Photo By: Mohsen Allam
Egypt Today speaks with three of the most influential and progressive voices in the modern Islamic world. Their message? That Muslims have a key role to play in todays society, both in Islamic countries and in the West
Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, the nation’s most visible and media-friendly mufti ever, speaks out on dialogue between the Peoples of the Book, fatwas and why it is that journalists always seem to ask him the same questions
By: Ethar El-Katatney
I’VE MET THE mufti before, but always in a secondary capacity, and never had I been the sole object of the undivided attention of a man known to be scarily intelligent and blunt, with a short attention span for fools.
Our interview was scheduled for noon, and at 11:30 on the dot I was at Dar Al-Ifta, the nation’s —and, by extension, Sunni Islam’s —highest body for the interpretation of religious law. I was shepherded into a very small side office where the photographer and I struck up a conversation with the two men. An hour later we were still there, having progressed from drinking tea to a debate about the nature of preaching and what makes a sheikh a good sheikh.
We were interrupted by Dr. Ibrahim Negm, the mufti’s spokesman and media advisor, telling us that it was time to go in. And although I had been speaking with him by phone for weeks to arrange this interview, it was only when I saw him that I realized why his name was so familiar: I had attended a four-day workshop Negm gave about Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH) to a packed audience of hundreds a couple of months ago. I had been too intimidated to approach him afterwards. A scholar in his own right, and he was the mufti’s media advisor? My trepidation mounted.
Hurrying along to the mufti’s office, Negm apologized for the delay, explaining that the mufti’s interview with Al-Arabiya, the satellite television channel, had run over. Cameras, cables and crew were still milling around the office as we walked in, the fully made-up presenter still arguing energetically with the mufti. He’d reply and she’d ask another question, which he’d answer wearily. He caught sight of us and said, in reference to her questions, “What can I do, yaani?” with a twinkle in his eye, and motioned for me to sit down.
East and West
Ali Gomaa has proven himself to be one of the most explicitly anti-extremist clerics in mainstream Sunni Islam. An outspoken critic of extremist ideologies and a leading advocate of moderation, he is a strong believer in dialogue who travels around the world on da’wah (preaching, or outreach) missions. He spends a considerable amount of time in London —a hotbed of European extremism — which he’s been visiting for the past three years.
The mufti believes Muslims in Western countries should aim to be productive members of society and shouldn’t isolate themselves. Isolation, after all, leads to miscommunication on both sides.
“The Muslim in Western countries,” he tells us after his TV interviewer finally left us, “faces a distorted perception of Islam in Western mentality, where there is a predisposition to rejecting hearing anything about Islam because of historical accumulation, media campaigns and the actions of some Muslims who unwittingly do things without thinking of the repercussions of their actions that result in confirming this distorted image or further distorting it.”
The solution, he explains, is to “fix the image that Westerners have of Islam by having the patience to endure their impatience and building bridges with them.” Dialogue, he asserts, is a very important tool. “It’s pros are that each side can start to understand the other, to dissolve many of the barriers, and can correct their images of the other. But,” he cautions, “the problem is when each side tries to dominate and maneuver the dialogue in an attempt to control the other. That’s when the dialogue loses its meaning.”
Is it realistic to expect the West’s image of Muslims to change in our lifetimes? “Insh’Allah,” he says. “Insh’Allah they will progress. There are examples of Muslims whose contribution to Western civilization is clear. Some of them have been awarded the Nobel Prize, others are making great contributions to research. The Muslim ummah (community) needs to rise one more time and they have the ability to do so. They just need to contribute to human civilization.”
But is it really that simple? Does the Muslim ummah have the ability to stick to its roots and preserve its identity, let alone properly represent itself to the West? Muslims in general, I tell the mufti, have lost sight of some of the most basic aspects of their religion, including the Arabic language, which is needed to properly understand it. It’s true, I think, even in Arabic-speaking countries, which struggle to present Islam to their Western counterparts. Public morals and manners have deteriorated, sexual harassment is rampant on our streets.
“The enchantment with the English language,” he answers me, “is because it managed to invade the whole world. Its people have exerted a great deal of effort to simplify and distribute it, reaching and teaching it to the majority of people until it became the number-one language in the world. I do not lean toward the idea of a cultural collapse as much as the fact that this is simply a characteristic of the time we live in.”
As for the deterioration of manners, he puts it down to the fact that the rhythm of life has become faster. Changes in communication technology, transportation and the population boom all factor here, he says, “so the average person has become more distracted in gaining his daily bread or performing his daily activities. Also,” he adds, “Muslims in most Arab countries suffer from illiteracy, unemployment.”
He is unruffled, perfectly serene as he says this. I ask him, with all these problems just in Muslim Arab countries, with Western and Asian Muslims having their own set of problems, how can he believe that the ummah will rise again? Is there even such a thing as a Muslim ummah anymore?
He gives me that impenetrable stare again, the one where you have no idea what he’s thinking. It could be “What an idiot.” If I’m lucky, it’s, “That’s an interesting question.” Unlike other sheikhs, Gomaa does not stare at the ground while talking to a woman, but maintains direct eye contact to the extent that I was the one to look away from his piercing gaze.
“From the political side,” he begins, “it may be hard in the near future for the Muslim ummah to unite. But on the realistic side, other unified entities do exist, such as the European Union. There are common markets. There are common defense entities. Other international organizations like the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
“Hope is there, because from the intellectual and realistic side, the Muslim ummah is one ummah. It’s so clear in the Hajj, when from 120 countries over 3 million people come to one arena. Their cooperation proves the unity of this ummah. It underscores the intellectual and religious continuity of the ummah.”
If often seems the mufti gets the same questions from interviewer after interviewer, newspaper, online or television. It’s like some form of never-changing crop rotation cycle, but instead of wheat-maize-oats, it’s hijab-interest-apostates. Why does he think people focus on these — not exactly superficial, but certainly “surface” — aspects of Islam?
“The importance placed on these things differs according to who you are,” he smiles. “For example, scholars care very much about updating [according to the time we live in] and not about the problem of hijab and banks. This is evidenced in, for example, the very big list [of topics] that the Islamic Fiqh Academy of the Organization of the Islamic Conference based in Jeddah has [to discuss]. They and many others focus on the political, social and intellectual fields.”
So why don’t scholars spend more time discussing these many issues in public? “Because the media choose some things around which to create a new reality,” he explains. “That leads some people to care about these issues, not about those that might have more meaning. Other issues do not, therefore, become intriguing to normal life.”
Islamic scholars discussed thousands and thousands of issues throughout the twentieth century, he tells us. But of the tons of papers and books they churn out, the media only picks up on the handful of opinions handed down on controversial issues. And, of course, on the opinions and fatwas of those on or beyond the margins of respectability.
(A fatwa is a religious ruling based on Islamic law and should be issued by a competent, educated scholar. Dar Al-Ifta literally issues hundreds of thousands of them each year.)
“For Al-Ahram [the leading Arabic-language daily] I have written more than 120 articles about 120 topics ranging from coexistence to bridges between civilizations to pluralism in the political system,” he says. “Not one of them has been [properly] discussed by the media.”
Indeed, Gomaa went so far last year as to use his Ahram column to caustically rebuke “our fellow Egyptian journalists” for being preoccupied “with their attempts to misconstrue religious questions to [manufacture] controversial issues for the dailies.”
The media, he says, only focuses on that which is sensational and sure to cause an outcry. Case in point: the recent media uproar over a fatwa handed down by Sheikh Ezzat Attiya. Yes, that one, the breastfeeding fatwa that somehow declared that a woman can breastfeed her male colleague five times to circumvent the Islamic ban on a man and woman being alone at work.
Although Gomaa himself is no stranger to eccentric fatwas — he has declared hymen-restoration surgery legitimate in cases other than rape and has studied the supposed practice of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) drinking the Prophet’s urine — the mufti has said that oddball fatwas such as the one on breastfeeding are a not-unexpected outgrowth of an undisciplined system.
Indeed, the system has lost so much credibility that the verb “beyifty” has entered Egyptian slang. Literally meaning “giving a fatwa,” it is now used to refer to someone who is pontificating about a subject about which he actually knows nothing.
In the days after the breastfeeding fatwa made headlines in Egypt and around the world, Gomaa suspended Attiya and referred him to Al-Azhar’s disciplinary committee. The next week, he called on scholars at a conference in Kuwait to embrace the establishment of an international council to issue uniform, coherent fatwas for the faithful around the globe. He has since tabled another proposal to Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mohammed Sayed Tantawi to create an Egyptian body to monitor the fatwas issued by the “tele-imams” — as Gomaa calls them —who issue opinions online and on satellite television.
“This kind of proposal has come from the ummah itself because this is an age in which freedom of expression has to be respected,” the mufti recently told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, the prominent pan-Arab daily. “There is not one party that is capable of abiding by such control and therefore it has to be approved by everyone and efforts have to be made to create a public opinion and a prevailing culture that embraces the presence of such a tool to control fatwas.”
The work of the body, he explained to them, would be to “check for violations of Shariah and the opinions of the Sunni and Muslim consensus and for any violation of Shariah sources. If it finds errors, it would try to advise those who made the mistakes to rectify the situation. The question of authority and the judicial power to punish offenders needs to be debated by legislators,” he says, “which requires discussion on a larger scale rather than by clerics alone in order to avoid the misunderstanding that these clerics want authority for themselves.”
Meanwhile, the telegenic mufti says his colleagues in the media need to do more to dampen the flames of controversy. Journalists, he says, must stop “commenting on the fatwas in ignorance and making them the talk of the world.”
Fatwas, the mufti believes, are serious tools that only the very qualified should be permitted to use, saying in a recent lecture in London that “Fatwas represent a bridge between the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence and the contemporary world in which we live. They are the link between the past and the present, 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.”
But inappropriate fatwas do more than harm the image of Islam abroad by, say, talking about breastfeeding one’s grown colleagues. As Gomaa well knows, ill-informed opinions can also stoke the embers of radicalism, playing on cultural and religious differences and the misunderstandings of history to drive extremist ideologies forward.
“When each and every person’s unqualified opinion is considered a fatwa,” the mufti continued in his lecture, “we lose a tool that is of the utmost importance for reigning in extremism and preserving the flexibility and balance of Islamic law.”
To help prevent the faithful — in Egypt, at least — from turning to unqualified ‘scholars,’ the mufti has created a website and a Dar Al-Ifta hotline callers can dial free of charge to speak with one of 12 muftis, who together issue more than 1,000 fatwas a day.
That’s more than six times the average number issued in a day last century.
A Day in the Life of
The Grand Mufti’s job is to oversee Dar Al-Ifta, and I confess I had no idea what exactly it entailed. So I ask him what his normal day is like. He seems amused by the question and answers in a drawn out tone usually reserved for talking to children:
“I wake up at fajr, and I pray it. I sit, and I read my wird [litany of daily devotions, usually involving recitation of the Qur’an and supplications arranged in a particular order] until shuruq [sunrise]. Do you know what a wird is or not?”
It’s official. He thinks I’m an idiot.
“After the shuruq yesha’sha’ keda [Egyptian play on the word shorouq, meaning when the sun has completely risen]” he continues blithely, “I start studying books and reviewing problems of Fiqh. I record the things I want to record or write my articles. I investigate books and maybe take some notes from them. Then I take my medicine and breakfast and go to work.”
A packed day even before it began. At Dar Al-Ifta by around 9am, Gomaa then works at his desk until noon. “The work,” he explains “includes meetings and conferences and lectures, answering questions, answering letters that reach the Dar, and so on.”
The day I came, he had been filming for over an hour with Al-Arabiya. When he wrapped our interview, he headed off to a number of meetings, then to another television interview. He went home for a scant few hours before setting off to the Conrad Cairo Hotel for the three-hour-long launch of Misr El-Kheir.
Misr El-Kheir is a new charity organization — independent of Dar Al-Ifta — on whose board of trustees the mufti sits. It collects zakat (the alms amounting to 2.5 percent of their wealth that each Muslim must give annually)from the faithful, who are able to deposit it straight into Misr El-Kheir’s bank account. The organization, which hopes to collect LE 5 billion in one year, supports activities in five areas, including health, education, scientific research, arts and sports, and social solidarity.
(The account number, the Mufti will later tell us, is “meya meya,” a play on the fact that the number is 100100, which is the Egyptian saying for something that is very good.)
The mufti arrives an hour before he is scheduled to speak, and mingles and listens to others at his table while munching on petit fours. He bounds up the steps when it was his turn to speak and is on his feet at the podium for over an hour extolling the virtues of the new organization. He’s an excellent public speaker, a fact that has helped make him loved by the public, and peppers his talks with anecdotes and jokes. He tells the audience, for example, that the new account registration number is 555 “to prevent hasad [the evil eye, since many believe the number five will keep away the evil eye].”
“I’m sorry if I’ve gone on for too long” he concludes. “I’m a preacher and a teacher, you see, so I like to talk a lot.” Next up was a Q & A session. While I was winding down, tired from following him across Cairo today, the mufti is as sharp as he was in our morning interview. Every question gets a detailed answer, nothing is rushed. The event wraps up around 10pm and all the faithful head home.
All, that is, except for Ali Gomaa, who heads over to sound stage at El-Beit Beitak, the hit Channel 2 evening talkshow, to offer a few sound bits. He’s mobbed with questions afterward and takes them in one by one before, finally, slipping back into a black Mercedes to head home.
Gone are the days when a scholar could pass his time in his home or the mosque, fingering his prayer beads and teaching 10 or 20 students at most. In our globalized world, the mufti needs to be a scholar, a dynamic public speaker, a writer and a TV presenter to be successful. And although his work hours are technically 9 to 5, Ali Gomaa’s are a 24-hour-a-day burden.
Gomaa is an extremely memorable person, which helps explain how he has turned what was a position hitherto ignored by most Egyptians into a bully pulpit from which to exhort the faithful to go forth and do better in life and in faith. Our mufti can be a charming, eccentric, blunt, funny, grandfatherly type — and deadly serious when needs be. Nothing ruffles his feathers: He can sidestep questions with alacrity and is cool under attack.
His critics, as much as they dislike him or his fatwas, respect him greatly and can never deny that his opinions are founded on solid research, and that his arguments are properly formulated.
During his tenure, Gomaa has transformed Dar Al-Ifta’s public face with a call center and a website available in Arabic, English, French, and German. While publishing 10 books, he has also started training teachers and is in the process of developing an e-learning website so people can be trained in ifta’ (the giving of fatwas) around the world.
He’s changed Dar Al-Ifta, but how has Dar Al-Ifta changed him? He smiles, then offers one of his classic jokes, quoting an old Egyptian song: “I am as I am, and you are the one who changes.”
Okay, fine, but where does he see himself in 10 years? “If I am alive, then [may] Allah grant us success, and the future is in the hands of Allah.”
Who is Ali Gomaa?
Ali Gomaa Mohamad Abdel-Wahab, 55, the trilingual Grand Mufti of Dar Al-Ifta, was appointed by President Hosni Mubarak in 2003. The country’s most senior interpreter and administrator of Islamic law, he is second only to the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, making him one of the highest-ranking clerics in the Sunni Muslim world.
Born in Beni Suef, he is married and has three daughters. “One lives in America,” he tells me, “one is with [me] at home, and one lives near [me].” He has five grandchildren — three boys and two girls — who “just started school today” he tells me with a smile.
Unlike many who aspire to high religious office, Gomaa did not start out studying at the feet of scholars. Instead, he earned a BA in commerce from Ain Shams University in 1973. At Ain Shams, he began to memorize the Qur’an and, eventually, to study hadith and delve deeper into Islamic studies. Although he had not gone through the Al-Azhar high school curriculum, he memorized all of its basic texts during his freshman year when he enrolled at Al-Azhar University in 1976. He earned his BA from Al-Azhar three years later before going on to earn an MA in 1985 and a PhD in Shariah and law in 1988 from the same school.
He became a professor of Usul Al-Fiqh (the four canons of Islamic jurisprudence) at the Faculty of Islamic and Arabic Studies, publishing over 25 books during his tenure there.
Later, in 1998, he began teaching open classes at Al-Azhar Mosque six days a week, from sunrise until noon, reviving the centuries-old tradition of the Islamic halaqa (circle) in 1998 because, he told an interviewer, “I want people to continue in the tradition of knowledge, reading the classical texts the way they were written, not the way people want to understand them.”
At the same time, he was the khatib (orator) at Sultan Hassan Mosque, in the shadow of the Citadel, where he delivered the Friday sermon and followed prayers with a lesson and a Q&A session. He still gives the sermon there on alternate weekends to this very day.
In short: Before becoming mufti and, more recently, a media celebrity, Gomaa was well-known by a select few, and his tapes sold in modest numbers, but by no means was his name instantly recognized by the masses.
His current status as a household name stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, Ahmed El-Tayyeb, whose name elicits little more than “Who?” from most people.
Prior to his appointment, Gomaa dressed in normal clothes, walked around with a bare head, and spoke colloquial Arabic. Today, he dresses in a perfectly pressed navy kaftan (a man’s cotton or silk cloak buttoned down the front, with full sleeves) with a white galabeyya (traditional white male garment) underneath it, and speaks mainly in classical Arabic, albeit in a form that is more easily understood and punctuated with colloquialisms. The image of the traditional scholar is perfected with his red and white Azhari cap, white socks and sensible shoes.
The one thing he didn’t change about his outward appearance is that which makes him a favorite of the Egyptian public: His demeanor. That, along with his character and engaging personality, is what makes him the “People’s Mufti.”
He is widely traveled and a liberal voice by Azhar standards: open minded and progressive, believing that women have the right to become judges and even heads of state and leaders of nations.
He believes in religious cooperation and is a firm advocate of dialogue and coexistence.
But perhaps the thing that made him so well known is the fact the he is no media recluse. A strong public speaker, he is far from the image of the scholar secluded in a mosque reading the Qur’an with people timidly asking his advice.
Indeed, Gomaa’s is a familiar face to those who watch broadcast and satellite television. A frequent guest on talkshows, he also writes a weekly column for Al-Ahram, the nation’s largest daily and appears every Tuesday on El-Beit Beitak, state-run Channel 2’s hit evening talkshow. Far from focusing on narrow or obscure topics, the mufti revels in tackling the hot-button topics of the day.
Gomaa’s media vision doesn’t stop with the Arab world: Gomaa has invited foreign religious leaders to Al-Azhar and has appeared in leading non-Muslim media outlets such s the Washington Post to promote interfaith dialogue.
A mufti who doesn’t know the concerns of the world in which he lives, Gomaa once said, is as a man “moving along a dark path with no light in his hand.” et