In many societies, religion is seen as an unchanging element and in some instances a dividing element. In all cases, religion is always seen as lagging behind. How would you respond to this?
This is a failure to understand religion and its role in the modern world that evolved from a tendency to eliminate all forms of religious manifestations in public life. It is [construed] as an intervention in the religious freedom of citizens. Experience and historical evidence demonstrate that religion was and continues to be the main component in the cultural and civilizational structure of all nations on the face of the earth.
Historical evidence also shows that religious values have been and still are part of solutions and not a cause for the problems and crises facing humanity.
Human heritage demonstrates that Islam is not, nor has it ever been, a static authoritarian religion devoid of flexibility. So, today, to live in accordance with Islam does not necessitate a return to the Middle Ages, nor does it require that we cease to be who we are. Islam has never required its adherents to give up their own cultures and become Muslims. This is why we see a vast variety of cultural, artistic, scientific, and civilizational accomplishments, all of which can be described as Islamic, and that we can all as Muslims be proud of.
This flexibility is manifest not just in the cultural output of Muslims but is an integral of the Islamic tradition as well; in fact you could say that it is one of the defining characteristics of Islamic law. Islamic law is both a methodology and the collection of positions adopted by Muslim jurists. Those centuries were witness to a remarkable intellectual diversity and the twenty-first century finds us in the providential position of being able to look back on this tradition in order to find that which will benefit us today. This is one of the first steps in the issuing of a fatwa. Fatwa-giving is in fact one of the most important institutions in the endeavor to properly understand the relationship between Islam and the modern world. In an attempt to provide Muslims with authoritative guidance about their religion, muftis look not only to the vast legal tradition, but must also conduct a proper examination of the lived reality of Muslims, in order to provide them with relevant rulings. In effect, fatwas and Muftis represent the bridge between the long-standing intellectual-legal tradition of Islam and the contemporary world in which we live. They are the link between the absolute and the relative, the theoretical and the practical. For this reason, it takes more than just knowledge of Islamic law to issue a fatwa. Muftis are required to have an in-depth understanding of the world in which they are living and the problems that their communities are facing.
Do you think that during this historic time, this meeting, inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue, is beneficial? Why?
There is no doubt that we live in a world where transport, media, and modern technology have broken down [geographical] barriers and [distance]. There is a flood of ideas and we now live in a world that is called a small village or the global village wherein anything that occurs in one place, inevitably affects others, either positively or negatively. Consequently, there is no room or even the possibility of living in isolation. We cannot but live and co-exist with each other in this world we share and in which we strive to live in peace.
It therefore follows that dialogue, co-existence, and cooperation are religious, intellectual, and human necessities. There is no doubt that dialogue requires partners on both sides—a dialogue between two committed parties and not a one-sided conversation. We are in dire need of genuine dialogue—a dialogue that stems from the recognition of identities and specificities; a dialogue that remains respectful and does not seek to inflame hostilities or dominate the other; a dialogue that is itself based upon a respect for religious plurality and cultural diversity. Dialogue is not about trying to defeat others, but about understanding and learning about them. As the Qur`an states, God has created us into nations and tribes so that we may learn about each other (49:13).Engaging in such a constructive dialogue should be one of our highest priorities. A constructive dialogue maintains boundaries of respect and tolerance. As the Qur`an tells us, the world’s beauty lies in its religious pluralism; otherwise, God would not have created such diversity . God states in the Qur`an: To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, he would have made you one nation (5:48). Most important, dialogue is a powerful tool in countering the unfortunate clash of civilizations which seems to dominate the discourse in the media of some countries. We must realize that dialogue is not an end in itself but a means towards achieving a sum of ends that must be expressed into practical paradigms in the interest of humanity as a whole. We therefore hope to change the concept of dialogue into that of a partnership.
There are a myriad kinds of dialogues all of which could lead us to new and practical horizons. They could also add another pragmatic trajectory to the intellectual and theoretical dialogue, uniting people and institutions for the purpose of achieving human dignity, development, and refinement.
I am pleased to say that the noble Azhar in Egypt has achieved great successes, domestic and international, in managing genuine religious dialogues conforming to scientific criteria while adhering to fundamentals of religion. Moreover, it has achieved national interests and generated palpable results in maintaining the social fabric of Egypt as well as global interests.
Finally, I would like to say that the time has come for us to work together to examine the great challenges facing humanity and search for solutions that are primarily based on the existing religious values found in all faiths. These challenges include:
- The strong tide of atheism facing followers of all religions without discrimination.
- Mitigating illness, poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy.
- Training the people on how to live in our new reality of a shrinking world; this must be based on learning about each other. We must then all look for points of commonalities, devise plans for cooperation, and then continue working towards just and lasting peace.
There is no doubt that there is a long road ahead of us as well as great room for cooperation and dialogue.
In light of the demographic, political, and social background in Egypt, how would you explain the audacity of hope?
In Egypt, we are at the threshold of a new phase characterized by hope, optimism, and great expectations based on a comprehensive reform plan for the country. Although this plan focuses primarily on political and constitutional reform, we deem this to be the suitable moment to remind ourselves that this is merely the beginning and that Egypt needs additional sincere efforts in all fields—it is a matter that requires maintaining good intentions and sincerity from all Egyptians.
We must preserve our unity and work to achieve a better future for our children and grandchildren.
Our true Islamic religion teaches us not to imprison ourselves in the past but to move forward with determination, drive, and hope to build a better future.
Egypt, by the grace of God, is distinguished by the unity between all of its children—Muslims and Christians. I have hopes that Egypt will always remain a role model of such a unique example of coexistence.
Egypt will overcome this transitional period [successfully] by the will of God as it overcame others. Its achievements throughout history are crystal clear. Egypt is a nation with a rich culture; it is a nation founded by the dedicated and sincere work of its children. For this reason, it is in the best interest of all the concerned parties from the international community to do all that is in their power to guarantee the stability and prosperity of Egypt.
One of the important reasons for my optimism is the presence of Al-Azhar, the renowned beacon of knowledge, in Egypt. For more than ten centuries, Al-Azhar has been the destination of Muslims from all over the globe who sought to benefit from its knowledge. Egypt is known worldwide as “Egypt’s Al-Azhar”. The opinions and religious edicts issued by its scholars are held in great respect due to this renowned institution that is distinguished by moderation in thought and culture.
Al-Azhar has always protected the values of the Egyptian nation, offering reassurance to all Egyptians regardless of their affiliation. Al-Azhar has always acted upon patriotic fundamentals and not according to political changes and will continue to do so.
By the grace of God, all Egyptians are aware of the nature of Al-Azhar’s historical role which has made it a shelter and reference for Egyptians, especially at times of crises. Consequently, it has become one of the principle guarantors for their unity over the course of history. His Eminence, the Grand Imam Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayyib, plays a significant patriotic role in defending the higher interests of religion and the nation—a role that is highly appreciated both domestically and internationally.
It seems that in the modern world, pessimism and submission prevail. What are the reasons for this and what are the solutions?
The term “pessimism” must not seep into our vocabulary. Pessimism is alien to Islam and indeed to all religions. In its teachings, Islam calls for hope and optimism whatever the challenges or difficulties.
There are numerous religious commands warning against pessimism and despairing of God’s mercy. These commands call for hope, optimism, glad tidings, and facilitation and warn against repulsion, rigorousness, and making things difficult.
The holy Qur`an evinces that the world we live in is fraught with trials, hardships, problems, and challenges. God the Almighty says: O mankind, indeed you are laboring toward your Lord with [great] exertion and will meet it (84:6).
There is no doubt that the major reason for all chronic problems facing humanity today is the abandonment of religious and ethical values in politics, economy, and social justice.
However, the Noble Qur`an directed us towards a number of tools to help us tackle these challenges. These include:
- Reviving religious and ethical values to confront the sweeping tide of atheism.
- The concept of relying on God. This means that matters proceed according to God’s plan and that man is required to make use of all available means and relegate all matters to Him. God the Almighty says: And whoever relies upon God - then He is sufficient for him (65:3).
- Exercising patience and performing prayers. God the Almighty says: And seek help through patience and prayer (2:153).
- Constant righteous deeds even in the face of great challenges. Prophet Mohammed said, “If the Hour (the Day of Judgment)comes while one of you is holding a palm shoot or seedling, let him plant it [before the Hour happens] if he can.”
It is worth mentioning that the word “submission” mentioned in the question carries both positive and negative shades of meaning. Its positive connotation is depicted by submission to God the Exalted and adhering to religious and ethical values which is praiseworthy. The negative connotation is depicted by the inability of confronting the hardships of life and despairing of God’s great mercy.
Although our times are full of challenges and dangers, they are nevertheless full of potential. We ask Allah to help us continue in our efforts for the good of humanity and for the sake of a better, safer, and a more peaceful world.