World Clock

Cairo, Egypt


Al-Azhar Discussion at Fulbright center


Al-Azhar Discussion


November 8


Fulbright Center Lecture


I let class out early in the Gender and Power in Development class to catch the bus from AUC to Tahrir Square, and then took the train to Dokki and hoofed it to the Fulbright office to hear a lecture given by Dr. Ibrahim Negm, the advisor to Dr. Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt. He was an amazing speaker, and had full command of English. He had studied at Al Azhar University, the oldest Islamic university in the world, and some say the oldest university period in the world. Dr. Negm has done research at Harvard Law School and Oxford University, and has a PHD in Islamic studies from Graduate Theological Foundation in Indiana. He gave a great talk. Here were some of the highlights:

            * The discourse that the Grand Mufti wants to have with other religious traditions is based on 1) inclusion of all Muslims (the four traditional schools of law in Sunni Islam, but also four lesser-recognized schools including Shi’ite perspectives (although the Mufti will engage with Shi’a theologians, but not political figures (although it is hard to tell the difference sometimes)), and then 90 other less recognized schools). According to Negm, Al-Azhar wants inclusion; 2) No infallibility—the Grand Mufti does not have the final say in interpreting Shari’a or the Qur’an; and 3) Pragmatic aspect to religious discourse. The mufti is wanting to raise $1billion for charity projects in Egypt—this is the proper goal of religion.

There are over 1.8 million students in the 7200 Al-Azhar institutes from K-12 grades in Egypt.

* Al-Azhar wants to stress interfaith engagement, for example, between Azhar, Vatican, and Anglican churches. They also want to stress overseas mission work to almost every country in the world. At Al-Azhar, there are over 520,000 students, from 104 countries, with 52 campuses, and 20 million graduates/alumni. Only one alumni was a radical Islamicist: Omar Abdel Rahman, from the 1992 World Trade Center Bombing (this is a claim he made to emphasize that Al Azhar promotes a tolerant version of Islam). Al-Azhar is also in charge of the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, which oversees the 90,000 mosques in Egypt, as well as the 42,000 Imams employed in these Mosques. As you can see, he said, there is a 50,000 gap in the number of Imams that are needed in all of the mosques in Egypt. Imams earn 200LE per month (about $45). The Dar-al-Ifta is the institution of the Grand Mufti which issues fatwas; nearly 3000-4000 fatwas are issued everyday by the Grand Mufti. Most have to do with family issues about how to apply the Qur’an or Shari’a law to problems in the family. Negm said most fatwas are more like a family counseling session/advice, rather than a legal edict. It is non-binding advice, according to Negm. Fatwas change over time based on: time, place, individuals involved, and circumstances. For example, while in the past, fatwas upheld Female Genital Mutilation, now the Grand Mufti has ruled against them. They have therefore decreased from 90% of the girls in Egypt to 60%.

            * Negm said that the work of the Grand Mufti must sift through religious tradition and pick out: 1) what is the pure or pristine knowledge of Islam (although he didn’t say how to judge this); and 2) cultural understanding which we are not bound by in Islamic scholarship.

            He said there is a crisis in Islam, in religious authority because Islam has been hijacked by extremists. He said that we must see “all of humanity in one boat”, in that Muslims must get along with non-Muslims (I refrained from asking a question about the Baha’is at this point).

            He said that the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam is a problem in Saudi Arabia, but that according to him, there are even changes going on within Wahhabi tradition (although he didn’t explain why or what those changes were). He said there is a new dialog in Wahhabi that should be encouraged, and is witnessed in the Interfaith Dialog conference from last year sponsored by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and the introduction of co-education schools that integrate boys and girls. Again, I refrained from asking about the Friends.

            He also said that Islam is completely compatible with democracy, and that Islam is in agreement with the three branches of government that most Western countries have. He said the one addition that Islam provides is epistemological: Islam says that religion can provide the basis of law in a nation.

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