01/02/2004, 00.00
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Tantawi (Al-Azhar) agrees with French on prohibition of veil

by Samir Khalil Samir, sj

Cairo (AsiaNews) - French minister of internal affairs, Nicolas Sarkozy, ended his vacation in Egypt with a visit to al-Azhar, the most famous religious university in the Islamic Sunnite world. On Dec. 29-30 he had various meetings with Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the highest authority on Sunnite Islam. After the meetings, on Dec. 30. Dr. Tantawi expressed his opinion on the prohibition of the Islamic veil in French schools.

The vague public statement was made in the presence of minister Sarkozy and the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa. We offer a translation of his statement (from Arabic) to our AsiaNews readers:  

"The veil is a divine obligation for Muslim women. If it is not respected, God will pass judgement for it not being worn. No Muslim, ruling or ruled, has the right to oppose this obligation."

"However, this obligation is valid if Muslim women live in a Muslim state. Yet if they find themselves in a non-Muslim state (like France, for example) and their rulers want to adopt laws in opposition to the veil, it is their right; it is their right; it is their right. I repeat: it is their right, and I cannot oppose them.

"When Muslim women conform to the laws of a non-Muslim state, in terms of Islamic Shari'ah, they are under the conditions of he who obligates them (fî hukm al-mudtarr) and they do not, therefore, bear the responsibility (wizr) for the situation."

Sheikh Tantawi justified his opinion with verse 173, charter 2, in reference to the Cow (al-Baqarah), which is a late text and thus not rescinded by others:  "In truth regarding beasts it is forbidden to kill them, to have contact with their blood, eat pork, and that which is called by another name other than that of Allah. And he who is forced, without desire or intention, will not sin. Allah is forgiving and merciful."

"Muslim women forced by human law cannot, therefore, fear divine punishment. He added: "I wouldn't allow a non-Muslim to intervene in Muslim affairs; likewise I would not permit myself to intervene in non-Muslim affairs."

Sheikh Tantawi's position is not new. Upon receiving Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the then French minister of internal affairs, on Apr. 14 1998, he said: "If the French state judges that veils in schools goes against tradition, Muslims must conform to this rule." Now he has added: "A good Muslim cannot be criticized for having applied the law of the country in which he is living."

Tantawi's position has also raised negative reactions by the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Dr. Ali Gomaa, who advised France against adopting such a law against the veil. Dr. Abd al-Sabûr Shâhîn, secretary of the High Council on Islamic Affairs, told journalists more clearly: "The opinion of the president of Azhar (University) doesn't reflect Azhar's opinion, but his own." The preceding Grande Mufti of Egypt, Dr. Nasr Farîd Wâsel, said that Muslim women in France "have the right to wear the veil wherever they want."

In the past, the rather liberal view of Dr. Tantawi had caused numerous clashes between the al-Azhar University president and other sheikhs from the same university. Tantawi, appointed president in 1996 by Egyptian president Hosni Moubarak, succeeded the highly conservative Dr. Gad al-Haqq Ali Gad al-Haqq. It is feared that the latest position taken up by the University's president will create a crisis with al-Azhar.
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