September 27, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 741

The Sheikh of Al-Azhar in an Exceptionally Tolerant Article: Christianity, Judaism Share Basic Tenets of Islam; Relationship between Muslims and Non-Muslims Must Be Based on 'Mutual Recognition'

September 27, 2011 | By L. Azuri*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 741


Al-Azhar, based in Cairo, is the most important center of learning and the supreme religious authority in the Sunni Muslim world. In an article published June 23, 2011 in the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, its head, Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayeb, expressed remarkably tolerant views towards non-Muslims, especially Christians and Jews. He wrote: "A Muslim cannot imagine all of mankind sharing a single creed or turning to a single religion – even if this religion is Islam. As long as this remains the case, the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims [must be] one of mutual recognition. The Islamic world has absorbed all the religions of the known world. In its western regions it encountered the Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity, and in its eastern region it encountered Hinduism and Buddhism."

In the article, Al-Tayeb distinguishes between the fundamentals of the faith on the one hand and religious laws (shari'a) on the other. He states that the three Abrahamic religions – Islam, Judaism, and Christianity – share the fundamentals of faith, ritual, and morality, and differ only in their specific shari'a laws. He adds that since shari'a depends on circumstances of time and place, the existence of different shari'as is only natural. In saying this, he not only legitimizes Judaism and Christianity, but also implicitly sanctions the differences in shari'a between the Sunna and Shi'a, and among the various Sunni religious schools.

An examination of Al-Tayeb's writing reveals that this trend of tolerance towards Christianity and Judaism goes back to his days as president of Al-Azhar University (2004-2010), though this recent article is the most far-reaching expression of this trend to date.

Al-Tayeb's Views on Christianity in Previous Writings

In an Al-Ahram article published January 2007, Al-Tayeb stated that Islam's ties with the religions that preceded it are not political, cultural, or social in nature; rather, they are ties of brotherhood, for Islam is a sister to the religions of Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. He stressed that Islam must open up, shed its self-imposed isolation, and stop treating the followers of other religions as enemies who must either be eliminated or drawn into the fold of Islam.[1]

A tolerant stance towards Christians and Christianity is also evident in some of Al-Tayeb's statements since his appointment as Sheikh of Al-Alzhar in March 2010. For example, in a July 2010 interview with Al-Ahram, he said that Islam regarded the Christians as part of the community of believers, "because they believe in Allah and in the Day of Judgment." He added: "If the Prophet, in the Covenant of Al-Madina, regarded the Jews as part of the community of believers, then our Coptic maternal cousins are [certainly] worthy of [this designation]." He stressed that preserving national unity among Muslims and Copts in Egypt was a religious duty, and that one of Al-Azhar's missions was to review Muslim history and faith and draw from them the wealth of Muslim traditions that encourage good relations with the Copts. Al-Tayeb stressed that the Copts had a right to manage their marital matters according to their own beliefs and customs, and to build houses of worship according to their needs. However, he contended that the role of president must be reserved for a Muslim, in accordance with the country's Muslim majority.[2]

After the January 25 revolution, Al-Tayeb repeated that the Copts had the right to be judged according to their own religious laws, and advocated inserting a stipulation to this effect into Clause Two of the Egyptian constitution, which defines Islam as the state religion and the principles of shari'a as the primary source for legislation.[3]

Periods of Conflict Between Al-Azhar, Vatican

On two occasions, Al-Tayeb responded sharply to statements by Pope Benedict XVI, which he perceived as offensive to Islam or as interference in Muslim affairs. The first occasion was after the Pope's September 2006 lecture, which enraged Muslims worldwide,[4] and prompted Al-Tayeb to demand an official apology.[5] The second occasion was following the Pope's call, in January 2011, to protect Christians in Egypt (after the New Year's Eve attack on the Church in Alexandria) – a call Al-Tayeb perceived as interference in Egypt's affairs. In response to this latter statement, Al-Tayeb said: "We have grown used to the honorable Pope saying that the Muslims did not understand his [September 2006] speech, but now we cannot ignore what happened. The Pope does not act and is not shocked when rivers of Muslim blood flow in Iraq and Palestine, but he is shocked when [the bloodshed] is somehow related to Christians..." Al-Tayeb called on the Pope to urge America and Europe to stop selling weapons to the Middle East that fuel terrorism.[6]

Later on, Al-Azhar's Academy of Islamic Research announced a freeze of its dialogue with the Vatican.[7] Al-Tayeb explained that Al-Azhar was interested only in "constructive dialogue with monotheists, based on mutual respect." He added that when Al-Azhar sends a message of brotherhood and peace to the Vatican, it expects an identical message in return, and that it was "surprised to hear nothing but [ever] more extremist positions." Al-Azhar stressed that the interfaith dialogue with Egyptian Churches and other international bodies would continue.[8]

Al-Tayeb's Position on Interfaith Dialogue

In the past, Al-Tayeb participated in interfaith dialogue conferences and expressed his support for such dialogue.[9] However, in recent years he has expressed reservations about interfaith conferences, criticizing the way they are conducted. For example, in a May 2010 article, he implied that interfaith dialogue conferences engage in polite banalities instead of tackling fundamental problems that hinder cooperation and peace. He suggested that they should focus on promoting mutual respect among members of different faiths, rather than mutual recognition, and added that they should avoid dealing with the theological differences between different religions, since faith is not open to amendments. Al-Tayeb emphasized that the dialogue must focus on the commonalities between the monotheistic faiths: belief in God, in His oneness, and in the monotheistic holy scriptures.[10] In this article, and on other occasions, he stressed that a plurality of faiths is desirable according to Islam, and that he does not wish to bring all of humanity under one faith. He added: "As a Muslim, I am not required to carry a sword to convert members of other faiths in this generation. I am required to know other peoples and to maintain ties with them that are beneficial to both sides..."[11]

It should be noted that despite the tolerance towards Judaism reflected in some of his articles, Al-Tayeb refuses to conduct dialogue with Jewish rabbis or participate in conferences they attend. In one case, he said: "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... The Palestinians must unite in order to protect their legitimate rights and exercise their legitimate right to resist occupation, with everything this entails..."[12]

Al-Tayeb's Position on the Shi'a

Previous statements by Al-Tayeb also reflect a relatively moderate position on the Shi'a. For example, he said that "the differences [between Sunna and Shi'a] 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 behind 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."[13]

Al-Azhar's Status in Post-Revolutionary Egypt

Al-Tayeb's June 2011 article in Al-Ahram, presented below, should be seen as part of Al-Azhar's effort to take an active role in shaping the character of post-revolutionary Egypt, and in countering the positions of extremist Islamic streams, which have become more prominent lately in Egypt's public discourse.[14] A key component in this effort was the Al-Azhar Document, published on June 20, 2011.[15] This historic document, drafted by Al-Tayeb and other Egyptian intellectuals, seeks to define the status of religion in the Egyptian state. Continuing the moderate Islamic line typical of Al-Azhar, it evoked lively responses from various Egyptian sectors. By contrast, the recent Al-Ahram article, published several days later, has thus far received little attention in the media.[16]

Following are excerpts from the article:[17]

"Pondering the Verses of the Noble Koran, One Realizes that 'Islam' Does Not Refer Exclusively to the Message Revealed to Muhammad"

"Islam is the latest link in the system of divine religion, which was revealed by all the prophets and messengers, from Adam to Muhammad, Allah's prayers be upon them all.

"Pondering the verses of the Noble Koran, one realizes that 'Islam' does not refer exclusively to the message revealed to Muhammad PBUH; rather, it is the name given to all the messages conveyed by [all] the prophets in their various times and places. Therefore, it is natural that the prophets preceding Muhammad are [also] described [in the Koran] as Muslims, and that Noah, Abraham, and 'Issa [Jesus] are each called Muslim, just like Muhammad. A look at the Koranic verses... is enough to convince one that these glorious figures in the roster of prophecy are all described as Muslims. [The essence of] this religion, shared by Muslims and other nations that preceded them, is absolute monotheism and the belief in Allah's messengers and books.

"The fact that all the divine revelations are [revelations] of a single religion should not lead us to believe that they all share the same religious law [shari'a]. 'Religion' is the constant core essence of each revelation. It is one and does not vary, because it is anchored in universal, constant truths that do not change. Conversely, religious law does vary from one divine revelation to the other. By 'religion' we mean the divine message that goes to the common universal principles shared by all revelations, such as the fundamental tenets of faith, morals, and worship. But 'religious law' is the divine law that regulates the life and social behavior of the believers, which changes from time to time and from place to place. While religion, according to the philosophy of Islam, is one, religious law is not. It varies among people, and in accordance with the environment, time, place and circumstances. Therefore, the Koran emphasizes the variety of religious law among the believers: 'To each among you have we prescribed a law and a course. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single nation [5:48].'

"We notice that, despite the variety of religious law among groups of believers, the unity of religion creates a bond of love, similar to a family bond, among all the believers wherever they are, and whatever their laws and religious messages. This is the actual state of the Islamic world, which has absorbed all the religions of the known world. In its western regions it encountered the Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity, and in its eastern region it encountered Hinduism and Buddhism, and it presented to history shining models of mutual human relationships, flowing from human brotherhood combined with the brotherhood of faith.

"This has indeed been my own personal experience in Upper Egypt, where for many centuries we Muslims have lived alongside our Christian brethren, the Copts. Going one step further in clarifying the relationship between Islam and other religions, we find that this organic unity does not stop at the essential boundaries of religion – namely the principles of faith, worship, and morals – but extends further, to include the relationship between the Prophet of Islam and the prophets who preceded him, as well as the relationship between the Koran and the revealed books that came before it. The Prophet of Islam affirmed the veracity of [the words of] his brethren the prophets, and believed in them, and he completed what they had begun, namely [the task of] calling people to God. The Muslims find this idea [in the Koran, recurring] again and again: 'The Messenger believes in what has been revealed to him from his Lord, and (so do) the believers; they all believe in Allah and His angels and His books and His messengers; We make no difference between any of His messengers; and they say: We hear and obey, our Lord! Thy forgiveness (do we seek), and to Thee is the eventual course [Koran 2:285].'

"Muhammad PBUH used beautiful words to describe this organic bond uniting him with his brethren, the prophets and messengers throughout history, saying: 'Of all people, I am the closest to Jesus son of Mary, both in this world and the next. The Prophets are like brothers [who are] the sons of one father by different wives. They have different mothers, but their faith is one... Their father is their common faith; their different mothers are the times and places [in which they appeared], which distinguish them from one another.

"The same is said of the Koran. It affirms [the truth of] the [other] divine books in their original form, [before] it was distanced from its divine source. The Koran teaches us that the New Testament affirms and supports the Torah, and that the Koran affirms and supports both the New Testament and the Torah, as well as all the preceding divine books: 'He has revealed to you the Book with truth, verifying that which is before it, and He revealed the Torah and the New Testament before it, a guidance for the people [Koran 3:4].'

"A religion whose philosophy is based upon such an organic unity with other divine revelations... [supported] by explicit [Koranic] texts that leave no room for ambiguity or concealment, must inevitably give rise to a civilization that is tolerant and open towards other civilizations... based on [a relationship] where each [civilization] recognizes and complements the other, rather than on mutual conflict and exclusion. Space does not permit me to present [all] the evidence for this thesis, so I shall confine myself to the following facts:

"The Koran, which Many Muslims know by heart, affirms that had God wished all men to have one religion, one creed, one color, and one language, he would have [created them] so. But he did not want this. Instead, he wanted to create them with differing religions, creeds, colors and languages, and [willed] this variety to continue [forever,] until the universe ends: 'And if your Lord had pleased, He would certainly have made people a single nation, and they shall not cease to differ [Koran 11:118]'.

"From this variety that God has chosen for people, it follows that religions and creeds vary and it shall remain so until God inherits the earth and all that is on it. We can say that the variety of creeds and the persistence [of this variety] is both a Koranic truth and a universal one. Therefore, a Muslim cannot imagine all of mankind sharing a single creed or turning to a single religion – even if this religion is Islam. As long as this remains the case, the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims [must be] one of mutual recognition. This is what the Koran stipulated in an explicit and unambiguous text, saying: 'Mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the most pious. Allah is the Knower, the Wise [Koran 49:13]'.

"The Koran Uses the Word 'Believers' as an Inclusive Term for Both Muslims and Byzantines"

"Reviewing the history of Islamic civilization, we see that this civilization was committed to the Islamic principles that I described [in its dealings] with the religions, civilizations and peoples that it encountered. An exhaustive review of this history... is impossible, of course, so we shall focus very briefly on Islam's tolerance towards Christianity... In the Koran there is a beautiful story about the prophet 'Issa [Jesus] and his mother, the Virgin Mary, in Surat Maryam [Sura 19, which relates the stories of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus]. There is also another sura, called Surat Al-Roum, [which refers to] the eastern Christians who [lived in the lands] bordering the Islamic state and were the Muslims' closest neighbors. History tells us that, when the pagan Persians defeated the Christian Byzantines, the pagan Arabs mocked the Muslims for this Byzantine defeat [to the pagans]. When the Muslims complained about this to the Prophet, the revelation came that the Byzantines would overcome the Persians within a few years, and that the believers, Muslim and Christians, would rejoice in Allah's victory. We read the words of Allah: 'The Byzantines have been defeated in the nearby land, but having been defeated, they shall triumph within a few years. Allah's is the decision, both before and after, and then the believers shall rejoice in Allah's victory. He grants victory to whomever He wishes. He is almighty and merciful [Koran 30:2-5].' Allah's promise came true, and the Muslims rejoiced in the victory of the Christian Byzantines. It should be noted that, in these verses, the Koran uses the word 'believers' as an inclusive term for both Muslims and Byzantines. This term [reflects] the unity of religion discussed above, which almost renders the two groups into a single nation, distinct from the nation of idolatry and polytheism. Surat Al-Roum was one of the earliest Koranic suras to be revealed, which means that the fraternity between Muslims and Christians was affirmed from the earliest years of Islam's history and continued until the last years of Muhammad's mission. We find in Surat Al-Maida Allah's words to his Prophet, saying: 'You shall find that the nearest in affection to those who believe are the ones who say "we are Christians." That is because there are priests and monks among them, and they are free from pride [Koran 5:82].'"

"What We Have Said about the Attitude of Islam towards Christianity is Equally Applicable to Judaism"

"What we have said about the attitude of Islam towards Christianity is equally applicable to Judaism, which Islam encountered in Medina, and in which it discovered many similarities [to its own teachings] about monotheism and divine law. The historical Covenant of Medina provides an adequate glimpse into the relationship between Islam and Judaism. Suffice it to mention that one of the clauses of this document states that the Jews are one of the nations of believers, [saying]: 'The Jews have their religion, and the Muslims have theirs. The Jews have their expenses and the Muslims have theirs.' This indicates that Islam allows diversity of religion and economic independence to others, in a spirit of brotherhood among the faiths."

* L. Azuri is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 15, 2007.

[2] For further excerpts from this interview, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 3158, "Al-Azhar Sheikh: The West Isn't Really Working For Peace in the Middle East, Interfaith Dialogue Is Futile; Al-Azhar Clerics Oppose Ground Zero Mosque; Al-Aqsa Research Academy Member Dr. Abd Al-Mu'ti Bayumi: Mosque Is a 'Zionist Plot' That Could Link Islam to 9/11," August 11, 2010, Al-Azhar Sheikh: The West Isn't Really Working For Peace in the Middle East, Interfaith Dialogue Is Futile; Al-Azhar Clerics Oppose Ground Zero Mosque; Al-Aqsa Research Academy Member Dr. Abd Al-Mu'ti Bayumi: Mosque Is a 'Zionist Plot' That Could Link Islam to 9/11.

[3] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), March 3, 2011.

[4] The Pope quoted Byzantine emperor Manuel II
Palaiologos, who said that all the new things Muhammad had brought were evil and inhuman, such as his order to spread Islam by the force of the sword.

[5] See for example Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 25, 2006.

[6] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 6, 2011.

[7] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 21, 2011.

[8] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 22-23, 2011.

[9] See for example his statements in a May 8, 2007 article in Al-Ahram.

[10] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 1, 2007.

[11] Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 10, 2010.

[12] Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 10, 2010.

[13] Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 10, 2010.

[14] This effort came against the backdrop of criticism that Al-Azhar was absent from the public arena and was relinquishing this arena to extremist forces. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 684, "In Egypt, Protests and Demands for Change Reach Al-Azhar," April 15, 2011. In Egypt, Protests and Demands for Change Reach Al-Azhar

[15] On the Al-Azhar Document, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 734, "Egypt's Islamic Camp, Once Suppressed By Regime, Now Taking Part in Shaping New Egypt – Part I: The Al-Azhar Document," September 6, 2011, Egypt's Islamic Camp, Once Suppressed By Regime, Now Taking Part in Shaping New Egypt – Part I: The Al-Azhar Document.

[16] It should be mentioned that Al-Tayeb has received considerable support from the Muslim Brotherhood since his appointment as Sheikh of Al-Azhar, for example when some were demanding his resignation due to his alignment with the Mubarak regime at the onset of the revolution, as well as when criticism was leveled at the Al-Azhar Document.

[17] Al-Ahram (Egypt), June 23, 2011.

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