Egypt's Grand Mufti Counters the Tide of Islamic Extremism

Why doesn't the West recognize who the moderate Muslims are, much less what they are trying to say?

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The Al-Azhar Mosque.

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Adapting. One thing is absolutely clear, though: Gomaa's unshakable confidence—repeated as often by his protégés as by him—that the inherent moderation and pragmatism of traditionalist Islam make it far superior to anything proposed by puritanical Salafists or Wahhabis or utopia-minded Islamists. Through the centuries and across cultures and continents, Islam spread and flourished, they all say, precisely because the principles of sharia were applied and interpreted in light of changing reality. Apart from supporting bedrock principles of the faith as set forth in the Koran and the hadith (the authoritative accounts of the words and deeds of the Prophet), Islamic jurists sought to make the lives of Muslims easier, not more difficult, through their realistic application of religious law. As Gomaa sees it, what the best Muslim jurists have always done is to focus on the intent of sharia to foster faithfulness, dignity, intellectual growth, and other core values. Called al makased, this method of seeking to apply the law through an understanding of its purposes is at the core of Gomaa's scholarship and jurisprudence and is being spread by his scores of students and followers.

But there have always been in Islam, as in other religions, the terrible simplifiers, the puritans who, like the 18th-century Arabian cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, claim not only to streamline the faith but to return it to basic principles. Often called Salafists, such Muslims in more recent times have also presented themselves as modernizers and reformists. The more political among them, the Islamists, have additionally sought to make Islam into a political program to replace secular forms of government.

Tossing out centuries of reasoned reflection upon the meaning of sharia and discounting the importance of most schools of jurisprudence, these puritans reduce the law to selected passages from the Koran and the hadith and, as the traditionalists see it, distort the intent of sharia by taking the chaff for the wheat. "Their fast-food jurisprudence has led to great intolerance," says Suhaib Webb, a 36-year-old American convert to Islam who came to Al-Azhar University from California precisely to learn the classical traditions of jurisprudence. "The classical discourse dealt with reality," Webb says. "The modern discourse is utopian. Ali Gomaa is respected because he deals with reality."

Since being appointed grand mufti by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2003, Gomaa has demonstrated that realism in scores of rulings on matters that have profound implications for the lives of Muslims. In a country where female genital mutilation is still widely practiced in the name of religion, Gomaa declared it un-Islamic and wrong. He has ruled that Muslims should not be punished for leaving the faith. Citing conflicting opinions from different religious sources, he has declared that there is no definitive edict against playing or performing music. He has said it is permissible, with some restrictions, for Muslim financial institutions to charge interest on loans. He has ruled unequivocally that women may serve as judges and hold political office. He has been equally bold in saying there should be no Islamic political parties, on the grounds that they create divisions between Muslims—a view that makes officials of Egypt's Islamist Muslim Brotherhood uneasy.

Even as Al-Azhar-trained scholars go, Gomaa is a sheik with a difference. A practical and worldly man, he received his first university degree in commerce. Having memorized the Koran on his own, he entered Al-Azhar without going through the rigorous preparation of its high school system. After completing the highest degree in 1988, he taught law there, wrote some 25 books, and revived the old Islamic practice of informal "knowledge circles" at the university's historic mosque. In these circles, as well as in the packed Q&A sessions that he introduced at the famous Sultan Hassan Mosque, where he delivered Friday sermons, Gomaa took on all who tried to simplify or distort the faith without knowledge of its traditions.