(A lecture in al-Azhar mosque, Cairo, 12 December 2011/Tom Heneghan)

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.