The chief cleric of Cairo’s prestigious mosque and university, H.E. Professor Dr Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar al Sharif, has decried the present-day “civilizational crisis” of poverty and insecurity and called for interreligious collaboration to address it.
Dr al-Tayyeb in his lecture on “The Responsibility of Religious Leaders in Building World Peace” urged Christians and Muslims “to follow our path as believers from the different parts of the world, in order to realize humanity’s hope to overcome the uncivilized obstacles that could bring us back to the era of darkness, ignorance and the law of the jungle.”
Al-Tayyeb’s lecture followed the two-day dialogue and planning sessions of the Muslim Council of Elders with a delegation from the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva. It took place during 70th anniversary celebrations at the Ecumenical Institute, Bossey, Switzerland, on 1 October.
The Grand Imam’s visit, which he and the WCC general secretary, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, called “historic and unprecedented,” came two months after a jointly
organized youth seminar in Al-Azhar.
Modern roots of violence
The lecture, before an audience of about 150 persons, included a radical critique of the reigning powers and secular assumptions of the present world order. Even if nonreligious factors “can realize modernity, technological and scientific development,” the Grand Imam said, “they have failed to grant humankind a life of security, stability and peace.”
Al-Tayyeb particularly criticized widespread cynicism and secularism. The modern era, he said, marked by a loss of religious values, has been scorched by the prevalence of armed conflict (including two world wars), which is fueled by the arms trade. Its geopolitical configuration “led to the happiness of a limited category of individuals at great cost to the majority of people, living in extreme poverty.”
He also cited economic exploitation by powerful nations and international corporations, in which a rich minority “is controlling the world economy, monopolizing its markets, and imposing ‘new forms of spoliation and plundering of the resources of poor countries,’” he said, quoting theologian Hans Küng.
The present international order makes a mockery of the high ideals promulgated in the 1945 UN Charter and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he argued.
Debunking current notions of a “clash of civilizations” or “the end of history,” al-Tayyeb instead traced the real roots of violence and of terrorism to “biased policies and double standards as well as the greed of a minority defending its international and regional interests through the arms race.” Poverty and inequality breed violence.
Islam and peacebuilding
While noting the centrality of peace in Islam, a consistent message of the Grand Imam was rebuking “these false messages that link Islam with terrorism.” In fact, he said “religion and violence are incompatible and … all religious messages have one unique aim, which the happiness of humankind.”
“I am underlining the fact that religious armed groups advocating religious messages are in reality betraying their religions and their souls,” he said. Such acts are “inacceptable and reprehensible” and do not represent true Islam, any more than historic Christianity’s violence toward Muslims represented true Christianity. “No Muslim has ever accused this religion [itself] of all that happened,” he argued.
Instead, al-Tayyeb urged religious leaders to concentrate on engagement and education of youth, particularly in an interreligious setting, as a preventative measure against misunderstanding and violence.
He cited the success of an interreligious initiative that Al-Azhar undertook with the Coptic Church of Egypt and others, entitled “The House of the Egyptian Family,” which includes research into causes of violence, reform of religious teaching about the other, and Christian-Muslim interaction of imams, priests and especially youth. The program has been implemented all across Egypt.
For al-Tayyeb the ultimate justification and aim of interreligious encounter and dialogue are practical, “to reduce the suffering of humanity.” “The world is nowadays in need of your wisdom and your action more than ever before to reduce the suffering of people,” he told the audience.