Al-Masry Al-Youm interviews the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb (Part I)

Al-Masry Al-Youm sat down with the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, tackling a wide range of issues including politics, radicalism and Islamic law.
Q: What role does Al-Azhar play in combating extremism in Egypt and the Arab region?
A: For centuries, Al-Azhar’s message has been that of highlighting Islam’s moderation and tolerance; Allah says in the Holy Quran, “And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way,” (2:143). Our Prophet (Peace be Upon Him), was the messenger of mercy, and has taught us that difference is Islamic; “And had thy Sustainer so willed, He could surely have made all mankind one single community: but [He willed it otherwise, and so] they continue to hold divergent views,” (11:118); “And [thus it is] had thy Sustainer so willed, all those who live on earth would surely have attained to faith, all of them: dost thou, then, think that thou couldst compel people to believe,” (10:99).
Q: Is there a clear vision of how to combat extremism?
A: Al-Azhar is fully aware that Muslims are struggling with tumultuous waves of political, economic, social and cultural changes; and religion remains one card used by conflicting sides. Al-Azhar, enjoying a tremendous stock of knowledge and scholars, still serves as roadblock in face of the political manipulation of Islam. Therefore, warring sides have tempted to polarize Al-Azhar and use it as a bargaining chip.
Q: What are your mechanisms?
A: Al-Azhar has graduated millions of moderate preachers, and is currently reviewing its curricula in coordination with the Education Ministry. We are also working hard to deliver our message through major mosques, media outlets, international conferences and seminars. Yet, that is all insufficient without a collaboration from security and legal authorities that have the job of laying down legislation that criminalize the dissemination of extremist thought. Foreign policy bodies are also ought to strictly handle countries and organizations that promote extremism.
Q: Some believe that combating extremism should go beyond conferences to tangible measures?
A: Nobody can claim that holding one or more conferences is enough to fight fanaticism, and the phenomenon is not going to disappear from society overnight. It is a phenomenon that has infiltrated the society over centuries, helped by political and social circumstances that created a suitable environment for it. The battle is a long-term, multi-faceted one.
Q: Do you think government, represented in the Endowments Ministry, had taken a step towards fighting radicalism by banning preachers, other than Al-Azhar’s, from delivering sermons at mosques?
A: No doubt the ban was a late step in the right direction, it was even our first demand to the minister once he was tipped for the post. Mosque rostrums are dignified and cannot be left to the past state of chaos and occupation by groups and individuals using them for political purposes and misconceptions. The Endowments  Ministry still has a long way ahead confronting those thoughts. Rostrums, given the reverence they enjoy among people, give extra power to those standing above; and people tend to believe that anything said on the rostrum is inherent in religion. Thus, the institutions that give preachers licenses to address the people have a great responsibility.
Q: But how is it guaranteed that an unqualified Al-Azhar member is not up the rostrum?
A: Religious qualification is, no doubt, a basic requirement for preaching, but it is not the only factor. The selection should be done based on accurate standards. It is not reasonable to pick up those who influence people’s minds disregarding efficiency or knowledge. There should be oversight practiced over the performance of preachers. The Endowments Ministry has the responsibility of holding its violating preachers accountable. Any mistake in that field has dire consequences.
Q: Why has Al-Azhar left the scene over the past years to those who are accused of poisoning people’s minds?
A: Al-Azhar did not withdraw at any stage. The appointment of preachers and related oversight falls within the administrative authority of the state, represented in the Endowments Ministry, not Al-Azhar. Though collaboration continues between Al-Azhar and the ministry on many levels, each institution has its authorities.
Generally speaking, the blame for leaving rostrums to the incompetent can be laid to a socially-entrenched phenomenon: law enforcement laxity. That can be found in various fields, where violations are vivid but not tackled by law. 
Though the legislation against unlicensed preaching had already existed, it was ignored most of the time; and the practice gradually rooted down. Al-Azhar, on its part, has always warned of that fact, but official authorities never gave due attention.
The situation, has now changed, however, with the state, given the developments, becoming more aware of the danger of slackness in law enforcement. People, acquiring more awareness from the experience of Muslim Brotherhood rule, are now more supportive of discipline and even demand it.
Q: Some people have reservations on Al-Azhar’s syllabi, claiming that they fail to reflect the zeitgeist and promote rigorism. Is there a strategy for scrutinizing textbooks?
A: Such accusations are part of the political strife Egypt is witnessing at present, and many of them are, unfortunately, not free from prejudice. 
On my part, it is not my style to ignore or rebuff criticisms, I rather task specialized teams or confidantes to review criticisms; and if any of them proves beneficial, I apply it immediately.
Q:  Many argue that Al-Azhar’s curricula rely solely on indoctrination rather than opening space for dialogue or differing views?
A: This is not true. We, indeed, teach sciences that are delivered by inculcation as the case with those taught to students in other civilizations, but many are unaware that Al-Azhar’s syllabi are mainly based on discourse. Those who argue that philosophy, theology and Islamic jurisprudence are taught by inculcation do not have the least knowledge of those branches of science.
Q: What about heritage books that are irrelevant to modern times?
A: Syllabi that include heritage texts are meant to train students on how to remain connected to and explore tradition. If we fail to do that, we could lose a large component of our civilizational personality.
Heritage texts are not included as postulates, but are rather subjected to revision. Students are required to understand those texts so as to judge them according to criteria agreed by scholars. To take such texts out of context, as some do, is an act of distortion.
Q: Are you suggesting that Al-Azhar’s textbooks are free of rigorism?
A: They are; it is against the spirit of Al-Azhar and its message, which is that of Islam. Rigorism and fanaticism are diseases that are contingent on a person’s psychological characteristics, his surrounding social, economic and political environment. The phenomenon had its ups and downs throughout ages and has nothing to do with the teachings of Al-Azhar that has always stood up to extremism, and that’s why the institution never saw a period of peace, even under the Muslim Brotherhood.
I am not denying that Al-Azhar, just like any other institution, had been infiltrated by extremists who use their positions as university teachers to promote their ideologies; yet, I do not think the scope of their presence surpasses that at other institutions of the society.
If you search among the masters of extremist thought across the world, you will never find an Al-Azhar graduate except for one who had no taste for the history of Al-Azhar. It is regrettable to accuse Al-Azhar of terrorism without a single word on the universities to which the leaders and imams of terrorism belong.
Q: Among Al-Azhar students who receive proper religious teaching, we have seen some extremists. How did the Brotherhood succeed in polarizing those?
A: Al-Azhar University is home to more than 400,000 students distributed across the country. Those affected by radical thought are too few if compared to the total. Moreover, the encounters that have occurred inside the campus have been more concentrated in Cairo, particularly at the students’ dormitory.
I believe that issue has a social, rather than religious, dimension. It is related to the fact that the university in Cairo receives students from other provinces who live in the capital for most of their academic year. So, it is easy for the students to be polarized by any group, especially through religion, given the long time they spend away from family. That might explain why the university’s branches at other provinces are not experiencing the same rate of encounters in Cairo.
Q: But that is the case with students at all Egyptian universities, why does that happen at Al-Azhar in particular?
A: I think the name of Al-Azhar has been specifically targeted and used to create the illusion of a lost legitimacy, or to put on a religious veneer that could cover a political failure that triggered revolt among Egyptians of all stripes. They used to play to the world the role of a victim that defends Islam, a purpose that required to use Al-Azhar’s name, at least in an fabricated manner. They sought that end to the extent that they hired students and thugs from out the university to invade the campus and make reports that were meant to give a deceptive picture to the world.
Q: How can that problem be addressed?
A: We confronted the problem on two levels. Firstly, strict directives were given to officials to toughly stand up to law violations and attempts to hinder study. Secondly, plans have been laid to engage expatriate students in social, cultural and sports activities as means to let out their energy.
Q: Do you believe that Al-Azhar’s expansion in faculties of technical and human sciences had an impact on religious studies which represent his main message?
A: That is a complicated, old story, for such colleges were imposed on Al-Azhar in 1961. My opinion is that Al-Azhar should devote itself to religious and linguistic sciences while other colleges can take responsibility for other specializations such as medicine and engineering.
The additional scientific specialization added to Al-Azhar’s colleges ladened the university with extra financial burdens as it maintains the smallest budget compared to other universities. That insufficient financing caused a defect in Al-Azhar’s scientific career. Until recently, we used to teach musical keys and astronomy side by side with Sharia and jurisprudence, but that has changed.
Though this is the current reality, Al-Azhar has managed to cope with that burden. Now we have doctors graduated from Al-Azhar how should be having values and principles that put more moral obligations on them compared to others.
Q: But are you still ready to teach music and painting again? Would there be a faculty of fine arts run by Al-Azhar?
A: We do not mind teaching any science, even music.
Q: The attack on Charlie Hebdo renewed the controversy over the so-called ‘Islamist terrorism’, what is your comment on that?
A: Al-Azhar has reiterated frequently that Islam is being judged for the crimes others commit in its name. Our statement clearly denounced that criminal action. There are several means to defend Islam and our Prophet that do not include brutal killings for which Muslims across the globe pay the price from their security, freedom, reputation, economy and future. Muslims everywhere are required to openly condemn that criminal action.
Q: How do you see President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s visit to the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral on Christmas eve to wish Copts a happy feast?
A: On the same day, I headed a delegation of scholars from Al-Azhar, Dar al-Iftaa and the Endowments Ministry to congratulate our Coptic brothers for their feast. That’s a habit we make sure to maintain all the time. The president’s visit was a surprise that made both Muslims and Christians happy, and was in line with Quran’s and the Prophet's teachings.
Q: How could you explain the Muslim Brotherhood’s fierce attack on Al-Azhar?
A: They have clear motivations. Al-Azhar had stood against their aspirations to use religion for political purposes. The were vividly leading Egypt to the edge though they planted their loyalists at all positions in disregard to their incompetence. 
Al-Azhar recognized that early, which earned it the Brotherhood’s hostility. The group attempted to infiltrate the institution but, with God’s help, we were able to prevent that from happening.
The Brotherhood cannot forget that Al-Azhar was at the forefront of the social forces that retrieved Egypt with an unprecedented support from the Egyptian people. They can not ignore Al-Azhar’s presence during the 3 July 2013 declaration among other religious and political leaderships concerned by Egypt’s future.
Q: What about attacks from some intellectuals?
A: That is largely driven by people with ideological biases and prejudices who, on many occasions, exhibit a clear bias for dictatorship and gagging while claiming to defend the freedom of opinion.
At Al-Azhar, we practice self-criticism, and I am personally anxious to monitor criticisms made through the media and would take them into consideration.
Q: Why does it always seem that Al-Azhar is in a standoff with the Culture Ministry and intellectuals? Is Al-Azhar opposed to creativity?
A: There are thousands of films, plays and books that satirically attack Al-Azhar, yet, we do not object to them. But if we are asked to give our religious opinion in a work of art, we give it based on the law. Censoring and clearances are the job of other agencies that do not take Al-Azhar’s opinion into account all the time. We are not against freedoms, on the contrary, we want a freedom of expression just like the Ministry of Culture does.
Q: But the Culture Minister has made a statement in which he referred to what he described as “inflexibility” on Al-Azhar’s side?
A: I was surprised with his statements in which he pictured Al-Azhar as a hardheaded institution that opposes thought and creativity, which is untrue. I believe the minister’s knowledge of Al-Azhar’s curricula is limited.
For example, we were not the only institution to object to the screening of “Halawet Rouh” movie, there was also the Cabinet and other bodies. Do not we have the right to express our opinion as everybody else? 
Is the Culture Ministry unaware that most analysts put the largest share of blame on it for cultural illiteracy, intellectual decline and the spread of extremism? Did the ministry review its performance in face of criticisms from intellectuals who do not belong to Al-Azhar? The culture ministry should be busy with those issues.
Q: But there is a difference between asking for Al-Azahr’s opinion and imposing it on other institutions?
A: Sure. Al-Azhar’s opinion is not binding, we are nor an executive authority. Our only job is to give a religious edict, but the implementation of penalties and the granting of clearances is the role of other bodies.
Q: So what was the reason behind censoring theatrical performances Al-Hussain Thaeran (Al-Hussein is Rebellious) and Al-Hussain Shaheedan (Al-Hussain is a Martyr), as well as US film Exodus: Gods and Kings?
A: Again, we give opinions and do not make decisions. It is odd to stir a controversy around both plays as they were written 45 years ago and performed by tens of troupes. Reviving the issue is an example of fabricated battles with Al-Azhar. Morocco had banned the movie too, does Al-Azhar have a hand in that?
Q: Since 1926, Al-Azhar has rejected the personification of messengers and the Prophet's companions in dramas; but some believe there is no point of that as such works are abundant through the internet and satellites?
A: I repeat again, we only give an opinion objecting to the personification of the Prophet and his companions to preserve their spiritual stature, and since there is no necessity requiring that, our stance will remain the same as in 1926. As for Western productions in that respect, Arab Muslim viewers will still view them as the work of a culture that, most of the time, exports to us what we disapprove. Yet, the case is totally different when the prophets are personified in an Arab production.
Many Egyptian Christians are displeased with Western-made films that personify Christ. Therefore, it is a matter of social culture rather than a Al-Azhar position. Egyptians are sensitive to any violations to their religion by nature; it is a social context that has to be heeded.
Q: But the Prophet’s companions are not as sacred as prophets?
A: That’s right, but we are still ordered to revere them and keep them away from any encroachment. Some people, under the pretext of the freedom of opinion, claim the right to defame the Prophet’s companions; God will judge them for that.
Q: Is Al-Azhar against science and progress? It has for long opposed to organ transplants till the law regulating the process was approved recently?
A:  Al-Azhar had not forbidden organ transplants. Late Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mohamed Sayyed Tantawy approved the practice long ago, and declared that he would donate his cornea upon his death. I think the confusion was due to late prominent preacher Mohamed Metwally al-Shaarawy’s objection, which we still view as an independent view worth of respect
Q: So why did Al-Azhar oppose sex changes despite scientific justifications in several cases?
A: That’s also not true, we had never been against sex change as long as there were convincing legal and medical reasons.
Q: You were against in vitro fertilization when the idea was introduced scientifically for the first time.
A: That’s not true. Steps away from Al-Azhar’s Mashyakha (chairmanship office) we have an international center where IVF is conducted. I believe it is the only one in the Middle East. One of my relatives had his first daughter after an IVF procedure.
Q: Lets move to legislation, some reject Al-Azhar’s guardianship over laws and the necessity to obtain its approval before their enactment?
We are not practicing guardianship over the constitutionality of laws, we even refused to stipulate on Al-Azhar as a reference in the 2014 Constitution and demanded the Supreme Constitutional Court to practice that right . 
Q: Al-Azhar’s statement on the excommunication of Islamic State militias stirred much controversy, what was the institution’s logic behind it?
A: Rejecting the declaration of Islamic State militants as infidels, Al-Azhar was teaching a lesson for all generation on Islam’s rejection of the use of excommunication as a weapon used by warring parties. We clearly noted in the statement that IS are misguided transgressors who should be fought for the crimes they commit against Islam. However, many accused Al-Azhar of sympathizing with the group.
Q: How can we still describe someone pronouncing the Shahada (declaration of being a Muslim) while chopping off the head of another human being?
A: Islamic jurisprudence differentiates between several categories, there are believers, Muslims, infidels, apostates and iniquitous. Muslims committing flagrant sins, should be subjected to the Islamic retribution or penalty, which is execution in the case of murder, yet, they should not be declared infidels. Killings among Sunnis and Shias in Iraq left millions dead, even inside mosques, yet, no one asked to excommunicate them. The same applies to Syria. If we open the door to excommunication nobody will escape it.
Q: Are you going to accept Iran’s invitation for a visit? Will political disagreements between Iran and Egypt prevent that visit?
A: I appreciate Iran’s invitation. Al-Azhar, by nature, adopts positive stances on efforts for rapprochement. Yet, that invitation should be accompanied with a genuine effort from Iran to cease its political interventions in several Islamic countries, especially Gulf states.
Q: But what does Al-Azhar have to do with politics? Do not you think you are setting political conditions and that you better condition the visit on resolving religious differences?
A: Al-Azhar is not a political authority, and I am no politician; but my visit would be interpreted from a political perspective. So, the political aspect is inevitably present. Interventions in the domestic affairs of Islamic states, such as Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon and Syria, are endangering their stability, which is both a political and religious issue.
Those are not conditions. As I said, I do not want my visit to be used politically without a tangible progress on the ground. Sweet diplomatic talk is good but lacks practical application.

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