What Tayeb and Sisi said is big step towards a revolution in Islam
by Samir Khalil Samir
The grand imam of Al-Azhar slammed literalist interpretations of the Qur'an and the Sunnah, as fundamentalists and Islamic terrorists do. He supports the urgent need for Islam's reform, especially in terms of teaching lay people and clerics. He also calls for an end to mutual excommunication (takfir) between Sunnis and Shias. Egyptian President al-Sisi chose to fight the Islamic state group after it beheaded 21 Coptic Christians, whom he called "Egyptian citizens" with full rights.

Rome (AsiaNews) - What Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Cairo's al-Azhar University, said at a conference in Makkah three days ago is one of the most important things that could have happened in the Muslim world. In his speeches, he spoke of the urgent need to revisit the teaching of Islam in schools and universities, and correct extremist interpretations of the Qur'an and the Sunnah.

What Tayeb said (that new ways must be found to interpret the Qur'an and the Sunnah) was echoed in what other, lay Muslim scholars said (for example, Abdel Majid Charfi1, Abdel Wahad, Nasr Hamed Abou-Zeid2 from Egypt, Abdou Filali Ansari3 from Morocco, Abdennour Bidar4 from France, etc.).

What Sheikh Tayeb now seems to have realised is that the matter must be addressed globally, in schools and university, among lay people as well as clerics. Work must be undertaken at all levels, throughout the Muslim world, wherever minds are educated, especially those of clerics who every Friday preach in the mosque, whose sermons are broadcast on radio and television, with much media influence.

1. Excommunication between Sunnis and Shias

For Tayeb, Muslims must change the long practice of labelling each other kāfir or unbeliever,' and end the practice of takfir, excommunication. Indeed, his various remarks focused on the accusation of infidelity against Muslims.

What does this mean? For Sunni Muslim groups, Shias are disbelievers, and accuse them accordingly. Such an attitude is widespread. For many years, in ruling circles, calls have been made to end this witch-hunt; however, the same circles (in Qatar and Wahhabi Saudi Arabia) use it to incite people to carry out attacks against other Muslims. Every month, bomb attacks occur in Pakistan against Shia mosques, occasionally against Sunni ones. The same thing happens in Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and sometimes even in Iran, in the provinces of Baluchistan and Kurdistan. Too many people believe that those who do not share their views must be eliminated.

At the bottom of this problem lies the issue of freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and the right to change one's faith. Unbelief must be allowed without fear of persecution or elimination. It must be said that Sunnis are more likely to condemn Shias than vice versa.

Tayeb called on Sunni and Shia scholars to invest in the common values that unite them. Rather than excommunicate each other, they should encourage each other to see their respective traditions as two ways to live Islam with equal dignity.

Recently, I heard some Christians speak, rubbing their hands, about the war between Sunnis and Shias. "Good for us! Let them fight it out; we don't care," they said. No, it is wrong. God cannot like that. From political and historical experience, we know that after Muslims fight each other, the killing of Jews starts, followed by that of Christians. What do Christians want? They want a more peaceful, brotherly world, not one religion win over another. Hatred would undermine this. For this reason, we Christians must support Sunnis and Shias in their attempts to engage in dialogue and peaceful coexistence. The same goes for Muslims and non-Muslims.

2. Against literal interpretations

Another important point Tayeb highlighted is a cause for division within Islam, namely "the bad interpretation of the Qur'an and the Sunnah". Just to acknowledge this is a tremendous leap forward, an important act of self-criticism.

Tayeb said that extremism stems from an incorrect interpretation of the Qur'an. However, extremists claim that theirs is the true and authentic interpretation of the Holy Book and Muslim tradition, because they follow them literally.

Criticism implies that the Qur'an and Sunnah must be interpreted and cannot be taken literally! Only fanatics take everything literally and literalism represents a false reading of Islam. The same is true for Christianity.

In the Muslim world, "interpretation" can be translated with two words. One is 'Tafsir,' which means "commentary". All the great imams of history have written 'Tafsir'. In them, they go through the text word for word, explaining their philological origin, grammatical place in the sentence, etc. The other word is ta'wīl', interpretation, and this is almost never done, except perhaps among Shias.

I did not have time to read the Arabic text of Tayeb's address and so I do not know which of these two words he used.

In his address in Makkah, Tayeb vaguely cited "extremist groups" who engage in literal interpretation. One reason for that is that people from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia attended the conference and they use the same interpretation. Perhaps, his generalisation was meant to avoid getting into an unnecessary debate.

It is very likely that when he mentioned "extremist groups," Tayeb meant not only ISIS, but also Wahhabis, Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. All these groups interpret the Qur'an literally, though not all of them resort to violence.

Regrettably, a few days before the conference, the grand imam himself had condemned the "barbaric practices" of the Islamic state, by calling for their "killing, crucifixion and chopping of the limbs" in accordance with the Qur'an5. In doing so, he too took the Qur'an literally! Sadly, this ambiguity is present in the Muslim world. When, it suits them, people will quote literally the Qur'an; when it does not and they are criticised, they can always say that the Qur'an needs to be interpreted!

3. Islam and Islamophobia

Another major point in Sheikh Tayeb's address was the notion that extremist groups "are spreading a negative image of Islam." Following this line of argument, Islam's bad image is not due to Western islamophobia. Unlike some angelic Muslims and Westerners, who dismissed anti-Islam criticism as preconceived, atavistic Westerner prejudice, Tayeb blames Islam's negative image on Islam itself. Similarly, being quick to say patronisingly that "Islam is a religion of peace," that all is well, is to take a false stance.

Still, Tayeb equivocates a bit as well. For the gran imam, the "new global colonialism allied to world Zionism" is among the causes for intra-Muslim fighting. In saying so, he falls back on the traditional practice in the Muslim world of blaming others for what is happening to them, thus relieving Muslims of their own responsibility in the matter.

I do not believe in in any "global" and "Zionist" conspiracy. Of course, Israel, the United States, and West can exploit divisions and strife among Muslims for their own interests. But they could not do anything in the Islamic world if there were no struggles for which Muslims are the culprits. Indeed, despite al-Tayeb's view that such a conspiracy underlies "confessional tensions" among Muslims, no one can reach the conclusion that West is at war with Islam.

I do believe that what Tayeb said in Makkah is critical. If what he stressed about the Qur'an, namely its theological interpretative aspect, spreads across Islamic world, that would be a revolution.

4. Sisi, Copts, and Egyptian citizenship

Recently, something revolutionary happened: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ordered air strikes against the Islamic State in Libya. It is revolutionary because he gave the order after the killing of 21 Egyptian Christians. In the ongoing wars across the Muslim world, thousands of Muslims have died, but Sisi ordered the attack in retaliation for the killing of 21 Coptic Christians, acknowledging them as full citizens of Egypt.

President Sisi said that the Egypt had no interest in attacking or invading other nations but that it would defend itself and its citizens. The Egyptian leader suggested that Arab countries might want to fight the Caliphate together.

The Egyptian president also attended the funeral services for the decapitated Christians in Cairo's Coptic Cathedral and decided to compensate the families who lost a husband or a father.

Even King Salman of Saudi Arabia said interesting things at the Makkah conference. For the Saudi monarch, "Terrorism is a scourge which is the product of extremist ideology, [. . .] a threat to our Muslim nation and to the entire world." He described Islamic terrorists as "misguided and mislead," people "who have given an opportunity to those eying to hurt Islam to vilify its followers".

Thus, the main religious authority (Al-Azhar), the region's most important political power (Saudi Arabia), and the Arab world's most populous country (Egypt) appear to be coming together as allies for the transformation of the Islamic world. This might take at least ten years before any results are visible, but start they must.

Upgrading and modernising the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures had begun in the early 1900s when Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) was a major figure at al-Azhar. Unfortunately, his best student, Rashid Rida, stopped the reformist impetus, and became the spiritual father of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that applies a literalist interpretation to the Qur'an.

More than a century after Muhammad Abduh's death, we are going backward! Let us hope that the response to the violence of Islamist groups can be the beginning of an Islamic reformation, which is something most Muslims want!

1 See Penser l'islam aujourd'hui (Thoughts on Contemporary Islam ), 78-minute video conference.

2 Abu Zayd, Nasr Hamid, Reformation of Islamic Thought: A Critical Historical Analysis, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006, p. 113); Islam e storia: Critica del discorso religioso (Islam and history: Critique of religious discourse - Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2002); Testo sacro e libertà. Per una lettura critica del Corano (Sacred text and freedom. For a critical reading of the Qur'an - edited by Federica Fedeli, introduction by Nina zu Fürstenberg (Venice: I libri di Reset, Marsilio editori, 2012).

3 Filaly-Ansary, Abdou, Réformer l'islam ? Une introduction aux débats contemporains (Reforming Islam? An Introduction to Currents Muslim Debates - Paris, La Découverte, 2003, p. 284)

4 Bidar, Abdennour, An Islam pour notre temps (An Islam for Our Times - Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 2004); ibid. Islam sans soumission: Pour a existentialisme musulman (Islam without Submission For a Muslim Existentialism - Paris, éd. Albin Michel, 2008).

5 Holy Qur'an, 7:124: "I will certainly cut off your hands and your feet on opposite sides, then will I crucify you all together." University of Michigan Library Digital Collections. Retrieved 24 February 2015.