With Egypt up in arms over the constitution that is being branded as catering to Islamism, special focus has been accorded to the position Islamic sharia holds in the constitution.
Al-Azhar has been given an advisory role where the interpretation of sharia is concerned. An interview with Dr Mahmoud Azab, Advisor for Dialogue to the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, casts light on the role the prestigious Islamic institution plays on the national front
It is undeniable that, since the Revolution in January 2011, Egypt has been going through political and social upheavals, many of them related to the extent to which Islam should be invoked in politics and public life. Copts have been especially wary about the outcome of such efforts, particularly since so many versions of Islam are being offered by the various Islamist currents.
Watani decided to take the matter to Dr Mahmoud Azab who occupies the post of Advisor for Dialogue to the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the topmost Sunni Islamic institution in the world, which has behind it a history that goes back to its foundation in the 10th century.
To begin with, should there be separation of religion and politics in Egypt?
There are many aspects that concern religious and worldly matters such as religion and the State or religion and politics. To separate or not to separate is a complicated and problematic issue. Religious values are divine, eternal and absolute whereas political values are dynamic and subject to different adaptations. Even so, they don’t necessarily have to conflict; the history of mankind is full of excellent models that succeeded in enriching people’s religious life while at the same time enhancing political life. Many European countries abide by the teachings of Christianity and still manage to maintain a favourable political climate. France has opted for secularism, hence a total separation between religion and politics, while Turkey is following a milder form of secularism.
I reject hasty conclusions and strongly believe that matters must be given thorough study and meticulous historic research. Some countries have been able to maintain a good mix of religion and politics whereas others have failed completely; each experience must be studied and judged on its own. In the Orient, religion is an integral element of daily life; therefore separating religion and politics is unthinkable. The real problem is how to achieve the right blend of religion and politics.
[Because al-Azhar has a history of banning books that it judges to be insulting to Islam], some believe that al-Azhar is against freedom of thought and speech. What can you say at that?
How can al-Azhar be opposed to the freedom of thought and speech? Not even a small child can buy this allegation. Al-Azhar has supported the national cause long before the 2011 Revolution. It plays a patriotic role encouraging, supporting, relieving the problems of Egyptians and helping all sectors in the community live in harmony. It has conducted dialogue with the Muslim Brothers, the Salafis, the secularists and the Copts. Anyone who has been following this dialogue and reading the resulting documents and agreements cannot accuse al-Azhar of being against freedoms.
Some have blamed al-Azhar for not intervening to resolve the Sol crisis [which resulted when Salafis burned a church in the village of Sol in Etfeeh, south east Cairo in March 2011—the first major attack against Copts after the January 2011 Revolution]. The mediation at that time was handled by Salafi leaders, among whom was Sheikh Mohamed Hassan.
These claims are completely false; al-Azhar did not stand idle in front of the destruction and torching of the Sol church. I was sent with another prominent al-Azhar professor, Abdallah Barakat, to participate in the meetings that were held to understand and resolve the problem. It is the media that must be blamed because they focus on specific figures. True, non-Azhar clerics too participated; it is the right of everyone to help resolve sectarian problems.
Al-Azhar plays an important embracing role through the Egyptian Beit al-Eila (Family House) project. The project includes Muslim clerics, some of them belong to al-Azhar, Christian clergy; laymen and civilians; all of whom work on studying sectarian problems in order to come up with solutions by means of mutual understanding. At the time of the Imbaba attack against Copts in May 2011, the Egyptian Family House sent a fact finding commission and issued a report which concluded that the Imbaba incident was an act of terrorism and everyone involved must stand trial and be sentenced according to the magnitude of his crime.
The Egyptian Family House project has had insufficient media attention. Could you tell us about it?
I wish to point out that the Family House is not a ‘conciliatory’ body between Muslims and Christians, but was created to achieve two important goals: to reform Islamic Christian religious discourse so that it focuses on the values common to both faiths such as love, mercy and justice; and to abolish the causes of sectarian conflict. It is important to spread a realisation that many cultural, political and social problems are falsely cloaked in religious hue; everyday problems and disputes between Muslims and Christians are unfortunately twisted intentionally and given a religious dimension.
As to the problems that rest entirely on religion, we are doing our best to take care of them; our recent meetings with the parliamentary committees of education, religious discourse and monitoring and follow-up prove that the Family House is alive and doing much more than what gets into the media.
To what extent does al-Azhar supervise imams and preachers especially with the existence in Egypt of more than half a million Salafis spreading radical thought through zawyas (small, informal mosques)?
Al-Azhar is not an executive authority and does not have the power to supervise or judge mosque imams; this is rather the responsibility of the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments). Nevertheless, al-Azhar used to cooperate—and will resume cooperation—with Awqaf to give these imams training courses to enhance their competence. Imams who graduate from al-Azhar are known to deliver righteous teachings and follow the true path of tolerant Islam.
Where does al-Azhar stand from the fatwas (legal Islamic opinion) of satellite channel preachers who promote strife and hatred, and insult other religions?
Dar al-Iftaa’ (House of Legal Opinion) is well aware of this problem and advises believers not to resort to asking for fatwa from unauthorised persons. Fatwa is a science that has its rules and principles. It is the responsibility of the entire community, not only al-Azhar, to protect itself against wrongful teachings.
Is al-Azhar on its way to launch a satellite channel?
Indeed, al-Azhar is putting the final touches to launch its own satellite channel which aims to convey a moderate religious message to the entire world. There was a channel called Azhari which many people believed belonged to al-Azhar but there is absolutely no relation between this channel and al-Azhar, the channel is privately owned by Sheikh Khaled al-Guindi. Al-Azhar must not be blamed for the social problems and conspiracies of the decades since satellite TV was introduced in Egypt; many satellite channels have played a major role in corrupting religion.
What do you have to say about some statements that have called to reinstate an Islamic Caliphate in Egypt?
These statements, which cite Egypt as part of a Caliphate whose capital is al-Quds (Jerusalem), were made by persons who do not belong to al-Azhar. Al-Azhar strongly condemns them.
What does al-Azhar think of the status of women in the new constitution?
Al-Azhar, as cited in a statement by its Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, does not allow that women be deprived of the many rights granted them by Islamic sharia. Unfortunately, many of these rights are overlooked in ignorant societies; yet, if we compare the rights of women in Islam to other faiths, many differences will surface. Sharia-granted rights were implemented during the glorious days of Islam in Baghdad and Andalusia. The history of Islam tells us of prominent women such Sayeda Nafisa who was a scientist and Dr Aisha Abdel-Rahman (Bint al-Shati’) who excelled in Islamic writing. We call upon women to take an interest in Islamic sciences to understand their real worth and rights. It is imperative that women’s rights should be secured and their dignity restored.
How can an end be put to sectarian conflict in Egypt?
Education is the key to putting an end to sectarian unrest. A radical person is one who has scarce knowledge of the teachings of his religion. Islam, like all other religions, does not call for discrimination, exclusion, arrogance or rejection of the other. These ailments are mainly due to ignorance hugely promoted through poverty, foreign conspiracy and poor culture. This has resulted in the distortion of the basic values of our society, especially in the second half of the twentieth century. Therefore, it is only by fixing those distorted values that we can get our strong Egypt back.
13 January 2013