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.”

Reactions to the Pope’s Resignation in the Arab World

Ilsussidiario.it (the subsidiary) 12 February 2013 Pope Benedict XVI announced that he will be stepping down at the end of month. Many news outlets have begun to discuss this pope’s relations with Muslims as well as how a future pope may interact with the Muslim faith. The Subsidiary published an overview of the Pope’s interactions with Muslims and the Muslim world understandings of the Pope. Egyptian professor, Wael Farouq is interviewed. According to Dr. Farouq the first reaction in the Arab world to the Pope’s resignation has been primarily silence. Many felt the pope was promulgating a very different and violent understanding of Islam particularly in his Regensburg speech. Also according to the article Dr. Farouq feels the Pope did not sufficiently create an open inter-faith dialogue.

ANSAmed 13 February 2013 also published a story on the Pope’s resignation primarily focusing on the Al Azhar campus and Muslim youth’s reactions to the Pope—which are not positive. The article explains that though many did not know of the resignation all agreed that the following pope needs to show respect for the Muslim faith.

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.”

“The veil of hipocracy in defense of identity”

Giuliana Sgrena, a famous Italian journalist, a feminist and a war reporter, expresses her opinion about the burqa.

She believes that those who defend it in the name of identity, of tradition or religion are hypocrites or are ignorant. Traditions change. The Qur’an doesn’t prescribe the veil or the burqa. Both are forbidden even by the Great Muftì of Al Azhar, the most important Sunni authority.

Sgrena claims that the burqa is Wahabbi, representing the strictest version of Islam. She asks: “do we want to help these women to emancipate, or do we prefer supporting and strengthening a patriarchal-tribal-sexist system that uses the veil to control women’s sexuality?”

By wearing the veil, Muslims argue, a woman assures male honor by hiding her tempting body.

Italy is framing the burqa issue in terms of security. But according to Sgrena, the burqa doesn’t concern security, rather women’s dignity and rights. In her opinion, we shouldn’t support these women living isolated behind veils. It is crucial to provide them with the same rights that we, as Italian women, have hard-earned: once we do that, we can also demand respect for our laws. Only justice and equality can suppress the violation of human rights and intolerance.

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).

“The Response”

This book is the result of a lengthy collaboration between scholars of Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar University and Islamic Hotline or El-Hatef El-Islami organization. Put simply, far too simply, its aim is to contest the growing number of intolerant and/or simply mistaken legal opinions that often go unchallenged in Muslim communities today. Deeply rooted in the legal tradition of ikhtilaf writings, yet utilizing modern means of communication, “The Response” applies the wisdom of the classical jurists to the complex realities of the contemporary Muslim world (courtesy of FixYourDeen.com).

President Obama’s Speech in Cairo: A New Beginning

Included below is the beginning of the transcript from United States President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009 on America’s relationship with Muslim communities around the world.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you very much. Good afternoon. I am honored to be in the timeless city of Cairo, and to be hosted by two remarkable institutions. For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning; and for over a century, Cairo University has been a source of Egypt’s advancement. And together, you represent the harmony between tradition and progress. I’m grateful for your hospitality, and the hospitality of the people of Egypt. And I’m also proud to carry with me the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country: Assalaamu alaykum. (Applause.)

Transcripts available here.

British Muslims get ‘dial-a-sheikh’ helpline from Egypt

The world’s most popular Islamic hotline, the Egyptian based ‘dial-a-sheikh’, is launching in Britain to help the nation’s 1.6 million Muslims deal with everyday dilemmas. At just 75 pence a minute, British Muslims will be able to access scholars from Egypt’s al-Azhar University through al-Hatef al-Islami helpline where they can call in and seek help with their daily problems.

Callers will be able to speak to a sheikh, who is authorized to issue a fatwa, about their problems and expect to receive an answer, using a pin code, within the next 48 hours of the call. The facility also includes email advice sent in English, Arabic and Urdu.

“With one-third of the U.K.’s Muslims under 16, there’s a need to assist in delivering credible and authoritative Islamic advice”, al-Hatef al-Islami’s founder, Cherif Abdel Meguid, says. Yet some scholars in Britain, who welcomed the initiative, nonetheless worried that fatwas and advice from sheikhs not based in Europe may lack the necessary cultural knowledge and understanding of European society and the challenges particular to the British context.

The World Seen From Rome; Catholic-Muslim Panel Urges “Self-Criticism And Calls For Less Stereotyping

ROME, FEB. 25, 2004 (Zenit.org)- Vatican and Muslim representatives meeting in Rome agreed on the need to engage in “self-criticism and to struggle against stereotypes and generalizations.” “Religious persons must be more careful not to generalize,” said Sheikh Fawzi Fadel al-Zafzaf, president of the Al-Azhar Permanent Committee for Dialogue with Monotheist Religions, and a co-president of the Catholic-Islamic Joint Committee. Two of the speakers were Catholics: Archbishop Fitzgerald, the council’s president, and Youssef Kamal El-Hage, professor at Notre Dame of Lebanon University and a consultor of the council. The other two speakers were Muslims: Fawzi Al-Zafzaf and Ali El-Samman, vice president of the Al-Azhar Permanent Committee and a member of the Islamic-Christian Dialogue Association.