The Muslim leader who dared embrace Pope Francis in public comes from a Sufi order and studied the philosophy of religions at the Sorbonne. His steps towards modernity include dialogue with Christians and full citizenship for everyone, but rigorists oppose him.
Cairo (AsiaNews) – Behind the Grand Imam’s sideways glance, which sometimes makes him look like a hunted beast, there is "a shy guy," said former Lebanese Culture Minister Tarek Mitri, who has known him since university years in Paris where one studied the philosophy of international relations and the other the philosophy of religions. This is a far cry from the image of a fierce "guardian of dogma" or the "great inquisitor" that one can get from his public career.
The son of a sheikh in a ṭarīqah, a sufi order in Alssaeid (Upper Egypt), Ahmad el-Tayeb, 71, has a solid philosophical background acquired at the Sorbonne, attending courses taught by Paul Ricoeur. For Tarek Mitri, "His religious thought is thus informed by mysticism on the one hand and by philosophy [on the other]. He is not a Faqīh, a jurist or a canonist."
In his address at al-Azhar University on 27 April, the Grand Imam spoke of "existentialism" and "postmodernity". Was he showing off? The former Lebanese minister does not think so. "When he speaks publicly, the Imam is in a logic of confrontation between religious faith and modern nihilism. But in reality, he is a man who is in dialogue with modernity. There is therefore the man and the function. In public, the function certainly takes the upper hand, but I believe he is inhabited by concern to make the religious message plausible, credible, in the eyes of modern people. He is aware that there is a modernity that causes anxiety in the Muslim world".
Publicly, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, appointed by President Hosni Mubarak in 2010, is certainly approved by many, but he has also been criticised. Fundamentalists hate him and people in power scheme to replace him. In 2011, during the revolutionary days that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak, the revolutionaries saw him as an ally of the regime. Without being revolutionary, he was very sensitive to what young people demanded. As a result, people in power have lost confidence in him, suspecting him of being too favourable to new ideas.
"In an unprecedented move," Mitri said, "the Imam decided to make al-Azhar a place of dialogue. He created Beit el A'ila el Masria (The House of the Egyptian Family), a place where all Christian religious leaders feel at home and where people try to solve, defuse confessional tensions, as well as offer practical solutions to practical problems, as is done in a family.”
“For almost two years, he has brought together several times more or less moderate Islamist intellectuals, as well as Muslim and Christian liberals, working on the notion of a constitutional state. He has also proclaimed, in consultation with a large number of intellectuals from all sides, a Charter of Freedoms that goes very far – artistic freedoms, intellectual freedoms and even freedom of conscience – but without using the word. Finally, he sought to introduce the notion of citizenship in the Islamic world, which led to the symposium last March."
The name of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar was warmly applauded at the outdoor Mass celebrated by the Pope on Saturday, 29 April. Cited in a final word of thanks by the Patriarch of the Coptic Catholics, his name was applauded by the crowd as much as that of President al-Sisi and Tawadros II.
"Sweet consolation in the midst of bitterness," said Tarik Mitri, recounting the mixed feelings at the end of the Holy Father's visit. Like the Pope, who hugged him in public, he faces a tenacious and sometimes even malicious internal opposition on the part of the rigorists of his camp.