Analysis: Al-Azhar and the surge of Muslim antisemitism

“In our recent history, eleven Jews have been assassinated, and some of them tortured, by radical Islamists"

Egyptian Muslims take part in evening prayers called "Tarawih" on Laylat al-Qadr or Night of Decree, at Al-Azhar Mosque in old Cairo, Egypt June 21, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egyptian Muslims take part in evening prayers called "Tarawih" on Laylat al-Qadr or Night of Decree, at Al-Azhar Mosque in old Cairo, Egypt June 21, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The manifesto published on April 21 by 300 French personalities, denouncing what they called a new antisemitism due to Muslim radicalization, stirred a hornet’s nest in the hallowed halls of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the great center of learning and research of Sunni Islam and its doctrine.
“In our recent history, 11 Jews have been assassinated, and some of them tortured, by radical Islamists – because they were Jews. Koran verses calling for the murder and punishment of Jews, Christians and nonbelievers should be declared null and void by theological authorities,” reads the manifesto.
On April 24, Al-Azhar’s second-in-command Sheikh Dr. Abbas Shuman reacted angrily, denying that there were such verses; only someone who had committed a crime or murder could be killed. Islam, he said, could not be held responsible for the faulty understanding of those who take texts at face value without considering the interpretation given by Islamic sages. What they see as verses calling for killing are in fact verses of peace, referring to just retribution meted out for actual acts of aggression and only targeting the perpetrator.
He added that the right to defend oneself, one’s country and one’s honor as well as to fight aggressors – even to the extent of setting up an armed force to deter potential attackers – is recognized by all religions. Shuman concluded by advising those who dared air such unseemly suggestions to desist; should they persist, however, they could go to hell with their misconceptions and demands, he said.
This thought was echoed by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Ahmad el-Tayeb who stated on April 27 during his weekly lesson, that it was world Zionism which distorted Islam in the West as well as in the East.
A few days later, at the opening session of a conference on Law and Sharia in Al-Azhar University, Shuman reasserted his views and lauded the sharia, tasking Islamic scholars with presenting “the true face of Islam” such as verses of the Koran preaching peace and fraternity that, had they been applied, would have brought peace to the whole world. He added that obeying and following sharia are compulsory, and not a matter of choice.
On the same occasion the Mufti of Egypt, Dr. Shawki Allam, stated that Islamic sharia could be implemented at all times and everywhere.
One might have expected that after such an unequivocal demonstration of the peaceful nature of the sharia, Al-Azhar would have swiftly condemned all manifestations of Islamic antisemitism, specifically what is happening in Europe.
The problem is that well-known insulting and offensive references to Jews and non-believers can be found in the Koran and are routinely quoted by Muslim preachers to incite against the Jews and against Israel.
For example: “Oh, you believers – do not befriend those from among the people who were given the Bible before you. Make war on those to whom the Bible was given before you, but believe not in Allah.”
It is true that there are positive references to the Jews as well; in the same Sura 5, verse 20 reiterates that the holy land was promised to the Jews – as does Sura 10, verse 104. However, Muslim scholars explain that those verses override earlier verses seemingly favoring the Jews.
SOON AFTER his election, President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, on a visit to Al-Azhar University on January 1, 2015, for the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, surprised many when he urged assembled Islamic sages to amend the extremist narrative which had taken over Islam and adapt it to modern times, arguing that it is conducive to fratricidal wars among the Arabs – and that in any case the world is not ready to accept it.
At the same time, the president instructed the Education Ministry to expunge from school books a number of texts inciting violence or calling for jihad. Some of these texts deal with the bloody wars waged by Salah ad-Din and Okba Ibn Nafaa, who conquered North Africa leaving a trail of violence and destruction. Some derogatory references to Jews – but not all – were deleted. The move was harshly criticized because it allegedly erased historical events which are part of Islamic tradition and heritage.
The university, however, did not comply with the president’s request; its leading clerics repeated that no one had the right to amend the sharia. This has led to a persistent state of tension between the presidency and the institution.
Shuman’s comments demonstrate once again that Al-Azhar clerics are adamantly resisting change. When Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi asked their support for his decision to adapt laws of inheritance in order to achieve equality between men and women, the answer of Sheikh Al-Azhar was swift and unequivocal: Questions related to inheritance and family are set down in detail in the Koran and are not subject to interpretation.
IT IS OFTEN argued in Arab media that although Al-Azhar presents itself as promoting ”The Middle Way” in Islam, the curriculum in the Islamic University – the best known and most respected in the Islamic world – is devoted to holy texts and traditions dating back to the dawn of Islam. It includes the Koran and the Hadith – the biography of the Prophet – as well as commentaries and interpretations which reflect acts and behavior which were the norm at the time but are no longer acceptable today – such as calls to jihad and hatred of non-Muslims.
It is precisely on the basis of these texts that the Islamic State of Iraq, eventually led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, committed barbarous crimes – such as burning alive a Jordanian pilot; raping female captives and selling them as slaves; and even in some instances eating human flesh.
Al-Azhar scholars refute those accusations. The texts are blameless, they argue, but are distorted by unscrupulous individuals and ignorant people. Not only that, but the texts are necessary to understand the Koran; without them everyone would interpret it as they see fit. Logic would not be sufficient; one must adhere to ancient commentaries which reflect the only authentic interpretation. Changing the narrative does not fall under their brief. Their sole task is to preserve the true religious narrative, “which they learned from their fathers.”
As things stand today, the much needed reform of Islam remains impossible. Toward the end of the 18th century, as Western values penetrated the Islamic world, several Muslim luminaries of the time tried to adapt their religion to the imperatives of modern life. But they failed.
The twentieth century saw the birth of a powerful new trend. The Muslim Brotherhood, created in 1928, rejuvenated the Salafi movement calling for a return to the sources, and to the time of the Prophet and the Caliphs, in order to maximize the power of Islam against the West.
Terror organizations such as al-Qaida, Islamic State, Boko Haram and others came into being based on these tenets. They have fought and are still fighting fierce wars which are tearing apart the Muslim world and blocking its path to progress. It seems that jihad, hatred of the other and hatred of the Jews are here to stay – unless or until another unlikely Islamic Spring brings the long awaited change.
The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.