A Talk with Egypt Grand Mufti Dr. Ali Gomaa
Dr. Ali Gomaa is the Grand Mufti of Egypt, a position he has held since 2003. As part of his role, he presides over the Dar Al-Ifta Al-Masriyyah, a prestigious Islamic research institution that issues fatwas and aims to keep contemporary Muslims in touch with religious principles. Dr. Gomaa is also a member of Al-Azhar’s Senior Scholars Council and is considered among the top fifty most influential Muslims in the world. In July 2011 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Liverpool Hope University in recognition of his efforts as a major international figure promoting tolerance and understanding between religions.
The Grand Mufti of Egypt met with Asharq Al-Awsat at the headquarters of the Dar Al-Ifta in El-Darrasa, Cairo.
Q: Al-Azhar’s Dar Al-Ifta, under your administration, has witnessed considerable development. Is there anything you wanted to achieve but were unable to due to time constraints or political considerations?
A: Since taking up this post I have been keen to transform Dar Al-Ifta into an international organization that transcends location, time, and administration to put forward a model to all fatwa-issuing institutes in the world. This is by way of utilizing modern science with the objective of modernizing departments, such as the departments of arbitration, media, and programmed development, among others. I was also keen to develop and educate the Dar Al-Ifta’s second and third generations to the point that we now have a fourth generation represented by the outstanding students of the Faculty of Sharia Law at Al-Azhar University. They will be able to assume this historic responsibility (at Dar Al-Ifta). We were also concerned with the social role played by the Dar Al-Ifta in terms of confliction resolution. This is because we do not have any bias, except a bias towards scholarship, commitment to development, spreading love and peace among the people, re-building the land, and worshipping God. In order to preserve the largest amounts of fatwas and intellectual heritage left behind by the Dar Al-Ifta scholars, we signed a protocol agreement with the Ministry of Culture which aims to preserve the Dar Al-Ifta’s documents. This will see copies being made of all documents, with these then being placed in the Egyptian National Archives. In addition to this, copies of documents will remain at the Dar Al-Ifta, in addition to being sent to the Egyptian Central Bank and Al-Azhar.
Q: Many religious scholars and preachers, after leaving their post, move towards playing a stronger Islamic Dawa (Call) role. As the out-going Egyptian Mufti, would you agree with this assessment?
A: Religious scholars never stop serving their religion and community after leaving their post, and even after their deaths, for they leave behind knowledge that people can benefit from. We have undertaken ceaseless efforts to serve Islam, the Islamic community at home and abroad, supporting Islam and Muslims everywhere, because this is a great responsibility that God Almighty has given to the scholars We cannot retreat from this because this responsibility is not tied to any time or place or position, rather this is a message that must be fulfilled.
Q: Egypt is witnessing a state of extreme political division and difficulty. In your view, how can we overcome this?
A: This can be achieved by building consensus and moving away from division. When the Egyptians came to an agreement during the January 25 revolution, moving away from personal and partisan differences and division, they were able to topple a regime of corruption, injustice, and oppression. Let me go further and say that when they came together and reached this agreement they carried out one of the greatest revolutions in the world and showed everybody the meaning of advancement civilization. Therefore, I call on the Egyptian people to come together over what united them and to be united over Egypt and work for the advancement and renaissance of the country, and not grant Egypt’s enemies the opportunity to harm the country amid this divisive atmosphere.
Q: How would you characterize this divisive political scene precisely?
A: I can see that discord, strife, and partisan and self-interests are ruling the Egyptian scene, while national interests are absent. This is the malady, as for the cure this is unity and agreement. If we forget this, then society will be weakened and doomed but if we keep hold to this then our society will be strengthened. Everybody knows the importance of unity and we must put aside our differences, particularly now. We must ensure that difference of opinion do not escalate the crisis being faced by the Islamic community.
Q: What advice would you offer?
A: My advice is to protect unity, which is one of the most important duties at this time, until Egypt is able to move past this difficult period. The principle of agreement and reconciliation must serve as our barometer to measure what is happening in our country. We must also pay attention to development and confront our major problems.
Q: In your view, to what extent does Islam guarantee freedom of opinion? How do you view the protests and sit-ins taking place across the country?
A: Demonstrations and sit-ins can be seen in most countries and they are human rights on the condition that they do not harm others or disrupt their interests. The Hadith of the Prophet talks about this a lot. However the hadith also confirms that those who preserve the same approach are the least faithful. Therefore all Egyptians must work together to allow Egypt to overcome the current phase. I say to those who are preserving the same approach and disrupt the interests of the country and the people: Fear for yourselves and for your country because you will face the wrath of God. This is something that has nothing to do with freedom or democracy or the right to demonstrate. Everybody has the right peacefully express themselves in a legitimate manner; this is something that nobody can deny.
Q: Al-Azhar is set to establish a satellite television channel with some claiming that you may be placed in charge of this. What is your view?
A: The Al-Azhar channel is part of an attempt to confront the extremist religious satellite channels in their own backyard, not to mention the chaos and confusion that these channels spread by misleading people with false fatwas that including judging others as infidels. Our channel’s objective will be to promote a moderate approach and initiate rapprochement between the difference sects, eliminating the chaotic fatwas (issued by religious satellite television channels). This channel will follow the approach and ideology of Al-Azhar and will be overseen by scholars. The special committee formed to prepare the launch of this channel is working to ensure that this takes place as soon as possible. The channel will also utilize all forms of new media, technology, and communication while preserving the moderate and Islamic nature of our message. We will work to address all sections of Egyptian, Islamic and international society utilizing a simple but modern approach. At the same time, we will also work to address misrepresentations of Muslims and Islam, correct the image of Islam in the west, and clarify the facts of our tolerant religion.
Q: Most satellite channels are seeking to achieve their own interests and objectives; do you agree that securing personal gain seems to be the driving force behind the media these days?
A: There are media schools that are unfortunately pursuing the path of incitement, not enlightenment, and we completely reject this kind of media. I say to such figures that their religious, cultural and civilizational duty is to create, not destroy. They must illuminate this media practice of incitement. They must attract people without resorting to lies, deceptions, and unsubstantiated rumors. This is something that requires effort, in the same manner that any innovation requires effort. As for everybody only thinking about themselves and not caring about training or professionalism, this does not please God Almighty, the Prophet, or the believers. People are suspicious about this kind of media now, for this is represented by inciting against everything. Everybody must abide by honesty because this is what Islam has called us to. I previously called for a media honor code that will ensure that the elite and intellectuals stay away from trading baseless accusations, leaving the scene open for development and advancement.
Q: Some people are of the view that certain parties are attempting to undermined Al-Azhar and its symbols and prevent it from carrying out its role in terms of addressing the country’s major issues. Do you agree?
A: Al-Nobody can deny Al-Azhar’s national role. It has an immaculate history in defending religion and promoting moderation and tolerance, not to mention embracing open-mindedness. Over its long history and until today, Al-Azhar scholars play an active role in promoting tolerant and moderate Islam and in defending Egypt’s Islamic identity. Al-Azhar and is scholars are an integral part of society and are not detached from the country’s problems and reality. What we are seeing today is the best example of Al-Azhar’s interaction with the country’s concerns, namely the Al-Azhar Document. This demonstrates Al-Azhar’s desire to unite the country and eliminate the politics of marginalization and mistrust in order to ensure that the country reaches safety. Al-Azhar, as an important religious reference, is capable of putting forward practical advice on scientific, social, and other issues that demonstrate true Islam and solve the Muslim community’s problems. Al-Azhar is also capable of putting forward proposals to countries and governments, in addition to fixing the educational curriculum, or at the very least participating in deciding the Islamic educational issues, alongside other proposals that will have an impact on the Muslim’s situation, the prevalence of social peace, and the integration of the Muslim community. All of this will help the Muslims become valuable citizens who participate in building our civilization. Al-Azhar does not pay attention to voices that raise destructive, not constructive, slogans and views. Al-Azhar is followed the correct path and will not be turned away by these voices that are seeking to undermine us.
Q: It is easy for anybody to obtain a fatwa now. Some people believe that there should be a law licensing fatwa-issuance, particularly in the media. Do you agree?
A: Islamic scholars are very concerned with the fatwa-issuing process and have given this a high-profile due to its importance. The Prophet, peace be upon him, held this position during his lifetime, and after him it was held by the Prophet’s Companions, and then the scholars in general. Despite this, the religious arena today is in a state of chaos in terms of fatwa-issuance and religious discourse, due to the presence of non-specialists issuing fatwas, particularly via satellite television. This has led to a state of chaos and suspicion over religious issues. There can be no doubt that we must limit fatwa-issuance to scholars who specialize in this, ensuring that everybody has the proper standards for this important task.