The Influence of a Moderate Muslim Cleric

Can Sheik Ali Gomaa restore order to the House of Islam? Skeptics say that even reformers are tainted by their associations with political authorities.

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Photo Gallery: Egypt's Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa
My profile of Sheik Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, provides a brief look at the work of an important Muslim jurist who argues that traditionalism, particularly traditional Islamic jurisprudence, is the best antidote to Islamic extremism. Followers of the grand mufti, including many of his former students at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, believe that his approach to Islam and Islamic law has a profound influence not just on Egyptians but on Muslims throughout the Middle East and even beyond. But others are more skeptical. They say that his position as a state-appointed official makes him suspect in the eyes of most Egyptians.

While both sides are partly right, the skeptics might seem to have the stronger case, at least if recent history is any guide. While Islam has prayer and mosque leaders (imams and mullahs), the religion has never had a formal priesthood. But it has long had an elite class of scholar-jurists, or ulema, whose deep learning in sharia (religious law, as based in the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet) and the different methodologies of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) has endowed it with special clerical authority. By dint of their scholarship, the leading sheiks of the ulema were empowered to issue fatwas, religious-legal opinions on matters large or small that might arise in the everyday lives of Muslims. At least until the founding of modern Iran, the ulema never ran Muslim nations, but good Muslim rulers, whether caliphs or kings, have always been expected to respect the authority of the ulema and particularly their authority as specialists on sharia .

But during the late colonial period, the authority of the ulema began to come under question in the predominantly Muslim world. Muslim reformers and modernizers began to criticize the high-ranking sheiks as being little more than functionaries in the corrupt, authoritarian regimes that arose as the European powers departed or relinquished some of their power. The reformers argued that an Islamic state, even a new caliphate, run according to the principles of sharia was the cure to the political and social evils that plagued the modern Muslim societies. These reformers also tended toward a strict interpretation of sharia , seeing it as a set of inflexible rules and prohibitions set forth in the Koran and the hadith (the accounts of the words and deeds of the Prophet). They proposed the creation of a kind of puritanical Islamic theocracy that had never in fact existed in the history of Islam, not even in the earliest caliphates that followed the death of the Prophet. Undeterred by reality, proponents of the Islamist agenda have sought to achieve their goal through both violent and nonviolent means, drawing on popular causes (particularly hostility toward Israel or opposition to the U. S. invasion and occupation of Iraq) to build their base. Yet while most Muslims might share some of the Islamists' outrage, few share the Islamists' ultimate dream. Indeed, as a new Gallup Poll shows, 93 percent of Muslims polled in 35 nations see themselves as moderates.

However out of touch they have been, though, Islamists and other Islamic reformers have contributed to a general breakdown of religious authority in the Muslim world—a collapse whose effects are being felt to this day. It is precisely because of the declining authority of the ulema that almost any self-styled mullah or sheik can issue a fatwa justifying barbaric punishments or legitimizing terrorism as jihad. And this situation unquestionably contributes to ongoing instability.

So how can a sheik like Ali Gomaa help restore order within the house of Islam? The skeptics remain skeptical because they say that the ulema continue to be tainted by association with the powers that be, who in many cases have grown even more corrupt and authoritarian with the passing of years.

Talk to Alaa Al Aswany, possibly Egypt's leading novelist today, and you hear that skepticism. For him, there is no way for even an enlightened sheik like Ali Gomaa to connect with the Egyptian masses. They see him as part of the government, Al Aswany says, "and that determines everything: whether you are part of the government or opposed to it."

Al Aswany's hugely successful novel The Yacoubian Building presents the sad predicament of contemporary Egypt through the microcosm of a single Cairo apartment building and the lives of its inhabitants. Home to the old elites as well as the newly rich, the building even has its own rooftop ghetto, where those who barely eke out a living occupy improvised tin shacks. From that rooftop world comes a promising young man whose frustrations in life—some resulting directly from government corruption and ineptitude—drive him into the arms of the violent jihadists. Looking at a photograph from war-torn Iraq, the young jihadist lets loose a tirade that reflects the outlook of many in his country: "The children of Muslims are slaughtered in this hideous way, while Egyptian television is crawling with scholars from Al Azhar affirming that the Egyptian government is sound in Islamic law and claiming that Islam supports the alliance with America to strike Iraq."

It is a seemingly damning indictment from the popular Egyptian perspective. But such a broad-stroke depiction is no more accurate about the world of Al Azhar scholars (many of whom are openly critical of America's presence in Iraq) than it is about how Egyptians feel toward the various members of the ulema .

Because he is an intelligent, media-savvy scholar who engages with many of the practical issues of everyday life, Ali Gomaa has found a large following among young, well-educated Egyptians. Particularly since being appointed grand mufti in 2003, in charge of an office that issues some 5,000 fatwas a week, Gomaa has distinguished himself by his flexible approach to Islamic law. His rulings on matters as diverse as female genital mutilation (which he declared unIslamic), punishment for apostasy (there should be none, he ruled), and a woman's right to divorce her husband are of considerable consequence for Muslims—and not only those in Egypt. And because his office is one of the most respected positions in the Sunni Muslim world, the grand mufti's rulings help shape the evolving religious-legal consensus in a way that reflects his broad-minded Sufi temperament. (His rigorous interpretation of the legitimate uses of jihad places him at odds, for example, with the influential Yusuf Qaradawi, who has said that it is permissible for Palestinian "freedom fighters" to kill Israeli civilians.) In his frequent television appearances, Gomaa has won a following among the young by insisting that traditional Islamic jurisprudence provides the kind of practical flexibility that is missing in the utopian, extremist versions of Islam. Countering the Islamists, he rejects the idea that sharia should supplant the secular legal codes that are in place in Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations—codes that, in most cases, already reconcile elements of European legal systems with the general principles of sharia . And more broadly, he rejects the idea of a caliphate or any other kind of Islamic state. "Muslims," he has written in defense of liberal democracy, "are free to choose whichever system of government they deem most appropriate for them."

In a Middle East increasingly saturated with satellite television, the mufti and his growing cadre of supporters are changing the terms of public debate on the place and role of religion in society. And this is no small matter in the Middle East, where religion and religious piety are on the rise. Of course, harsh critics of Islam—call them the Islamophobes—say that Islam is itself the problem. They say that there is no truly moderate Islam and that Islam is fundamentally at odds with liberal values. They are quick to point out inconsistencies in even the self-proclaimed moderates, including Gomaa. (Unless read as it was intended, Gomaa's ruling on the sinfulness of statuary could be seen as giving encouragement to the destruction of some of Egypt's greatest archaeological relics—something he explicitly did not mean but which was suggested in several misreadings of the fatwa that appeared in Egyptian newspapers.) But the effort to cast traditional Islam as "essentially" illiberal is no less tortured and bigoted than similar efforts to suggest the same of Roman Catholicism or, indeed, any other religion. In fact, as Gomaa himself understands, if traditional Islam does not contain within itself the moral and intellectual resources to make it compatible with liberal democracy and tolerance, Islam will condemn itself to irrelevance and become nothing more than an ideology for extremists.