In an extensive interview with Egyptian Journalists' Syndicate chairman Makram Muhammad Ahmad, Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, who has been in office since March 2010, gave his views on an array of important topics, including the role of Al-Azhar as an institution and the extent of its dependence on the Egyptian regime, Islam's relations with Judaism and Christianity, and the Palestinian issue.
Al-Tayyeb acknowledged in the interview that Al-Azhar's status had declined with the rise of extremist factions, and explained that the decline had begun during the socialist era when the Egyptian regime had repressed religion, allowing Wahhabism to fill the resulting void. He added that Al-Azhar intended to produce television programs aimed at young people in which its clerics would respond to various common extremist ideas.
He noted that although the operation of every country's religious establishment was subject to regime policy, Al-Azhar enjoyed relative freedom and was not obligated to condone everything the government did. He also said he would not be opposed to choosing Al-Azhar sheikhs via internal elections instead of by the current method of presidential appointment.
Al-Tayyeb said that he rejected depictions of Islam as a religion of the sword, pointing out that Muslims were only allowed to take up the sword in self defense. He criticized the interfaith dialogue talks, claiming that they could not change how a person viewed another's religion, or how decision-makers approached the Palestinian issue, or the West's support of Israel. Accusing the West of insincerity in its efforts to resolve the Palestinian issue, he said that it persistently created centers of tension in order to increase demand for the weapons it manufactures.
Also in the interview, the sheikh emphasized the importance of a unified Arab stance in resolving the Palestinian issue, saying that expecting the Jews to give the Palestinians and Arabs their rights on a silver platter was a dream and that the Palestinians must actualize their legitimate right to resist occupation. In contrast to his predecessor Dr. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, Al-Tayyeb said that he would not meet with rabbis or shake the hand of the Israeli president, because he opposed normalization with Israel until it gave the Palestinians their rights.
Al-Tayyeb also said that Al-Azhar had a religious duty to maintain national unity with the Coptic community, noting that he did not object to music in their churches and that the Copts were entitled to handle their own marriage and family matters and to build their own houses of worship. However, he maintained that only Muslims should be eligible to be president, since the country has a Muslim majority. Al-Tayyeb also stated that the difference between Sunnis and Shi'ites came down to the importance each attributed to the various caliphs, but that this was not an essential difference.
In an interesting sidebar, some clerics from Al-Azhar recently spoke out in opposition to the construction of the Cordoba House mosque near New York's Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center once stood. Dr. Abd Al-Mu'ti Bayumi, a member of Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy, said that the mosque's construction could link Islam to 9/11, even though Islam is innocent of the deed. He also called the plan a "Zionist plot."
Abd Al-Mu'ti Bayumi gave an interview to Abu Dhabi TV in April 2005, in which he discussed jihad; to view the full clip of the interview on MEMRI TV, visit http://www.memri.org/legacy/clip/0/0/0/0/0/0/652.
Following are excerpts from the interview with Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayyeb:
The Sword Does Not Represent Islam
Q: "There are those in the West who claim that Islam was spread by the sword, and there are Muslims who believe that the sword is the proper symbol of Islam."
A: "It is not true that Islamic civilization imposed itself upon the world by the force of the sword. Islam spread throughout the world because it is the religion of natural faith and the religion of wisdom, which spoke to the minds of the people and to their hearts, cultivating equality among humans and promoting justice. The sword is not fitting as a symbol of Islam because Islam [represents] mercy and justice, and because a Muslim does not bear his sword in order to attack others, but in order to protect the land, the homeland, and the faith. Islam encourages a Muslim to be strong and capable of defending his homeland, his religion, and himself, but does not encourage him to act aggressively toward others."
The Void Left By Al-Azhar's Decline Has Been Filled By Extremism
Q: "Why has there been a decline in Al-Azhar's status as a moderate source of authority in the Islamic world, to the benefit of extremist schools and ideologies? It is because Al-Azhar has become subordinate to the ruler? Because it has lost the ability to innovate? Or because the Al-Azhar's sheikh [is appointed by the president] rather than elected?"
A: "We must look for the true reasons, [and understand] why, 50 years ago, Al-Azhar was pushed into a solitary corner, while the extremist schools and streams and took over the scene. I am entirely convinced – and this is confirmed by documents – that the Egyptian regime [of President Gamal 'Abd Al-Nasser], which chose socialism as its doctrine, wanted to weaken Al-Azhar, so that it would become nothing more than [just another] mosque, whose only role is to teach religion. The socialist camp had a clear position: it opposed religion as 'opiate of the masses' whose role must be limited. Religion is at odds with socialist thinking, which adopted atheism."
Q: "But Egypt did not adopt socialism to the extent of opposing religion and calling for atheism."
A: "True, but the takeover of culture in Egypt by various Marxist and socialist elements during this period contributed to limiting Al-Azhar's role and status, and [also] caused a decline of its role outside of Egypt. Others increased their efforts to fill the [resulting] void: the Western church increased its missionary [activity] in Africa; Marxism increased its efforts to diminish the importance of religion; the law of the desert ruled [in certain areas]. Wahhabism also strove to fill a part of this void. There is an important document that was written by [former Al-Azhar] sheikh [Mahmoud] Shaltut explaining all of these factors. In a letter to Egyptian president 'Abd Al-Nasser, [Shaltut] complained about this void and about Al-Azhar's weakness, and signed off with an important message: If, in [this] delicate period, Egypt cannot annex new territory to Al-Azhar, it must at least defend the territory Al-Azhar has won outside of Egypt, especially in Africa..."
Al-Azhar Encourages Integration of Religious and Secular Studies
Q: "The Al-Azhar Development Law, passed in 1961, is a matter of controversy among Al-Azhar [scholars] to this very day. Some think that [the law – which led] Al-Azhar to combine modern civilian education with religious education, in order to produce graduates who are doctors and engineers, and who combine [their] profession with religious da'wa – constitutes a step forward, as there are [now] contemporary preachers who can contribute to progress in the [daily] lives of peoples in Africa and other places. Others, [however], think that [the law] was meant to weaken Al-Azhar's religious role."
A: "That is an excellent and important question, and the proper answer is a summary of the current situation. True, the principle behind this law is a good one, but unfortunately [the law] was not properly implemented, so that the principle was distorted and emptied of content. The law was drafted in haste – in fact, it was reportedly drawn up in a single night. I was among the first to experience the new system when the law was passed in 1961. I had to study both curricula in full – the Ministry of Education and Culture's curriculum and Al-Azhar's curriculum – for five years. Despite the difficulty of integrating the two curricula, we continued with [our] studies, since education was rigid [in those days, and students were tough]. Regrettably, [today] the situation has changed, and students are no longer able to absorb both curricula. [So now] students are weak in both [fields]. What made the situation worse is that anyone who succeeded in Al-Azhar's high school automatically entered [Al-Azhar] University, even if he [only earned a passing grade]. Now we are trying to rectify the situation by establishing a [religious] sciences department at Al-Azhar, alongside the literature department and the [secular] sciences department, for those who want to specialize in religious sciences..."
Q: "I fear that the majority may opt for a civil education."
A: "Al-Azhar will be the one to gain if in every district there is one class [modeled after] Al-Azhar's religious sciences department, whose graduates will be strong religious scholars. They will have a required amount of religious sciences that will round out their characters. According to the plan, there will be numerous incentives to encourage students to join this faculty, primarily that Al-Azhar will cover all tuition and living expenses..."
Al-Azhar Does Not Forbid Playing Music in Churches
Q: "Are you at Al-Azhar against music?"
A: "We do not forbid music, because it lifts the human spirit."
Q: "Did the Church add music to its religious ceremonies in order to attract young people?"
A: "Music entered the church because the Christian faith allows the physical representation of God, which constitutes an important part of [Christian] mysticism. Islam is based upon the abstract conception and the unity of Allah, who has no equal. Therefore, I do not need music or the representational arts in the mosque..."
No Religious Establishment Can Be Expected to Act Against the Regime in Its Country
Q: "Can your answers be taken to mean that the restoration of Al-Azhar's status and role depend [solely] on its graduates becoming exalted clerics and preachers, and that this has nothing to do with the subordination of Al-Azhar to [Egypt's] ruler, or with the appointment, rather than the election, of Al-Azhar's sheikh?"
A: "Let us be honest in answering this question. There is not a religious institution in the world that can exist outside the framework of its country, or can be expected to act against its country's regime. This is true [even] of the Vatican, which, despite being a state within a state, is part of the West and would not deviate from its supreme policy. When I was asked in Qatar about the extent of Al-Azhar's affiliation with the government, I preferred to give a short answer, and said: Can [Qatar resident and head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars] Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi say a word against the regime of the Qatari Emir?
"What I can assure you, as the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, is that this institution does not bear the government's agenda on its shoulders, and is not obligated to bless everything [the government] does. However, it would not be fitting for Al-Azhar to oppose the government, since it is part of the state. When I assumed my role as Al-Azhar Sheikh, President Mubarak accepted my resignation from the National Democratic Party's Political Bureau in order to free Al-Azhar from any restrictions. I do not think that there is any [other] Islamic state in which the religious establishment enjoys the status, honor, and freedom that Al-Azhar enjoys.
"Let me take this opportunity to say that I am not opposed to electing the Al-Azhar sheikh from among the clerical staff, but that I fear the emergence of cliques and of the [kind of] sycophancy that corrupted the election of [our] faculty deans..."
Azhari TV Does Not Represent Al-Azhar
Q: "Does the [new satellite] channel Azhari [TV] represent Al-Azhar?"
A: "The channel adopted Al-Azhar's name without Al-Azhar's noticing it. We have already expressed our opposition to this, but former Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Sayyid Tantawi said: Let it [continue] using the name, but it does not represent Al-Azhar."
Q: "What is your criticism of Azhari [TV]?"
A: "The channel's director is not an Al-Azhar scholar. The channel is funded by non-Egyptian [sources] and there are claims regarding foreign interests, which are a cause for concern. That is why [Al-Azhar's] Academy for Islamic Research is against the channel representing Al-Azhar."
Al-Azhar to Produce Television Programs to Fight Extremism
Q: "The sheikhs who work at the station, notwithstanding their considerable extravagance of dress and their [efforts] to be fashionable, have succeeded in reaching a large percentage of the young men and women."
A: "That [only] proves that [the channel's programming] is not about science or religion, and is not for the sake of heaven – but is commercialism for its own sake. We are now getting ready to produce new programs for the public that will address young people and women, and will spread the proper Islam and call for the use of reason. We will start with a weekly program with several reliable preachers – ones known for their ability to relate the audience as well as for their erudition and instrumental knowledge of shari'a – and react to problems, fatwas, and opinions spread by people who are pious in nonsense or fanatical in superstition."
No Religious Coercion
Q: "As Muslims, must we always live in war and strife with the other, until Allah grants Islam victory over all the other religions?"
A: "This is not a duty imposed on us, and I do not think that all people will someday be of one religion, namely Islam. This does not appear in any Islamic text. Differences between people – in faith, language, color, and thought – are a Koranic fact, and they will remain so until Allah inherits the Earth and everything upon it. I have already said in one of my lectures on globalization, at a Christian convention held in Rome, that globalization is destined to fail, because people were created different. As a Muslim of the present generation, I am not obligated to bear the sword in order to convert people of other faiths [to Islam]. I am obligated to be familiar with other peoples and maintain mutually beneficial ties with them. If you peruse the Koran, verse by verse, you will find no mention of the sword... On the other hand, in the Book of Joshua in the Bible, the [word] 'sword' appears 31 times... Nevertheless, it is Islam which is referred to as a religion of the sword."
Q: "But there are preachers who evoke the 'verse of the sword' in the Koran, which calls for war against heretics, so that there will be no fitna, and so that religion as a whole will be Allah's."
A: "The 'verse of the sword' descended regarding those who came out against Islam and fought Muslims, expelled them from their homes, and did them great injustice. The context of the verse – the verses which precede and follow it – confirm this [understanding]. Proper Koranic thinking determines that there is no religious coercion. When Allah approached the Prophet and said: 'Will you then force men till they become believers?' [Koran 10:99] the intent of the question at the beginning of the verse is to refute [any claim] that the Prophet was forcing the people to believe [in Islam]."
Interfaith Dialogue Has Not Benefitted the Muslims; The West Is Not Making a Sincere Effort to Resolve the Palestinian Problem
Q: "In a previous interview you said that interfaith dialogue has not achieved real results, and that dialogue about principles of faith is a futile one, since no one will change anyone else's mind."
A: "But we can agree over the good values shared by all religions. If we succeed at this, it will be an important gain for everyone. Unfortunately, in some of the dialogue sessions I attended in Italy, France, Germany, and the U.S., the dialogue was paralyzed. It did not significantly [benefit the] Muslims and did not lead to any actual change in the West's positions at the decision[-making] level: [it did nothing to change] the West's longtime support of Israel and [did not stop the West from] assisting [Israel] in deferring [its] commitment to the rights of the Palestinian people; [nor did it promote] the need to respect Islam's symbols, just as we Muslims respect the emblems of the other religions. This is clearly evident in the case of the offensive cartoons [depicting] the Prophet, which were interpreted as a matter of freedom of expression, despite the fact that [the cartoons] had nothing to do with freedom of opinion. It is true that the dialogues led to a certain degree of friendship and cooperation, but they did not truly change the situation."
A: "I think that in the West, certain imperialist principles still predominate, [though the West] is trying to make some cosmetic changes [to these principles] so as to fit them to the 21st century. They still invent and produce conflict zones in [different] regions throughout the Arab and Islamic world, in order to create great demand for the weapons they manufacture. They are, furthermore, not making a sincere effort to achieve a just and dignified resolution of the Palestinian issue."
Q: "What can be done?"
A: "So long as the Arab positions are not unified, there is no hope. The Koran says: 'Do not quarrel, for then you will be weak in hearts and your power will depart.' [Koran 8:46]."
The Palestinians Must Actualize Their Right to Resistance
Q: "When we speak about interfaith dialogue, it is confined almost exclusively to Christians, not Jews. Why?"
A: "[Relations] between Christianity and Islam have always seen ups and downs. According to the Koran, the Christians are closer to the Muslims [than the Jews] because there are priests and monks among them, and Maryam [Mary] was the greatest of all women. On the other hand, the Children of Israel only expect the dialogue to drag the Arabs toward normalization, without granting the Palestinians anything real. The Prophet maintained with the Jews relations [characterized by] a high degree of friendship and respect – to the extent that if a Muslim desired to marry a Jewish woman, he asked him not to require her to convert, and to take her to synagogue to pray. However, despite this, few Jews are inclined toward justice. The Arabs and Palestinians must know that Israel will not grant them their rights on a silver, copper, or paper platter. Whoever thinks otherwise is dreaming. The Palestinians must unite in order to protect their legitimate rights and take advantage of their legitimate right to resist occupation, with everything this entails."
Q: "Does resistance justify murdering innocent civilians?"
A: "The resistance should be directed at the occupation forces to weaken the military ability of the occupier and the settlers."
I Will Not Meet with Rabbis or Shake Peres' Hand
Q: "I saw you often in the company of the late Imam, [Al-Azhar sheikh] Dr. Sayyed Tantawi. What do you think of some of his controversial views?..."
A: "I believe that he did a great deal for Al-Azhar and contributed to the expansion of Al-Azhar's education, but the many problems were what limited his role."
Q: "Would you meet with rabbis in your office, as he did? And would you shake Shimon Peres' hand, if you met him by chance on some occasion?"
A: "I will not meet with rabbis or to shake Peres' hand, nor am I [willing] even to be with him in the same place. I do not think that Sheikh Sayyed Tantawi knew he was greeting Peres."
Q: "Why such extremism on your part?"
A: "Not because he is a Jew, but because he is one of those who planned the atrocious Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people, and the takeover of Jerusalem, which is one of the most important of the Islamic holy places... If I shake Peres' hand, it will be an accomplishment for him, since it would mean that Al-Azhar shook Israel's hand. It will be a loss on my part and on the part of Al-Azhar, because the handshake will signify agreement to normalizing relations. And I will not allow such a thing, unless Israel grants the Palestinians their legitimate rights."
Maintaining Good Relations with the Copts Is a Religious Duty
Q: "Why are the Muslims backward, and why is superstition widespread among them, even though Islam regards it a religious duty to use one's mind and [powers of] reasoning?"
A: "Because the Muslims have disregarded the correct faith. The primary sources of Islam encourage thought and [the acquisition of] knowledge, and make a clear distinction between norms that are not to be questioned and superstition. It is this correct Islam that [gave birth to] Muslim civilization which made many achievements in the domains of science, medicine, astronomy and engineering, because Islam never limited the use of one's mind, but [only] warned against division, which weakens [the Muslims]. In the West, the opposite was true: its progress began only after the role of religion was diminished and that of reason increased – because the church was an ignorant tyrannical [force] that opposed knowledge and reason."
Q: "When you began your [role] as the sheikh of Al-Azhar, you said that Al-Azhar's first duty is to achieve national unity. How [is this to be done]? By embracing Patriarch Shenouda again, as we do in every crisis?"
A: "The ties between Islam and Christianity are numerous and tight, and there are family and marriage ties between Christians and Muslims – so preserving national unity is part of Al-Azhar's religious duty. When a Muslim maintains good relations with his Christian neighbor, he fulfils a [religious] duty for which he will be rewarded on the Day of Judgment. Al-Azhar's duty is to review the books of Muslim history and tradition, and the directives of the [Muslim] faith, and draw from them the wealth of Muslim traditions that encourage good relations with the Copts – because our faith commands us to do this in order to preserve national unity. The Coptic Church must do the same with respect to the cultural tradition of [friendship] with the Muslims. I think that there will be cooperation in this area."
Copts Are Part of the Community of Believers
Q: "In Islam, do the rights of dhimmis [non-Muslims living in Muslim lands] amount to full citizenship?"
A: "Yes, and more than that. [In the past, dhimmis paid] the jizya [poll] tax in return for the protection of their person, because they did not serve in the army. But this tax was abolished [in Egypt] a long time ago, because the Copts do serve in the army and today they take part in defending the homeland. Their rights and duties are identical to our own. But justice dictates that the role of president be discharged by a member of the Muslim [community]. That's how it is all over the world: [the president is a member of the majority]."
Q: "Are [the Copts] part of the community of believers?"
A: "Yes, because they believe in Allah and in the Day of Judgment. If the Prophet, in the Covenant of Al-Madina, regarded the Jews part of the community of believers, then our Coptic maternal cousins are [certainly] worthy of [this designation]. They are the ones whom our forefather Ibrahim took for his in-laws, as did the Prophet [himself]. According to Islam, a Muslim may not marry an infidel and may not eat the food of an infidel, but he may eat the food of a Copt, and may [even] marry a Coptic woman; and she is permitted to keep her faith for the rest of her life."
Q: "Do you agree with [Coptic] Patriarch Shenouda that the Islamic shari'a permits the Copts to handle their marital matters according to their beliefs and customs?"
A: "Yes, I agree with him completely. His claim is completely correct."
Q: "Will Al-Azhar accept a law that sets out uniform [regulations] for building Muslim and Coptic houses of worship?"
A: "Islam guarantees the Christians and Jews [the right] to build churches and synagogues, and to ring their bells and celebrate their festivals."
Q: "Did Islam set out conditions [for implementing this principle]?"
A: "Islam did not set out any conditions. The churches will be constructed according to the needs of the Copts. That is what the Prophet promised the Christians in [the Treaty of] Najran. The decree of Sultan ['Abd Al-Majid] is not part of the Islamic [shari'a]. It is a law that was dictated by a certain reality, and is subject to change. If circumstances change, laws change as well."
Q: "Can a Muslim society be defined as one whose laws do not contradict the shari'a? Is this enough?"
A: "Ours is a Muslim society, and anyone who denies this is a sinner. Some shari'a laws are not implemented in Egypt. These are laws which, if violated, render one guilty of disobeying a religious commandment, but not of heresy. [For example], one who drinks wine dies a sinful Muslim, not an infidel. We cannot judge him in advance as one who will go to Hell, because nobody knows humans better than Allah. That is Al-Azhar's position and our middle way..."
The Difference Between Sunna and Shi'a Is Not Fundamental
Q: "My last question pertains to the fitna between Sunnis and Shi'ites which has once again emerged in Iraq. What are the differences between the two sides?"
A: "The differences are not fundamental. [The Shi'ites] believe in Allah, the One and the Eternal, as do we [Sunnis]. They follow Muhammad and hold the Koran sacred, as do we. We can pray with their Imams, and vice versa. The difference lies only in the [relative] importance they ascribe to each of the Caliphs, because they believe 'Ali is the most worthy and righteous [of the Caliphs], and they believe in their succession of Imams and in their Mahdi, whose [return] they await."
 Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), August 5, 2010
 Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 10, 2010.
 A reference to the symbol of the Muslim Brotherhood – a sword and a Koran.
 It should be noted that the day after the interview, an Al-Azhar spokesman clarified that Al-Tayyeb and Al-Azhar hold both Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi and the Qatari Emir, as well as their respective roles, in high esteem. Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 11, 2010.