At a time when Islam is the target of severe criticism and several Islamic countries are, for the West, the home of terrorist groups, al-Azhar, which is the reference of Sunni Islam and host every year 16.000 foreign students to learn moderate Islam, is accused of playing a minor role to show the true image of Islam.
Sheikh of al-Azhar, the Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb responds to criticism.
What is the role of al-Azhar?
Al-Azhar's role is the defense of moderate Islam. It is very important because without this moderation, there would be serious tensions between Muslims themselves and between them and others. The presence of al-Azhar preserves the plurality of views in Islam and the exchange of opinions among Muslims and other civilizations in a common goal of peace.
You have studied in France and you were a professor in Switzerland? This experience helped you?
It helped me a lot. I could share my thoughts with others, open up to other universes. This is essential to advance the dialogue between East and West. We must recognize that there is a real crisis between the West and the Islamic world and it can be resolved only through dialogue in mutual respect. No party should consider itself as the model of civilization. If it it's the case, it will not be a dialogue but rather a dictate and a brand of arrogance. Now with arrogance, it's no more dialogue but an occupation. Every time I attend a conference, I note that the West understands us better and vice versa. We must talk to exceed our prejudices.
You are a leader Sufi brotherhood, is that gives you a special place in al-Azhar? Your appointment means a turning point for the institution?
I'm not the head of a brotherhood. My grandfather and my father were. I'm just a follower. I was born into a Sufi family which gave me an inner strength. I did not seek to occupy a position or make money ... If Sheikh al-Azhar is like this, he can strengthen the role of al-Azhar. Most of my predecessors belonged to the Sufi stream. They had a spiritual message coast to coast to their role more "scientific" of Sheikh of al-Azhar.
You were the Mufti of Egypt, why there is a separation between the two positions?
The Mufti belongs to the Ministry of Justice. His role is to respond to questions from Muslims about their religion. But al-Azhar is an educational institution ... so the role of al-Azhar is wider.
You were a member of the NDP, the National Democratic Party, currently in power, and everybody was criticizing your appointment Sheikh al-Azhar, what prompted you to resign from the party. Al-Azhar is accused now to be politicized, is this true?
I am not a member of the NDP. I have just been appointed a member of the Politburo of the party. The members of the board are appointed by President Mubarak. This appointment is due to the position I held at that time as Rector of the University of al-Azhar (The President selected one of the rectors of universities in Egypt). When I was appointed Sheikh of al-Azhar, the president was in Germany for medical treatment. And me, I fled the media in my family way back to Luxor. This was not proper that I resigned from the NDP when the president is abroad. So I wanted to wait for his return. When he returned, he took the initiative to release me from my duties at NDP to save al-Azhar from the accusations of being politicized.
There is no reason that our institution has a political role. It's not because we reach a salary from the government that we need to do his propaganda. It is true that our budget comes from Egypt, but we pay the costs of studies of 16 000 students from 102 countries. And these students are not doing a propaganda for the NDP or Egypt. This budget is only there to strengthen moderate Islam. Al-Azhar is neither a party nor an opposition movement. It is an educational institution and does not conflict with the state.
Historically, al-Azhar taught jurisprudence Sunni and Shiite. Is this still the case now? Or has it changed for political reasons?
Al-Azhar teachs Shiite jurisprudence as comparative jurisprudence as all other schools of Sunni jurisprudence. The Shiites are Muslims like us. We are fighting just against export of Shiism in Sunni countries and vice versa. I also struggle against the export of Salafi ideas. This export is a political conflict that will lead only to sectarian war.
Mostly, the ulama of al-Azhar are weak in foreign languages ... You do not think this represents a defect in the role of al-Azhar? And how you will correct this?
It is true that some years ago, language proficiency was not a priority at Al Azhar. When we sent a scholar abroad, in Asia, for example, there were especially good command of Arabic by Muslims in those countries. But we realized it was important that the scholars become very familiar with the language of the country where they go. That is why today, candidates are strongly selected initially by language examinations. We also created partnerships with cultural centers such as the British Council to assist students in learning languages. In France, the question does not arise, since Paris is no longer hosting our preachers.
What do you think the appeal of Dr. Soad Salah to grant women the right to give fatwas?
There is no problem for the woman to give fatwas. Islam does not forbid it. But my question is : Did Muslim women have recovered all of their essential rights before searching for giving fatwas? At first, Muslim woman has to get her rights before thinking about fatwas. There are many rights granted by Islam to women, but unfortunately she still doesn't get them.
The telecoranists are very fashionable in the world. Are they qualified to talk about religion, to give fatwa?
It is a negative point of advanced technology. This is not only about religions but affects all areas of daily life. That is why these satellite channels are dangerous. They have given unqualified persons the chance to speak. To fight against this anarchy, as regards religion, we think about broadcasting a show on the government channels to correct the ideas launched by unqualified preachers.
What do you think the Muslim Brotherhood as a religious movement?
Every religious organization has the right to speak. But we are against using religion for political purposes. We should not involve Islam in political games. There are two types of values : the fundamental values of Islam, and the much more dubious of politics. I do not like this kind of mixture.
The Coptic minority (10% of Egypt's population) complained of being discriminated. How do you see relations between Muslims and Copts?
I see no problems between Muslims and Copts in Egypt. I see foreign plans which aim to destabilize the country. For 14 centuries, there was no war between the two communities. Even between Christians and Muslims in the East because of religion. This is because Islam is a religion open on the others and that Christianity in the East is very tolerate. These problems arose when the West was ingested to achieve certain interests or redraw the map of the region. What happens is politics. The problems between people in southern Egypt have nothing to do with religion. It is at the base, honor killing or family conflict. People just remember those between Christians to Muslims. But the same problems also occur every day in every community.
But the number 2 of the Coptic Church, the bishop Bishoi just said that "Muslims are hosts in Egypt".
The Coptic pope, Shenouda III, apologized, and I believe he is sincere. We can have confidence in him. He is the first to say that the unity of the Egyptian people is an untouchable value. Besides, we both agree to 90% on the issues that concern our country. Coptic means "Egyptian". At the time, everyone was Coptic. The word has nothing religious in origin. We all Coptic Christians are some others are Muslim.
What do you think of secularism?
We have nothing against secularism. That said, it is sometimes in France in the extreme. This is not good to reject, erase absolutely everything that is religious. We obtain ultimately a nation that ignores religion. As I fight the extremist Muslims, Jews and Christians, I fight the extremists of secularism.
Following the visit of Nicolas Sarkozy when he was Minister of the Interior, to the former sheikh of al-Azhar Grand Imam Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, France banned the veil in public places. al-Azhar is accused of giving the green light to the French government to enact laws affecting negatively the Muslims of France ...
This is not true at all. In contrast, the late Sheikh Tantawi has asked Nicolas Sarkozy to facilitate the integration of Muslims in France, leaving them to freely practice their religion in moderation. Regarding the veil, we ask the French government to tolerate it because it is mandatory in Islam. And at the same time, Muslims must not provoke the authorities, by wearing the niqab, for example ... I do not see why this integration is a problem because the core values of our religion is tolerance, justice, respect for the other ...
What then is the niqab in Islam?
The niqab is not obligatory in our religion. Rather it is a cultural tradition of the pre-Islam as practiced by some communities once. It was not a religious significance. Muslims know this.
What do you think of banning minarets in Switzerland?
The minarets are peaceful spiritual signs, such as towers and steeples for Christians. Why do they ask all these debates in Europe? In Egypt, we have churches with their towers and steeples, and it has never caused problems. Why Europe, cultured, democratic and free makes all that noise? What they are afraid of?
The woman may consult a gynecologist or doctor man?
Muslim women here do it and it has never been a problem. I do not understand why it would be a problem in the West. When it comes to saving a life, Islam does not forbid ever.
And mixed swimming pools?
The mix is allowed by Islam when there is a necessity, as is the case for example in the work context. Otherwise, it is prohibited. In Europe, the Muslim woman must accept the rules of the country where she lives. If she wants to go swimming, she has no right to forbid men to come. If their presence bothers her, she doesn't have to get there.
Why a Muslim woman has she not allowed to marry non-Muslim, even if it is Christian or Jewish?
A Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim, Jewish or Christian, because Islam requires him to respect both religions. Moses and Jesus are present and highly respected in the Quran. But how to accept the marriage of a Muslim woman with a man who does not believe in Islam, which has no respect for the Quran and the Prophet Mohamed.
What do you think of recent calls, from the West, to burn the Quran?
Rather, it is I who ask this question! Qhat French and Western people think about these calls in 21st century? We Muslims, we can not imagine touching the Bible by an act or by thought! Our faith and our culture forbid that.
How to correct the image of Islam and leave the challenge of terrorism and radicalism?
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Muslims have become the new enemy. The war against the red gave way to war against the green. There was a propaganda in the West against false image of Islam, a violent and intolerant Islam. Then there was September 11. Muslims have become the target of the United States while it is them who made Al-Qaeda. The West is primarily responsible for this negative image of Islam. They never wanted to hear talk of moderate Islam. they were always looking for material to feed the negative image they want to give about our religion.
It is for West to come back to us. At Al-Azhar, we try to spread a universal and authentic message of peace. It is a complicated task because we have among Muslim countries, poor countries, crushed by the West, as is the case in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Palestine. Muslims there feel oppressed, what drives them to move towards what the West calls "extremism", yet if it's just resistance.
How do you see Islam and Muslims in 50 years?
We must work to achieve a progressive and moderate Muslim world who is aware of his qualities and his values. Muslims do not live on a remote island. And it is the West to cooperate with us to make this world possible.
This article was written for the french magazine "Courrier de l'Atlas"