03/03/2017, 16.17
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Al-Azhar: pluralism and citizenship at the basis of Islam. But a civic state is missing

by Fady Noun

For Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Muslim faith is not incompatible with religious pluralism. Christians should not be considered as a minority or "negative" element. Still, the notion of a civic and secular state is missing. What is needed is a renewed commitment to actual equality in diversity.

Cairo (AsiaNews) – Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the world’s foremost Sunni Arab institution, solemnly asserted that Islam is not incompatible with religious pluralism, and upheld the principle of equality in rights and duties for Muslims and non-Muslims within a "national constitutional state". The concept of "citizenship" is not foreign to Islam, the imam insisted; on the contrary, it is part of its foundations.

These three claims are the three main points of the recent Islamic-Christian conference held in Cairo (28 February-1 March), which reflected in particular the frank final declaration condemning all violence carried out in the name of religion, as well as every form of political power based on discrimination between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Interesting in itself, the declaration becomes even more important as it confirms a process of reflection undertaken by al-Azhar in the past few years. In 2012, in a paper entitled Citizenship and the future of Egypt, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb noted that Islam does not call for a religious state, and opted for the notion of citizenship.

Subsequently, an important paper on freedoms, including religious freedom, was published in 2014. The document placed al-Azhar at the forefront of a moderate Islam advocating a Charter on private and public freedoms, including freedom of conscience.

Finally, in his weekly address on Egyptian television on 13 January, el-Tayeb said that Christians in Egypt are not and cannot be considered dhimmis, nor even "a minority", a term that has "negative connotations". The symposium on Wednesday and Thursday shows that Azhar is no longer hesitating from publicly expressing such principles, not only as mere opinions but as a commitment of the Muslim faith.


However important such progress may be, after the Cairo conference, some Christian and Muslim speakers continue to see the discourse put forward by the great Sunni religious body as ambiguous and less clear than it needs to be. For them, "Much has been said about citizenship, but not much was said about the civic state, which is its corollary. One senses that the discourse does not contrast sharply enough with the conservative tradition."

These speakers noted that the notion of a civic state did not appear either in Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb’s address nor in the final declaration. "We are still talking about the ‘national’ state (dawla watania). The step towards a civic state has not yet been taken, and one can enjoy civic equality that the same citizenship confers even within the framework of an Islamic State."

The source concludes by stating that progress is still necessary in order to arrive at a model of a modern civic state in which all religions are on an equal footing within the framework of a citizenship that includes diversity.

For their part, Lebanese speakers like Minister Pierre Raffoul, President Amine Gemayel, Farès Souhaid and Nayla Tabbara (Adyan Foundation) stressed the specificities of Lebanon’s model of coexistence, in particular the existence of a form of cultural osmosis within Lebanese society, so that there is a Muslim component in the personality of every Christian, and, likewise, a Christian component in the personality of every Muslim.

Al-Azhar declaration

The four, freely translated key points in the final declaration of the el-Azhar Symposium are as follows:

1 "The notion of citizenship is firmly rooted in Islam. Its first manifestation is in the Constitution of Madinah and the pacts and documents of the Prophet that followed, which regulate the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. As a result, the concept of citizenship is not an imported solution, but an update of the first Muslim practice of power by the Prophet in the first Muslim society."

"This practice did not include any discrimination or exclusion against any part of the society at the time, but provided for policies based on the plurality of religions, races and social strata, a plurality operating within the framework of a comprehensive and egalitarian citizenship as contained in the Constitution of Madinah . . . which stipulated that non-Muslims and Muslims share the same rights and duties.

2- "Therefore, Arab and Islamic societies possess a well-established heritage of co-existence in the same society marked by diversity, pluralism and reciprocal recognition."

"The adoption of notions of citizenship, equality and rights leads to the condemnation of what contradicts citizenship and maintains practices based on discrimination between Muslims and non-Muslims contrary to the Islamic law (Sharia) [. . .] The first factor of cohesion and consolidation of the common will is represented by the national constitutional state based on the principles of citizenship, equality and the rule of law [. . .]".

3. [...] Christians and Muslims who took part in Al-Azhar conference declare that all religions are blameless of terrorism, in all its forms and condemn it as firmly as possible [. . .]".

4. "Therefore, the protection of citizens, their lives, property, freedoms and of all other rights conferred upon them by their citizenship and human dignity, is the primary duty of national states [. . .]".

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