Today President Bush hosts Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at his Texas ranch to discuss the war on terrorism and related issues. One issue on the agenda should be Al Azhar. Immediately after 9/11, a group of leading clerics and professors declared jihad against the U.S. at the most prestigious Islamic center of learning in the Muslim world, the Egyptian-government-supported Al Azhar. The issue of extremism at Al Azhar has emerged as one aspect of the war on terrorism which has not received much attention.
DECLARATION OF WAR
Sheikh of Al Azhar, one of the most coveted positions of authority in Sunni Islam, from 1929-1935 was Muhammad al-Ahmadi al-Zawahiri, grandfather of al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri. More recently Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, who previously served as mufti of Egypt until he was appointed by the government as Sheikh of Al Azhar, has led the call in Egypt for jihad against U.S. forces in Iraq.
At a press conference last year, Tantawi called on the Iraqi people to “continue its jihad in defense of religion…whether [by] martyrdom operations [i.e. suicide operations] or [by] any other means.” He encouraged volunteers from Muslim countries to go to Iraq “to support the jihad…because resistance to oppression is an Islamic obligation….” During a Friday sermon at Al Azhar the following day, Tantawi added: “The American aggression against Iraq is not acceptable to Islamic law…. The Iraqi people must defend itself…because it is a jihad that is authorized by Islamic law…. The gates of jihad are open until the Day of Judgment, and he who denies this is an infidel…”
“THE END OF AMERICA”
Before returning to Egypt within a month of 9/11, the Al Azhar representative in the U.S. and then imam of the New York Islamic Center, Sheikh Muhammad Al-Gameia, stated that the Jews were behind 9/11–not Osama bin Laden–and that the U.S.’s attack on Afghanistan would lead to “the end of America the oppressor.” He explained that following the annihilation of America, “the future of the Muslims in the U.S. will be glorious.”
JIHAD ON U.S FORCES
When the U.S. launched its war on terrorism, the official spokesman of the Al Azhar clerics, Yahyah Ismail responded by stating: “This war is a war against Muslims and Islam. Everyone must offer help to the mujahedeen brothers in Afghanistan.” Sheikh Ali Abu Al-Hassan, head of Al Azhar’s Religious Ruling Committee, added, “If the enemy sets foot on the lands of Islam, he must be fought…Islam urges us to set out on a jihad…this instance is an obligation for all Muslims…we are obliged to help them and to defend them as best we can from the cruelty of the American attacks. Islam has commanded us…to fight the jihad alongside them against the polytheists…”
JIHAD ON U.S FORCES, II
Abd Al-Azim Al-Mutani, an Al Azhar University lecturer, compared U.S. actions in the war on terror and in particular in Afghanistan as “similar to the first Crusader wars” while Dr. Abd Al-Hay Al-Farmawi, another lecturer, referred to the American campaign in Afghanistan as follows: “America is doing this without presenting any proof of Osama bin Laden’s guilt. This proves that this war, as Bush said, is a crusader war…”
The Muslim scholar Abd Al-Fattah Idrees, professor of comparative jurisprudence at Al Azhar University, explained that his position for jihad against the U.S. forces is based upon Koranic exegetes:
The U.S.-led forces are no more than invaders of the Iraqi people. So the Iraqis have to resist them. Allah Almighty says: “Allah will not give the disbelievers any way (of success) against the believers” (An-Nisa: 141). Exegetes of the Koran explain this verse to mean that disbelievers must never rule over the believers. So the Muslims are entitled to resist invasion by all possible means to defend themselves and their lands. This is one of the urgent cases of Jihad in which fighting becomes an individual obligation on all people in the country, men, women, old people and children.
It is principally impermissible for Arab and Muslim forces to participate in such [an] invasion. But if Arab and Muslim [forces are] sent by the U.N. for the sake of maintaining peace and security until a fair government is established in Iraq, then the mission of such Arab and Muslim forces should not exceed peace maintenance. It is in this case only that Arab and Muslim forces may participate. But they are not permitted to use violence against the invaded people. Otherwise they would be no more than invaders or supporters to invasion and must be resisted. If any Arab or Muslim forces participated to maintain security of the invaders, then they are to be treated as invaders.
JIHAD ON U.S FORCES, III
Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Complex has also called upon all Muslims to launch jihad in response to the U.S. actions in Iraq: “Jihad is an individual duty for all Muslims if the U.S. launches a war against Iraq…. Our Arab and Muslim nation will face new crusades that aim to deprive us of our homeland, doctrine and dignity.” Sheikh Ali Abu Al-Hassan has discussed the obligation to fight American forces in Iraq and “the blood of the American and British soldiers is permitted in this instance…the Muslims killed will be considered Shahids [martyrs].”
According to reports Al-Hassan was fired for making the statement, while another communiqué issued by the Islamic Center for Research the same week about Iraq and approved by Tantawi added: “…it is in accordance with logic and with Islamic religious law that if the enemy raids the land of the Muslims, jihad becomes an individual’s commandment, applying to every Muslim man and woman, because our Muslim nation will be subject to a new Crusader invasion….”
REFORMING RELIGIOUS DISCOURSE
The issue of extremism at Al Azhar is related to both the war on terrorism, as well as the broader issue of reform in the Middle East and, in particular, Egypt. While the religious establishment of Al Azhar has been surprisingly open to the concept of reform, Egypt’s mufti explained last month–it must come from within.
The need to change Al Azhar’s religious discourse has been discussed by Egyptian reformists such as intellectual and poet Ahmed Abd Al-Muti Higazi who has explained “…Those who quote [religious scriptures] and impose the word [namely, the chief clerics] are the ones responsible for producing fundamentalist terror….” Higazi added, “The positions of the sheikh of Al Azhar…were established by the state, but they serve only to root the principle of quote-hear-obey. They kill creativity and lead to the atrophy of the Arab mind.”