Scholars at Cairo’s Al-Azhar lift ban on dialogue with Jews

Statement drafted by chairman of committee for dialogue, read during gathering of faith and political leaders in London, 'Post' learns.

November 25, 2010 00:38
3 minute read.

SHEIKH FAWZI AL-ZIFZAF 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Scholars at the oldest Islamic university in the world issued a proclamation on Tuesday that lifted an ancient ban on dialogue with Jews, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

The statement drafted by Sheikh Fawzi al-Zifzaf, chairman of the permanent committee for dialogue at Al- Azhar University in Cairo, was read during a gathering of senior faith and political leaders at Parliament in London.

“And the point of origin of this invitation is Islam itself [calling for] brotherhood and mutual understanding and the strengthening of bonds between Muslims and followers of the other religions, and the establishment of bridges of dialogue with scholarly institutions in Europe and America,” Zifzaf wrote.

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The event was hosted by the Children of Abraham charity and Al-Azhar Institute for Dialogue with the Monotheistic Religions.

The Egyptian Sunni institute, founded in 970 CE, has had open channels of communication with Catholics and Anglicans since the 1990s; however, until now, it has had no direct talks with Jewish scholars.

While the proclamation did not mention Judaism by name, a spokesman for the grand mufti of the UK and alumnus of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Prof. Mohamed Elsharkawy, told the Post on Wednesday that its message was aimed at a Jewish audience.

“You’ve got to understand there are extreme sensitivities,” the spokesman said.

“I’m not at liberty to say how hard it was to draft the document. In the process, the people who have taken the document forward have done so at great risk and danger, and so they’ve done that very carefully. There already exists a dialogue with Christians, so anyone with two brain cells can add up to what is being said here.”

Rabbi Marc Schneier, a vice president of the World Jewish Congress and advocate for improved relations between Jews and Muslims, gave a keynote address at the event on Tuesday, praising the effort by the Islamic clerics.

“This is a landmark decision, and Al-Azhar deserves praise for it,” Schneier said. “Coming from the leading center of Islamic thinking in the world, it will be enormously helpful for all moderate forces within Islam. This declaration rightly emphasizes the importance of interfaith relations. Leaders from both sides should now seize the opportunity and take Jewish-Muslim relations to the next level. Both communities have a lot more in common, and more to give to the other side, than many people think.”

The event at the House of Lords was held a week after it emerged that 40 Islamic schools in the UK used textbooks printed in Saudi Arabia that had anti-Semitic depictions of Jews. In his speech, Schneier raised the issue and asked Muslim leaders to take action preventing such incidents from occurring again.

“Declarations are very important, but Jewish and Islamic relations need to go beyond dialogue,” the New York-based rabbi said.

Saudi Ambassador to the US Adel A. al-Jubeir told Schneier he was embarrassed by this issue and that it did not represent his country in 2010.

The spokesman for Elsharkawy also condemned the incident. He said he hoped Tuesday’s announcement would pave the way for better ties between Jews and Muslims.

“The way that we’ve framed it, it’s a bit like dating,” the spokesman said of the declaration.

“We have texted the Jewish world, and we’re waiting for rabbis in Europe and the US to respond. Out of that response we are hoping that there might emerge regular, stable dialogue on the highest level.”

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