqi ‘Abdel Karim Allam, the new Grand Mufti of Egypt, and wish him every success in fulfilling this important role which is so central to the everyday religious practice and guidance of millions of Egyptians. We have every confidence that he will continue to lead this important institution to ever greater heights and carry on the legacy of the towering figure of the Dar al-Ifta, Imam Muhammad Abduh (1945-1905).
It is not without pride that I mention that we leave for you a vibrant institution, one which has few rivals in the sheer scope of work that it does. The Dar al-Ifta is no longer simply a site for the issuing of fatwas. While this remains the central element of our institutional identity, it is also a multifaceted organization which engages in research, outreach, the training of future leaders, and coordinating with international organizations to spread the message of peace, harmony and mercy that defines Islam.
From an administrative standpoint, I have been at pains throughout my tenure as Grand Mufti to modernize the procedures, protocols, and organizational structure of the Dar Al-Ifta. Under my supervision, the Dar Al-Ifta has transformed from an organization closely associated with the personage of a singular jurist engaged in the solitary enterprise of responding to his immediate constituents, to a modern institution comprising a fatwa council, committees of experts, and an internal system of checks and balances. This transformation has been carried out in view of the rapidly changing circumstances of modern Egyptian society, and indeed the particular position of the Islamic world at large. For the past few years, we have made great strides in broadening the aims of the Dar Al-Ifta, and increasing our accessibility so as to cater to the religious needs of a greater swath of Egyptians and Muslims. Among these advances has been the introduction of greater and better avenues for interaction between the people and the Dar Al-Ifta, including a call center, communication via email and websites, and Facebook and Twitter accounts. Our staff has grown exponentially, and so, therefore, has our capacity to better serve people Egypt and the world. The motivation behind these moves has always been to facilitate access to the leadership and guidance of the Dar Al-Ifta as much as possible.
This has also rendered us more accessible to the world outside of Egypt, both Muslim and non-Muslim. We now receive requests and delegations from all over the world, making us a truly international leader in the interpretation of Islam. As well, we have invested a great deal of effort into training the world’s future muftis. In this regard, we initiated a mufti training program for students abroad conducted entirely through correspondence, allowing us to strengthen and entrench the moderate Islam for which Egypt is celebrated. We have participated in numerous conferences aiming to spread this message, allying with global organizations of all sorts in order to make it clear that Islam and its leadership are willing and able to embrace the challenges of this world with open hearts and minds.
These efforts have not gone unrecognized. Over the past few years, the Dar al-Ifta has been honoured with a number of prestigious awards, including from the United Nations. And the Grand Mufti has been honoured by universities for his leading role in putting forth the true face of Islam.
Nor has the Dar al-Ifta forsaken its role as an academic institution. We have published numerous works touching on all matters of contemporary interest. These include a voluminous encyclopaedia tracking the fatwas of the Egyptian Dar al-Ifta. We have also placed a great deal of emphasis on training students and researchers to conduct studies in accordance with an objective scientific methodology. To encourage this practice, and to delve deep into some specialized matters, the Dar has established under my tenure an academic journal which produces world-quality research on matters of Islamic jurisprudence.
Finally, the Dar has made great strides to increasing the transparency of its operations. In this regard, I submitted a copy of the archive of the fatwas of Dar al-Ifta since its inception in 1895 to the National Archives so that they may be accessed by all.
My goal has always been to grow the Dar al-Ifta as an independent institution, with its own system of administration and budget allocation, and a vibrant intellectual life, engaged with people from all sectors of society so as to push forward the message of a peaceful, moderate Islam. I am proud to say that we have succeeded to a very large extent in accomplishing all of these worthy goals. I have no doubt that the next administration will agree with me that these are indeed worthy goals, and will do its utmost to further them, in the interests of Egypt and Islam.