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Come to a common word
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 17 - 09 - 2009

Sheikh Ali Gomaa explains to Nashwa Abdel-Tawab::ntawab that the ummah might now be in a state of slumber but not death and that Islam can survive the flood of foreign and local challenges
Sheikh Ali Gomaa is the grand mufti of Egypt and one of the world's most recognisable Muslim scholars. He has travelled the world, lectured to thousands, and composed over 30 works spanning Islamic legal methodology (usul al-fiqh) and contemporary issues. Since becoming grand mufti in 2003, Gomaa has been both an admired and at times polarising figure with each of his fatwas (non-binding religious edicts) closely monitored and scrutinised. His deep knowledge provides him with a rare optimistic outlook for the future on the condition of simple sincere work. His major interest lies in holding intellectual discourse with the West as much as building local and foreign capabilities at home.
As usual it is not easy to meet Sheikh Ali Gomaa. A crammed schedule that takes up to 20 hours a day of hard work sees to that.
I've asked myself why it's difficult to meet Gomaa more than any other scholar especially after he limited his appearances on TV and in newspaper interviews, sticking only to his weekly programme on national TV and his column in Al-Ahram newspaper. He is not here and there on satellite channels and independent newspapers. In running Dar Al-Iftaa (house of issuing fatwas ), he answers people's religious questions and issues fatwas, a vital job since Egyptians have a religious nature about them. However, is such a task so time consuming, considering his qualified board of senior muftis who can do most of the job?
Gomaa is indeed busy, treading a new path of less talk and more work outside his range of specialties. He works collectively, not alone, slowly but steadily and scientifically, on his roadmap for peace for all partners of humanity.
This time I see a man who is not only issuing fatwas but also trying to improve services to upgrade muftis as well as local and foreign students at the Dar since its foundation in 1895. "This post enables me to get closer to decision-makers worldwide and know more about the real life we are living in," said Gomaa, "and this knowledge makes me think of ways to upgrade my staff to meet current changes, open new fields for the Dar to enlighten the country with different kinds of knowledge and services, and finally to change the stagnant life people live in with the work of faithful people around me. It's not just about issuing fatwas."
Since Gomaa is an academic, he resorts to intellectual discourse when talking to worldwide university scholars. And since he is a public figure of rich origins who has rich friends, he is helping the country stand on its feet financially, socially and mentally. In both cases, he wants the message of God to be delivered worldwide.
On the international scene, the business of clearing up the confusion surrounding Islam and Muslims in the West is important, largely a matter of discussing the possibility of integration with the West and emphasising the multiplicity of (Muslim) civilisation -- its humanitarian and cosmopolitan dimensions, its spiritual and material side, its flexible mode of government, its survival under non-theocratic states, and its handling of the global economic crisis.
"The rise of extremism in the Muslim world has led to the widespread view of Islam as a religion of violence, retribution and war," said Gomaa. "This is in complete opposition to the truth of our religion. The vast majority of the 1.3 billion Muslims are ordinary, peace-loving, decent people."
Although these extremists try to persuade the world that the entire Muslim world is the enemy, and that a war on terror is a war on the entire Muslim world, Gomaa sees no success in such a trend. "Every day we win more and more friends and we get more and more respect. Look at Obama's initiative. We were recognised and doors of inter-faith dialogue are open to help deliver our message, so we have to seize the opportunity.
"The Quran tells us, 'O people, we have created you from a single male and female and divided you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another'. God tells us to know one another, not kill one another.
"One of the problems in all religions today, not only Islam, is that lay people attempt to set themselves up as religious authorities, even though they lack the scholarly qualifications to make valid interpretations of religious law and morality. These interpretations are made in reaction to political crises, injustices, poverty and frustration, and our role as religious leaders who have spent our lives carefully studying religious exegesis, is to re- establish proper authority and guide the people accordingly."
The latest Gallup polls show that 60 per cent of Christians worldwide harbour prejudice against Muslims while 30 per cent of all Muslims are prejudiced against Christians. That is more than two billion people out of four billion Christians and Muslims in total disliking each other or misunderstanding each other (out of about 6.5 billion people on the planet). This is a recipe for worldwide combustion.
"Something had to be done since out of more than 6,000 verses in the Quran, only 300 are related to legal matters. The rest deal with developing good moral character," noted Gomaa. There are over 60,000 Prophetic traditions and sayings of which only 2,000 are related to legal matters; the rest deal with the same -- developing good moral character. For over 1,000 years, Muslims have worshipped God, engaged in developing their society, sought to cultivate good moral character and built a great humanitarian civilisation. This is made clear in the Quran which says, "He caused you to dwell on earth and to develop it".
"From my long study of Islam and its history, I can attest that it is free of ethnic cleansing, religious inquisitions and forced conversions," said Gomaa. "This may seem to contradict the popular contemporary view of Islam, but it is an opinion that has been confirmed by a study carried out by Richard W Bulliet who demonstrated that while the body politic of Islam spread quickly, it took hundreds of years for populations to convert to the faith. Islam was spread by love, intermarriage and family relations, not by the sword."
Since the world is living in tension, if not turmoil, and the situation threatens to get even worse, scholars like Gomaa worldwide put their hands together in "A Common Word Between Us and You" initiative to "take arms against a sea of troubles". Since its initiation two years ago, "A Common Word" has become the world's leading interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims and has achieved unprecedented global acceptance and traction as an inter-faith theological document.
"In the Holy Quran, God Most High enjoins Muslims to issue the following call to Christians (and Jews -- the People of the Scripture ):
'Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered [unto Him].' ( Aal Imran 3:64)
"Thus in obedience to the Holy Quran," said Gomaa who is the co-chairman of the initiative, "we as Muslims invite Christians to come together with us on the basis of what is common to us, which is also what is most essential to our faith and practice: the two Commandments of love."
"A Common Word" was launched on 13 October 2007 as an open letter signed by 138 leading Muslim scholars and intellectuals, including such figures as the Grand Muftis of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Oman, Bosnia, Russia, Chad and Istanbul, to the leaders of Christian churches and denominations all over the world, including Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams after Pope Benedict XVI's Regensburg address of 13 September 2006 which called for open intellectual exchange and mutual understanding. In their Open Letter to the Pope for the first time in recent history, Muslim scholars from every branch of Islam spoke with one voice about the true teachings of Islam. The signatories to this message came from every denomination and school of thought in Islam. Every major Islamic country or region in the world is represented in this message, which is addressed to the leaders of all the world's churches, and indeed to all Christians everywhere.
In essence it proposed, based on verses from the Holy Quran and the Holy Bible, that Islam and Christianity share at their core the twin "golden" commandments of the paramount importance of loving God and loving the neighbour. Based on this joint common ground, it called for peace and harmony between Christians and Muslims worldwide. In November 2007, over 300 leading US Evangelical leaders responded in an open letter in The New York Times. In the meantime, the Muslim scholars signing the initiative increased to around 300, with over 500 Islamic organisations and associations endorsing it.
The 2007 initiative has led to a number of spontaneous local grassroots and community-level initiatives all over the world in places as far apart as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Canada, South Africa, the US and Great Britain. Over 600 articles, carried by thousands of press outlets, have been written about the initiative in English alone. Around 200,000 people have visited the official website of "A Common Word" for further details.
"A Common Word" has already been the subject of a number of MA and doctorate dissertations in Western universities, including Harvard, the Theological Seminary at the University of Tèbingen, Germany, and the Centre for Studies of Islam in the UK. It has been the subject of major international conferences at Yale and Cambridge universities and Lambeth Palace; studied at the World Economic Forum in 2008 and the Mediterranean Dialogue of Cultures in November 2008; and was also the basis for the first annual Catholic-Muslim forum held at the Vatican in November 2008.
The aim of the initiative this year is to move from "traction" to "trickledown" with a major independent institute being created to follow up its work; books and films being made about it; joint websites with approved Christian and Muslim reading lists being created as a basis for curricula; and a movement to bring it to political fruition.
Gomaa recently addressed issues of globalisation and interdependence including the global economic crisis, global warming, the persecution of minorities in Iraq, and identified education as a priority for both faiths. He also discussed the different understandings of scripture, shared moral values, respect for foundational figures in the respective faiths, religious freedom and religiously motivated violence.
He is against clichés used to perplex people and hinder progress of dialogue, like Islamophopia, the Other, and political Islam where he assures us of many examples of integration as opposed to a few cases of violence such as Marwa El-Sherbini's murder in a German court.
"Who said they utterly reject us?" says Gomaa. For 30 years Gomaa has been engaged in dialogue and has found much common space to cooperate. Scholars have established an association for developing Arabic handwriting with Germany, as well as an institution for arabesque which draws on the traditions of the Mamluk era. Along with Korea and Germany we helped develop the King Fahd Quran.
"When we talk about interfaith dialogue, it includes civilisation, culture and maintaining good relations with neighbouring countries. This entails cooperating in various fields, whether economic, political, social, scientific or humanitarian. As for the differences between faiths, they are not subject to debate. I am not engaged in a religious discourse but rather in a dialogue [between faiths], and there is a huge difference between the two. While a religious dialogue adopts the technique of looking for commonalties that include ethics, interests, life- related matters, etc... [religious] debate is where we academically scrutinise the details of each faith away from the spotlight and the media."
"That is why this is a good method of correcting some of the misconceptions people have about Islam. And it clarifies, to ourselves as well as to the world, who we are. We might be in a state of slumber but we are not dead. We can rise again with positive contributions from all members of Muslim communities here and in the Muslim world and indeed the whole world."
On the other hand, Gomaa likes some words like wassatiya, or middle way. In the Quran it has a very gentle and subtle meaning. God says, "We have appointed you a nation of the middle way so you can be witnesses unto mankind, and so the Prophet can be a witness unto you" (Quran 2:143). Some scholars say that this word, wassat, or middle, is the pinnacle of the mountain. As you ascend the mountain and then descend, the pinnacle is in the middle. And while we are on top of the mountain, we can see everyone and everyone can see us.
Another word used in this verse is (witness), which means the one who is seen, and is not restricted to the one who is seeing. It is a strange word that brings both these concepts together. It indicates interaction between you and others. This idea of witnessing, of being a witness, has a very deep civilisational meaning. "We have to understand that we are a people of an open religion; we have no secrets. Our relationship with others is based on this example. This is what is meant by love of God and love of one's neighbour," Gomaa said.
As of late the role of Dar Al-Iftaa has moved beyond issuing fatwas to Gomaa taking part in international forums and conferences on issues such as the environment. Since 2008, International Environment Year, the environment has forced itself on top of the list of international concerns, and the question of how to utilise religious teachings to solve environment-related problems has become a priority in Gomaa's agenda since in this context Islamic teachings and rules are extremely rich.
"It is a religious duty to safeguard our environment and advocate the importance of preserving it. Pollution and global warming pose an even greater threat than war and the fight to preserve the environment could be the most positive way of bringing humanity together. Environment-related issues ought to be a significant component of religious teachings. It is the duty of all religious scholars to acquaint themselves with the environmental crisis we are facing.
"Humankind is not free to consume or pollute carelessly. Preserving nature and preventing corruption on earth is one of the core responsibilities of all believers. The Quran changed the hearts and minds of its followers when it dawned on the Arabian Peninsula, enriching humankind and providing a vivid lens through which we can look at nature. Today, at a time of environmental crises, the Quran can once again play a pivotal role and provide those of us who believe in its truth, and are ready to open our hearts and minds to its teachings, with a fresh perspective and consciousness of nature."
Putting theory to practice, Dar Al-Iftaa was the first establishment in Egypt to be declared carbon-free.
Just as important as dialogue and integration with the West is issuing fatwas for Muslims in Egypt and spreading moderate religious culture and awareness. "In Imam Mohamed Abdu's time [1899-1905], he issued no more than 942 fatwas. Now we issue more than 1,000 fatwas a day. Taking population growth into account, this means 1,800 fatwas to each issued by Imam Abdu. Where, then, is the separation between scholars and the public? If anything, this change is evidence of spiritual need and definitely not separation."
Gomaa evidently feels the need for Dar Al-Iftaa, the traditional stronghold, to compete with various, seldom reliable sources of strange fatwas.
"When each and every person's unqualified opinion is considered a fatwa, we have lost a tool that is of the utmost importance to rein in extremism and preserve the flexibility and balance of Islamic law."
Only scholars can pronounce, and even then they must have two skills besides a deep understanding of the law: knowledge of reality, and the ability to apply the law to it. They can debate among themselves, and a Muslim has every right to take or leave what they offer. A ruling in scripture is eternal and unchanged; a fatwa is a pronouncement on how to apply it, and it must take into account not only time and place but the people to whom it is being applied and the state they are in. It is public figures giving in to "the superstitious attitude" and talking religion that must be combated. In this connection, Gomaa has taught two generations of muftis. A recent course was conducted for young female Azharites and religious graduates. Another was for religious British students.
Targeting awareness and building capacities more than bothering himself with the game of politics that has many definitions, Gomaa's interest is in real life change and legal opinion.
Gomaa wants to revive the waqf (foundation) system, overseeing zakat (the legal charity system of Islam), community integration and improving understanding. "There is no problem with a political movement but I think social, economic and intellectual movements should have priority. As a human being, the mufti has a political stance and a vision but in his job he cannot belong to one group or party at the expense of another."
Dar Al-Iftaa is nominally part of the Ministry of Justice but has full autonomy and is not allowed to interfere with the work of secular courts or government policies. That's why there was no strong stand during the Israeli attacks on Gaza in December 2008, no press release on judaising Jerusalem, and a simple humble diplomatic answer to the writer Sayed El-Qimni's case without mentioning his name.
The latter case needs more clarification. Gomaa was accused of issuing a statement which allegedly declared the Egyptian writer El-Qimni an infidel and calling for him to be slain for insulting the Prophet and God. The accusation was patently false and a press release was issued to make things clear to the public. While there may be some extremist elements in Egypt that made such statements, Gomaa and Dar Al-Iftaa are not among them. In fact, it was only two years ago that Gomaa issued statements to the effect that apostasy is not punishable by death in Islam, a position that he holds to this day.
On 25 June this year El-Qimni was presented with the State Award for Social Sciences. This angered many Muslims in Egypt who consider his work offensive to Islam. As a result, a question was sent to Dar Al-Iftaa concerning the awarding of prizes to individuals who insult Islam and the Prophet Mohamed. The fatwa replied that awards and honours should not be given to those who insult and defame Islam. Noticeably, there was no mention of specific individuals, events or awards. There is also no mention of a death sentence or incitement to harm El-Qimni. The fatwa, rather, calls for a recourse to legal channels of reparation. "The role of fatwas is not to condemn, punish, or sentence people to death. That is the role of the judiciary. Fatwas clarify the legal status of actions without considering those involved or making any pronouncements concerning them as individuals. They are not death threats.
"We do not involve ourselves in disputes with any kind of group and we will not stand in judgement of their intellectual output. We distance ourselves from allowing our fatwas to be used as a means of revenge in political games against certain individuals.
"Muslims have formed a consensus that whoever curses the Prophet (may peace and blessings of God be upon him) or slanders the religion of Islam has departed from Islam and the Muslims and deserves to be held accountable in this world and to be punished in the afterlife. Article 98 of the penal code criminalises anyone who depreciates or insults one of the heavenly sent religions, one of their sects, or causes harm to the unity of the nation or the peace of society.
"This fatwa was meant to forbid the honouring of individuals who defame Islam. It did not in any way refer to the writer El-Qimni. It was a general fatwa."
Gomaa tries to revive Islamic teachings at home. He plays an important social role of change. He is, for example, the founder of the Egypt Goodness Foundation and a major player in the Food Bank, and this attitude reflects the integrity with which he handles the widest range of issues facing the country, whether in the press, television or the worldwide web.
Misr Al-Kheir, Egypt Goodness Foundation, founded in 2007, is a non-profit foundation that strives to eradicate poverty throughout Egypt by way of intelligent investments of its donations and a rapid method of dispersal. Since this is all predicated on the need for a sound organisational structure and expertise, Misr Al-Kheir has brought together for the first time in Egypt much needed talent from the international business community. Misr Al-Kheir also seeks to revive an operable concept of continuous donations and religious endowments that can serve as a force in its fight against poverty.
"We all need to learn from history and call people to work for the betterment of our societies for our children and grandchildren in a manner in which all are given their due respect and recognise their duties to one another. Let's love ourselves and love the other and build bridges of understanding to reach human integration on the earth that we share. It's time to work on the recipe, to know and act positively, and to live by Islam," Gomaa concluded.

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