I set off to Cairo this week to meet and interview a man who is considered to be one of the most influential voices of moderation in the Islamic world. His name is Ali Gomaa, and he is the grand mufti of Egypt, a leading scholar of jurisprudence and head of the Dar Al-Iftah (literally, the House of Fatwas), a state-sanctioned body that issues religious judgments on matters ranging from employment and finance to gender relations to, well, just about anything of importance in a Muslim's life. In terms of religious authority in Egypt, and indeed within the larger Sunni Muslim world, the grand mufti ranks second only to the grand sheik of Cairo's Al-Azhar University, perhaps the foremost center of Sunni Islamic learning.
Like many moderates within Islam, the grand mufti views himself not as a reformer or modernizer but as a traditionalist. He considers fatwas a bridge between the rich traditions of Islamic law (with four major schools and literally scores of minor schools of interpretation) and the modern world, and he is very concerned about self-appointed muftis who, with only the scantest knowledge of those traditions, issue judgments to support extreme or rigidly puritanical understanding of sharia. The grand mufti believes that such extremism tends to come from the so-called modernizers and reformers of Islam, including the Wahhabis, the Salafists, and the various Islamists who seek to make Islam into an all-encompassing political ideology.
Whether Ali Gomaa and other like-minded Muslim scholars have enough influence to counter the extremist tide is one of the questions I will be exploring. They are up against a powerful current of thought and interpretation that gets much of its funding, directly or indirectly, from the petrodollars of the Saudis. But there are other challenges as well, including the inherently anti-authoritarian character of Sunni Islam. Technically speaking, Islam has no official clergy but only prayer leaders and scholars. The leading scholars are known as the ulema, and they used to have significant clout in the Muslim world. But much of that authority has declined during the past century, in part because of their association with the unpopular and usually authoritarian regimes that govern much of the Muslim world. The rise of literacy and the spread of mass communication technology also undercut the teaching authority of the traditional ulema. Muslims can now go to many sources and many self-styled experts to get guidance on matters of faith.
Ali Gomaa may not be able to stem the tide of recent history, but he is an energetic and media-savvy man. His own office has a call center and website, with about 12 muftis on hand to answer up to 1,000 queries a day. He continues to teach every Friday at a busy mosque, fielding questions from all comers, and he is a frequent guest on radio and TV talk shows. A popular figure, he is often referred as the "People's Mufti." And this week, I hope not only to meet with him but to talk with some of the people who support and oppose his point of view.