Francis calls for mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims in letter to Al-Azhar

September 18, 2013

The Nuncio to Cairo, Mgr. Gobel, has delivered a letter to the Imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University calling for a steady return to dialogue

The Al-Azhar University in Cairo – considered one of the most important centres of Sunni Islamic learning  – has announced that Pope Francis has sent a personal message to the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al Tayyeb. The most important Catholic website in Arabic, www.abouna.org, published the communiqué issued by Al-Azhar, which mentions that a meeting took place yesterday between Al Tayyeb and the Apostolic Nuncio to Egypt, Mgr. Jean-Paul Gobel. During the face-to-face meeting the Nuncio delivered the message of wishes Pope Francis sent to the Muslim world for the end of the month of Ramadan, along with a personal message from to Pope to Al Tayyeb.

According to Al-Azhar, in his message the Pope stressed the Vatican’s respect for Islam and said he hoped every effort would be made towards achieving “mutual understanding between the world’s Christians and Muslims in order to build peace and justice.” Al Tayyeb apparently replied that the message Al-Azhar wished to get out is one of “respect for people of every religion and the safeguarding of human dignity and the highest values described in the Quran and the Sunnah.” He also said that Muslims are willing “to collaborate to help justice and progress grow among the people of the Earth.”

The communiqué issued by the University of Al-Azhar is important in light of the tensions between the Sunni centre of learning and the Vatican, which exploded in January 2011 after Benedict XVI’s strong condemnation of the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral of Alexandria. This led the university to announce it was suspending dialogue with the Holy See. Prior to this, a university delegation would hold meetings with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue every two years. Today’s communiqué alluded to this incident, saying that Al Tayyeb apparently told the Nuncio that casting Islam in a negative light is “a red line” that must not be crossed.

The communiqué does not make explicit reference to the resumption of dialogue. But it is important to bear in mind that in June Al-Azhar said it was waiting for a response to the message of congratulations which Al Tayyeb sent Pope Francis after his election. And it expressed the hope that there would be “a clear demonstration of respect for Islam and Muslims”. This was clearly demonstrated in today’s message. The President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran responded by saying that it was Al-Azhar that had interrupted dialogue with the Holy See. The Holy See had kept the door of dialogue open.

The facts seem to suggest that this rift is healing fast: Al Tayyeb and the University of Al-Azhar have proven to be an important reference point for Christians during the difficult past few months in Egypt. Even during Mohammed Morsi’s presidency the Great Imam had tried on more than one occasion to act as a mediator with Christians, attracting the wrath of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Then, after the 30 June demonstrations he openly supported the ousting of the Islamist president by the military. Importantly, when Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attacked him for this, the Secretary of the Council of Churches of Egypt, Fr. Bishoy Helmy came to his defence. The Apostolic Vicar of Alexandria, Mgr. Adel Zaki told Fides news agency that “a strong collaborative agreement between Al Azhar and the Council of Christian Churches is being registered.”

Cambridge University hosts training session for British Muslims

14 October 2010

The first course launched by Al-Azhar University in collaboration with the University of Cambridge has come to an end. Al-Azhar University in Cairo offered British Muslims studying at the Prince Alwaleed Centre of Islamic Studies in Cambridge the chance to attend its Imam training. The course was especially designed for young British Muslims studying in Darul Ulooms (Islamic seminaries) which often produce future Imams and Muslim chaplains.

The 15 week programme hoped to provide students with a challenging series of seminars, lectures and personal study assignments that will help them with potential roles as leaders in their faith communities. During the course, students spent time at both Cambridge and Al-Azhar and met with representatives from community organisations of different faiths to learn about pastoral care, interfaith working and community leadership.
Beth Caldwell, a British Council English teacher, said, “Our students are now engaging with the world — the real and the virtual — on a level which would have been impossible with their level of English just a short time ago.” Al-Azhar student Alaa Eddin Ibrahim is using his English to speak to others via social networking. He said, “Al Azhar graduates need to have the opportunity to interact with the world outside of Egypt, to show the world, particularly the West, the right image of Islam.”

Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayyeb from the Al-Azhar University supports Espersen and says that she did not directly apologize for the drawings.

Espersen herself suggests that the misunderstanding may have occurred as a result of her explanation of Danish law: “I can confirm that I have told several of my conversation partners that freedom of speech is not without limits in Denmark. There are two limits: the blasphemy paragraph, which is paragraph 140 in criminal law and the racism paragraph as in paragraph 266b,” Espersen says.
The Danish embassy in Cairo has issued a news release in which it has clarified what Espersen said. Linguistically, the part of the statement concerned could be misinterpreted as an apology for the cartoons, as it is not fully clear what the regret refers to, and in translation into Arabic, or in oral conversation, could easily be misconstrued as an apology for them.

Al-Azhar scholars and Saudi Wahabist fight over followers among British Muslims

When two young British Muslims debate whether or not it is religiously permissible to wish their neighbors a “happy Christmas”, this indicates an ideological battle between prominent Sunni scholars of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, fought over in the UK.

Such a debate would have been almost unthinkable in London two decades ago. But today it is frequently the internet that young Muslims turn to when looking for spiritual advice. And what they find in cyberspace is often shockingly intolerant. “Do not congratulate [the unbeliever] on their festivals in any way whatsoever,” warns one prominent site. “That implies approval of their festival and not denouncing them.”

While the real world provides a vast array of interpretations from a variety of Islamic schools, more often than not it is the intolerant strands of Islam taught by Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist Wahabi scholars that dominate online. Backed by billions of petrodollars and an army of tech-savvy graduates who are more than capable of capturing the YouTube generation’s imagination, the internet has long been a stronghold for the most intolerant forms of Islam.

But now, as the Hajj gets under way in Mecca, one of the world’s oldest Islamic institutions has come to Britain to remind young Muslims who might be tempted by the Wahabi rhetoric that there is an alternative way to worship. Scholars from Al-Azhar in Cairo have been touring Britain’s mosques to launch a new online book of fatwas (Islamic judgments) which directly challenge the Saudi way of thinking.

The 200-page book, entitled “The Response” and published by the Islamic Hotline Service, has been available in the Middle East in Arabic for two years but this is the first time a comprehensive list of some of the most commonly asked questions encountered by Al-Azhar’s scholars has been available in English, and equally importantly, Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. The issues answered in the book range from whether the Earth revolves around the Sun (Sheikh Ibn Baaz, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti during the 1990s, insisted that the Sun revolved around the Earth) to whether a Muslim is allowed to perform magic tricks (Wahabis forbid it).