A statement by al-Azhar, the 10th-century venerable Islamic Institution and the top authority worldwide on Sunni Islam, which refused to pronounce ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) warriors as infidels has aroused heated controversy.
On Thursday 11 December al-Azhar denied it had said ISIL militants are infidels, adding that Muslim scholars should not deny someone’s faith basing on their sins. The statement, published by Arabiya Net, said: “The Mufti of Nigeria, Sheikh Ibrahim Saleh, had not said that the ISIS group militants are infidels, but only described their actions as barbaric and far from the faith and true people of Islam.”
Al-Azhar Grand Iman, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, stressed that Muslim scholars should not judge a person nor declare him ‘not a Muslim’ when that person is showing the essence of the faith—no matter how many sins they have made.
The al-Azhar statement aroused a heated response among writers and intellectuals, especially given that al-Azhar, which has a reputation of representing moderate Islam, has precedents when it pronounced Muslims as infidels basing on their thought or actions.
‘I am not surprised,” said journalist, writer and political analyst Soliman Shafiq. “Since the overthrow of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime in Egypt on 3 July 2013, al-Azhar has adopted an ambiguous, non-defined stance that stops short of outright condemnation of terrorist Islamists. It appears to hold some middle ground between the terrorists and the State, avoiding confrontation.
“So what’s new in the al-Azhar statement?” Mr Shafik asks, “Isn’t the curriculum taught at Al-Azhar schools and institutes notorious for reeking with hatred? Yet al-Azhar scholars have done nothing to change them despite repeated calls by educators to do so. You don’t get blood out of stone. Al-Azhar has produced countless terrorists, not least among them Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman who was behind the 9/11 attack, and ISIL terrorists.
Faith a personal matter
Rev. Rifaat Fikry who heads the Media Centre for the Evangelical Church in Egypt, says he is totally against declarations of apostasy against any person whatsoever. Faith, he insists, is a very personal matter between an individual and the creator; no other person has any right of assessing or evaluating it. “But the problem with the al-Azhar statement is that it is understood by the public to endow legitimacy on ISIL.
Hani Ramses, member of the political bureau of the Coptic Maspero Youth Union, said that the statement of al-Azhar is shocking and unexpected in that it has been issued by a religious institution that supposedly adopts moderate religious thought.
“How does al-Azhar see the loss of guiltless souls, the killing of Muslims and non-Muslims?” Ramses asks. “I would like to ask whom it may concern, does not al-Azhar attitude serve the culture of bombing that shed Egyptians’ blood, and serves the same ideas adopted by the Islamist terrorist groups like Ansaar Beit al-Maqdis and the MB whose dream is to establish an Islamic caliphate State that rejects borders, citizenship and State? Does not it also serve those who setting fires in universities, and those who adopt destructive thoughts against the State and its civilization?”
Based on Qur’anic texts
Sheikh Osama al-Qoussy, an Islamic preacher, described al-Azhar statement as “ambiguous and non-understandable”.
“Instead of justifying the words of the Mufti of Nigeria, al-Azhar should have taken a strict stance against that criminal group which has broken all religious principles of mercy and peace,” Sheikh Qoussy notes.
Mohamed Mounir Megahed, coordinator of Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination (MARED), believes, “the matter of faith should be left to the Creator; no one has the right to pass judgement on any person’s convictions. But we are here talking about terrorist acts that are reportedly based on Qur’anic texts. Al-Azhar should have tackled that.
Countless remarks on Facebook and other social media reminded of a long history of al-Azhar top scholars who declared intellectuals or writers as infidels. In recent decades, the secular, progressive writer Farag Fouda (!945 – 1992) was assassinated by the Gamaa Islamiya upon a fatwa (Islamic legal opinion) by the prominent al-Azhar scholar Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazali. In 1995, Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz narrowly escaped death for the same reason when he was stabbed in the neck for his ‘apostate’ ideas; and Nasr Hamed Abu-Zeid (1943 – 2010) who was required by al-Azhar to divorce his Muslim wife on the grounds that he was an apostate so should never marry a Muslim woman. Abu-Zeid and his wife Ibtihal Younis left the country and lived in self-exile in The Netherlands. The most recent apostasy branding by al-Azhar scholars occurred a few weeks ago against Sayed al-Qimani, an intellectual and researcher who calls for a critical look at the Qur’anic and Hadith texts, but has steadfastly declared in public that he is Muslim and believes in the one God, reciting the Islamic basic tenet that: “there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet”. Yet he has been pronounced an apostate, whereas in case of ISIL and their supporters, al-Azhar insisted they were true Muslims even if they sinned.
17 December 2014