05/27/2016, 16.47
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Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, the said and the "unsaid"

by Samir Khalil Samir

There are many positive aspects in the meeting between the Pope and the supreme Sunni authority, along with silence on some issues. For Al Tayyib Islam has nothing to do with terrorism. But Isis uses the black flag of Muhammad, the prophet's sword, the sentences of the Koran. The terrorists take their bloodthirsty statements from many imams. The urgency of a new renaissance of Islam, reinterpreting tradition in modernity: a task interrupted by fundamentalism.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) - I was impressed by the meeting between Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Ahmad Muhammad Al-Tayyib. Even a Vatican official - of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Archbishop. Khaled Akasheh – commented to me  that " a new chapter has opened. We are all eager to work together on issues that we have listed and there is a lot of goodwill".

But in the chorus of positive voices, I would like to note some more negative and unclear aspects. This does not detract from the positive nature of the meeting, also underlined by the enthusiastic comments of the Great Imam to Pope Francis, reported in the interview he granted to the Vatican media (published on Vatican Radio on May 24).

Al Tayyib claims to admire this "man of peace, a man who follows the teaching of Christianity, which is a religion of love and peace; and following His Holiness what we have seen is a man who respects other religions and shows consideration for their followers, he is also a man who dedicates his life to serving the poor and the oppressed, and who takes responsibility for people in general. He is an ascetic man, who has renounced the ephemeral pleasures of a worldly life".

In conclusion, the impression that he expresses is that it is possible to "work together" with him.

In the interview he does not mention the reasons that led to the cooling and the freezing of relations, mainly due to a misreading of Pope Benedict XVI words in Regensburg and his request for protection for Christians affected by terrorism in Alexandria in 2011.

Terrorism, a "deviated Islam"

Another positive consideration in the interview is when the Great Imam speaks of the "loss of faith in the world". "All the philosophies and modern social ideologies that have taken the lead of humanity, far from religion and far from heaven, have failed to make man happy or to take him far from wars and bloodshed" . His conclusion is that mankind needs religions to give "a new orientation towards the mercy and peace." It strikes me that he uses these two words "mercy and peace", in a translation (we can say) of the shahada, the Islamic profession of faith, "In the name of God, gracious and merciful." Last January, speaking to the German parliament he had even added the word "love", saying that Islam is a religion of love and mercy.

Another positive point, when the Imam Al Tayyib speaks of "Muslims concepts that have been deviated by those who use violence and terrorism and armed movements that claim to work for peace." Furthermore,  he adds: "yes, terrorism exists, but Islam has nothing to do with this terrorism, and this applies to Ulama Muslims and to Christians and Muslims in the East. And those who kill Muslims, and who also kill Christians, have misunderstood the texts of Islam either intentionally or by negligence ".

Here, we must note an inaccuracy, even if the Great Imam repeats it often, and that is that Isis, the Islamic state, for example, has nothing to do with Islam. It is only be a deformation, a deviation, etc ..

This in itself is not incorrect. But then it becomes necessary to explain why these terrorist groups use the black flag - which was that of Mohammed, together with Islamic writings and the prophet’s sword (like the one that is on the flag of Saudi Arabia). In fact one must denounce that these terrorists take their bloodthirsty statements from the words of many imams and from a reading of the Koran made by many responsible Muslims. The way many Muslims read the Koran and Islamic tradition can easily lead to these deviations. In his interviews, the Great Imam always avoids taking responsibility, and instead affirms: "We are not involved".

This pains me: as long as you do not recognize this problem, you cannot solve anything. Until it is recognized that the roots of terrorism lie in a certain teaching of Islam, the situation can never be healed.

Rethinking Islam for Today

After an appeal to the world to put an end to terrorism, a struggle that must unite the East and West in mutual collaboration, he lists a series of steps taken by Al Azhar to modernize the Islamic religion. It should be noted that this was on the recommendation of the President Al Sisi.

The Great Imam explains that they are working to correct all middle and high school books, by removing those aspects that could lead to violence. He speaks of a world observatory with publications in eight languages ​​in which he denounces and corrects "material spread by these extremist movements and ideas that deviate and poison the youth". He highlights the collaboration between the university and the Egyptian Churches; conferences held in the West;  ongoing formation courses for imams living in Europe to help the integration of Muslims in those nations.

These steps are all positive, but unfortunately, they have not yet changed the books used to teach imams. These are classic medieval manuals: In order to cleanse them from misinterpretation, a huge effort is required to analyze them paragraph by paragraph. Some scholars that I have spoken to in Egypt, say it will be an impossible job.

But there is one task that must be a priority: Starting from the Koran  and rethinking it for today. Personally, I find that this is the biggest problem of Islam. For 50 years, a literalist trend has been established in the reading of the Koran and Islamic tradition. This has given rise to the hard line and the war against others: Christians, Jews, atheists, ...

This reinterpretation of tradition in order to update it, was even proposed by Gamal al-Banna, brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, who died only five years ago, having also written about fifty books. At one point he distanced himself from traditional teaching and took up liberal positions. For example, he wrote against the use of the veil for women, which has nothing to do with Islam; it is a cultural issue, not a religious one.

In Islamic tradition today we have many thinkers who have written about the need to revise Islam.

The only way forward is to integrate this thinking into teaching. There is no other way.

This would require a broad use of current mass media tools: Internet, television, radio, books. This way even those issues (which the Great Imam did not touch upon) such as freedom of religion and conscience or the ability to change one's religion can also be discussed.

We realize that Islam is very attached to the guidelines of the presidents and kings. Therefore, this change will only be possible if the political authority is at the forefront of the campaign, demanding imams to write correctly along these lines and generalize this new line of Islam, which, in fact, existed until the '50s. It has existed since 1860, when the "Nahda", the Arab Renaissance, blossomed lasting nearly a century.

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