Thursday, September 29, 2011

Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb Calls for a Moderate Islam

Ahmed Al-Tayeb

Not all news from the Islamic world is bad, though my many posts on Islamism might leave that impression. MEMRI reports on "The Sheikh of Al-Azhar in an Exceptionally Tolerant Article" (MEMRI, Inquiry and Analysis Series Report No. 741, September 27, 2011):
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.
MEMRI notes that these open views are not merely recent pronouncements:
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.
MEMRI quotes from a June 2011 article by Al-Tayeb:
"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].'"
This is certainly a very different message than we constantly hear from the Islamists of the Muslim world. On the other hand, Al-Tayeb isn't perfect:
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, and prompted Al-Tayeb to demand an official apology. 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.
I wonder if Al-Tayeb ever attempted to find out exactly what the Pope said in that 2006 lecture. I went directly to the German speech on video at the time of the controversy and found that the Pope's actual words were significantly different than reported in English, and I assume that the same holds for the reports of the Pope's talk in Arabic, which were likely translated from English rather than German. In the original German, the Pope's own words showed him distancing himself from the words of the Byzantine emperor whom he quoted as criticizing the violence practiced by Islam. As for the Pope's call for the protection of Christians in Egypt, that's perfectly legitimate and scarcely interference in Egypt's affairs -- or would Al-Tayeb say that Muslim religious leaders have no right to criticize persecution of Muslims in lands where they constitute a minority?

But even with these caveats, I'm pleased to hear a mainstream figure in such a position of authority as the Sheikh of Al-Azhar speak out for tolerance and better understanding among religions and call for Muslims to seek peaceful relations with non-Muslims.

I just hope that Al-Tayeb will be shown to have spoken consistently on these matters . . .

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