CAIRO—"Maybe we just need to buy CNN," says Sheik Ali Gomaa, more than a hint of exasperation creeping into his voice. After taking more than an hour to explain to yet another western journalist why a traditional conception of sharia law—along with knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence—is the best antidote to Islamic extremism, the grand mufti of Egypt is not able to disguise his frustration. Why, he wonders, does the West still not recognize who the moderate Muslims are, much less heed what they are trying to say? Shrugging his shoulders, he answers his own question: "The western media has paid no attention."
But it's even worse than that, Gomaa suggests. The West is aiding the most reactionary elements, the Salafis and Wahhabis, "out of political necessity," he says, alluding to America's elaborate codependent relationship with the oil-rich Saudis, who finance the vast outreach apparatus of the puritanical Wahhabi establishment. "And that," the mufti adds, "leaves behind our kind of Islam."
Rising from the conference table after a long discussion of his views about Islam and the contemporary world, the 55-year-old Gomaa cuts a stately figure in his Al-Azhar University scholar's garb, a dark caftan covering his white, ankle-length djellaba and a white and red cap atop his roundish head. As the grand mufti, Gomaa heads the Dar al Ifta (literally, the house of fatwas), a government agency charged with issuing nonbinding religious legal opinions on any question, large or small, that might come up in the life of a faithful Muslim. Part scholar and theologian, part jurist and administrator, he is a completely busy man—not least because his office issues some 5,000 fatwas a week, including both the official ones that he himself crafts on important issues and the more routine ones handled via phone and Internet by a dozen or so subordinate muftis. When not overseeing this operation, the sheik also appears on radio and television, participates in conferences, sometimes preaches and teaches (including at nearby Al-Ahzar University, Sunni Islam's foremost seat of learning, where he was once a student and professor), and gives speeches abroad, mostly in the cause of promoting his broad-minded, pragmatic, and, he insists, traditionalist understanding of Islam and sharia law.
Ever since Osama bin Laden's minions committed their murderous acts, western politicians and commentators have asked the same questions repeatedly: "Where are the voices of moderate Islam?" Yet the West—including, more specifically, the U.S. government—has done little to locate or assist such moderates. In some notable cases, such as its denial of a visa to the prominent European Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan in 2004, Washington has even gone out of its way to insult them.
Western official ineptitude aside, a more urgent question remains unanswered: What influence do moderates such as Gomaa—and particularly those coming from the traditional learned class, or ulema—have within the vast community of Muslim believers? While Gomaa himself voices concerns about the rise of Islamic extremism in the West, he marshals a raft of statistics to support his view that respect for traditionalism is large and growing in the core of the Muslim world. These include a massive growth in the demand for fatwas issued by his office, a mushrooming of secondary feeder schools for the traditionalist Al-Azhar University, and the growth of Al-Azhar itself from three colleges in 1950 to 72 today. "Can we say that the traditional ulema has lost its popularity?" he asks. (His broad confidence might be further corroborated by a new Gallup study, which found that 93 percent of Muslims from 35 different nations call themselves moderates.)
But other observers, including prominent Egyptian journalists and intellectuals, are far more skeptical about the impact of the mufti and other ulema, even within Egypt itself. They suggest that their association with corrupt authoritarian regimes lowers their standing among the people and taints their teaching. In light of such sharply differing views, the question of who will triumph in the struggle to define Islam is far from resolved.
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.
Still, his renown did not reach far beyond Egypt or even Cairo until, as mufti, he began to appear on popular broadcast and satellite programs. Bright, well-educated, and younger Muslims in particular found his manner refreshing and his message liberating. "I never used to listen to his predecessor," a 27-year-old Cairo physician says. "But when Ali Gomaa comes on, I pay attention. And not just me."
Loyal following. Another person who paid attention, and who then went on to promote the mufti's style of orthodoxy, is Moez Masoud, a 30-year-old advertising executive who, between writing and producing commercials, has become a highly successful Muslim televangelist. From his first satellite broadcast in 2002 through last fall's 20-part series The Right Way, Masoud has built a loyal following among young Muslims whose lives share many features of his own. Educated in American schools throughout the Middle East, including the American University in Cairo, he excelled at everything he touched, from sports to music to academics. But while devouring western philosophy, cultivating postmodern irony, and experimenting with the hedonistic lifestyle glamorized in western media, he felt a gnawing emptiness for which religion increasingly seemed the cure. The only problem was that the Islam most forcefully on display was that of the simplifiers and Islamists, whose aggressive efforts to recruit the clearly charismatic student ultimately repelled him.
Crediting his education and a fairly strong religious upbringing for arming him against the emotionally seductive appeals of the extremists, he says his big breakthrough was coming upon an audio lecture by Gomaa, then still a professor at Al-Azhar. Before long, Masoud was attending the sheik's knowledge circles and memorizing the Koran on his own. He became a committed Muslim in 1996, four years before taking to the air to bring his understanding of traditional Islam to issues like dating, drinking, homosexuality, and the pressures of living in a fast-paced, materialistic world. "The traditional voice was not dominant back then," Masoud says over tea in his sparely decorated Cairo apartment, "but it was providential that it found me. That's what drives me, and that's the voice that I want to make dominant."
But the voices of skepticism are not to be dismissed. One is Khairy Ramadan, a prominent editor and columnist at Al-Ahram and Al-Masry Al-Youm as well as a widely regarded talk-show fixture. "The mufti has enlightened views and great fatwas," he says, "but the people receive them with hesitation because they feel they come from the establishment." Like the mufti, Ramadan believes the West ignores the enlightened strain of Islam that still runs strong in the Middle East, but he insists that the biggest inducement to extremism is not a shortage of moderate clerics or respect for traditional jurisprudence but the economic and social inequalities arising out of a lack of democracy—a condition that, in his view, America cynically condones.
Equally wary is the popular novelist Alaa Al Aswany, author of the Arabic-language bestseller The Yacoubian Building. Addressing a small gathering at the office of an Egyptian opposition party, he is unsparing about the role of Egypt's ulema: "Some sheiks are put in office because they reduce the problems of life to daily rituals," he says, adding that the teaching of such clerics merely "distracts people from what matters." Though he finds much to admire about Gomaa's ideas, he says that the mufti would have far more authority among the people if he were elected by his peers and not installed by the government. "That determines everything," Al Aswany adds, "whether you are part of the government or are opposed to it."
But Abdullah Schleifer, a former journalist and emeritus professor of media studies at American University in Cairo, rejects what he calls the knee-jerk judgments of the secularist left. "I know Ali Gomaa has changed lives," he says. "He's been on the cutting edge of what young people are dealing with who are orthodox, or want to be, but are very influenced by the West. He's the link between the sweet orthodoxy of the young and the scholarly tradition."