In memory of Chief Rabbi Bakshi-Doron: From al-Azhar to coronavirus

The 1990s had seen a spike in suicide bombings carried out in the name of Islam, and Bakshi-Doron hoped to convince Tantawi to speak out against the phenomenon.

Al-Azhar mosque, founded by the Fatimid conqueror Gwahar al-Siqilli in 970. Herz opened the walled-up arcades encircling the courtyard (photo credit: GUNDULA MADELEINE TEGTMEYER)
Al-Azhar mosque, founded by the Fatimid conqueror Gwahar al-Siqilli in 970. Herz opened the walled-up arcades encircling the courtyard
Not many people remember that the former Sephardi chief rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, who died a few days ago of the coronavirus, had attempted to launch a dialogue with Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the previous Grand Imam of al-Azhar.
The 1990s had seen a spike in suicide bombings carried out in the name of Islam, and Bakshi-Doron hoped to convince Tantawi to speak out against the phenomenon. In October 1997 he therefore sent him a letter which, in my capacity of ambassador of Israel to Egypt, I was tasked to convey. Following protocol, my secretary contacted the office of the Grand Imam to ask for a meeting in order to deliver the letter. She was told that they would have to check and let her know. I was not hopeful.
Al-Azhar, the most ancient and most important Sunni institution of higher learning and religious doctrine, had so far carefully abstained from any form of dialogue with Israelis. But to my surprise, the request was granted. The Grand Imam would later explain to the media, which was vocal in its condemnation, that he had consulted the Foreign Ministry and been told that the decision was up to him but that the ministry did not see any reason not to accept a visit by the Israeli ambassador.
The meeting took place at five in the afternoon on October 13 in the offices of the Grand Imam, situated in the al-Azhar compound that hosts the mosque bearing that name dating from the year 972, the university and research institutions. After the usual exchange of polite greetings I handed the letter to Tantawi, who opened it and read it aloud.
The chief rabbi had written about the importance of interfaith dialogue and was hoping that his august counterpart would issue a comprehensive condemnation of all forms of terror, not sparing women and children. Tantawi then said that he was in total agreement and had condemned terror on many occasions.
I asked for his opinion of Hezbollah, a name which means “party of Allah.” He replied that Allah needed no party and that in any case he had no influence on that movement, adding with a smile that it was the same with the so-called Islamic banks which have nothing to do with religion. Concerning the Palestinian question, his said that an independent Palestinian state would have to be established in the West Bank with east Jerusalem for its capital – a position which was a de facto recognition of Israel and which he had expressed many times.
It was left to me to report the conversation to Bakshi-Doron since Tantawi refrained prudently from sending a written reply. He probably knew what was coming.
When the meeting was made public, he was subjected to a torrent of abuse, including from within al-Azhar. A cleric there compared the entrance of the ambassador of Israel into the venerable institution to that of Napoleon on horseback two hundred years earlier! It was repeatedly stressed that it was the first time ever that a high-ranking Israeli entered the hallowed Azhar al Sharif compound – worse, with his car sporting the Israeli flag!
SHEIKH TANTAWI gave a number of interviews and defended himself vigorously against frenzied attacks. Leading weeklies Roz el Youssef and Al Mussawar argued that a man of his stature, a symbol of Islam, should never have received the ambassador and that by doing so he had not only shamed himself but also brought shame on al-Azhar. It was hinted that the ambassador had led him to condemn the Hamas movement (which was heading the suicide bombings) and that, in the course of their discussion, he had neglected to stress the legitimate rights of the Palestinians to their land and had not accused the Israelis of killing women and children.
The Grand Iman replied that it was well known that he condemned terror and the killing of women and children, and that he had never condemned Hamas, adding that he supported the rights of the Palestinians. He repeated that the purpose of the meeting with the ambassador was to receive a letter from the Israeli chief rabbi and that there had been no reason to refuse. Though he stood his ground, it was clear that for the media, in spite of the peace treaty with Israel, it should be treated as a pariah state and no contact held with its representatives. This was not the ground on which a fruitful dialogue could be launched.
What is interesting is that the doctoral thesis written by the Sheikh in the sixties was replete with quotes of negative references from the Koran presenting the Jews as having killed their prophets and falsifying the words of God in their religious books, as well as being rapacious and more.
Nevertheless when he ascended the higher ranks of the religious establishment, first as Mufti, and lastly as Sheikh al-Azhar, he expressed more moderate views, not only by condemning suicide bombings killing or maiming women and children, but also permitting abortions for women who had been raped and opposing female genital mutilation. Those positions set him at odds with hard core Islamic scholars.
NOT MANY months later, Ashkenazi chief rabbi Israel Meir Lau came to Cairo to see president Hosni Mubarak and expressed his wish to meet with Sheikh al-Azhar. The meeting took place on December 15 in the same office and I acted as translator.
This time the discussion centered on theological issues. Rabbi Lau said modestly that he was not well versed in Islam and was desirous to understand what the Koran said about the Jewish people and the land of Israel – and wanted to know whether Jerusalem, mentioned 600 times in the Bible, was also mentioned in the Koran.
Without replying directly to the question, the Grand Iman said that a third of the Koran is devoted to the Jewish people and all relevant problems are discussed. Rabbi Lau suggested that a joint communique be issued stressing the need for an interfaith dialogue. the Iman said he would be ready to take part in an international encounter which would include the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and other religious luminaries. As Rabbi Lau later told Israeli media, his host had shown no real interest in dialogue and there was no change in his position.
Sheikh al-Azhar was nevertheless attacked once more by Arab media, which said that the meeting itself had been a form of “normalization with the enemy” at a time where all Arab nations were against any form of such normalization.
Tantawi pointed out that the concept of normalization was unclear. Wasn’t the fact that more than 40,000 Palestinians were working in Israel a form of normalization, he asked, quoting the Prophet Mohammed, who had said that one had to meet one’s enemy and listen to what he had to say. However not all in al-Azhar agreed with him and some clerics condemned his move. What was clear was that no dialogue was possible and there was no follow up on the meeting.
It was therefore a complete surprise when at a conference in New York in 2008, the Grand Imam shook the hand of Shimon Peres, then president of the State of Israel. A shocked Arab world condemned him and voices were heard calling for his removal from his exalted position.
Tantawi first tried to pretend that he had not recognized Peres, who was one of the many participants in the conference and had shaken the proffered hand instinctively. He then changed versions several times, ultimately telling a Qatari newspaper that the gates of al-Azhar were open to all and the Israeli president or the prime minister would be welcome if they wanted to come to discuss peace and a solution to the Palestinian issue. Here again there was no follow up.
THE GRAND Imam passed away in March 2010 while on a visit to Saudi Arabia. His successor was the president of al-Azhar University, the present incumbent, Ahmed El-Tayeb.
It was soon made clear that he belonged to the most rigorous school of Islam and would not depart from the strict interpretations of the holy texts. He rejected out of hand a move by then Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi to modify laws governing inheritance so that daughters could inherit as well as sons. He vetoed a proposal by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which would have made divorce contingent on a written document instead of  oral repudiation as in the case today – a situation which leaves women helpless in the Arab world since they are not always aware of the fact or cannot prove it.
Sheikh Tayeb is adamant that family laws are enshrined in the Koran and cannot be changed. He will not entertain a more lenient interpretation of the Sharia which would put it more in line with the modern world. Far from condemning terror he will not even brand Al-Qaeda and Daesh (ISIS) as infidels since in his views they believe in all tenets of Islam and are therefore Muslims even if they have sinned. Nor is he ready to accept Sisi’s entreaties to amend the more extremist trends in the Islamic narrative which, wrongly interpreted, may encourage terror.
He expressed his position in the strongest terms in an interview aired on Egypt Channel One on January 26, 2018, as quoted by MEMRI:  “I have noticed that they are always telling us that terrorism is Islamic. All those mouthpieces that croak – out of ignorance or because they were told to – that the al-Azhar curricula are the cause of terrorism never talk about Israel, about Israel’s prisons, about the genocides perpetrated by the Zionist entity state… Or rather, the Zionist entity – the truth is that it is not a state…
“As long as this entity is alive and active, the Arabs will remain neither living nor dead, and the Muslims will remain under attack,” he continued. “Note that if we continue this way, it will not end with Al-Aqsa Mosque. They will march on the Kaaba and on the Prophet’s Mosque [in Medina]. This is on their minds and in their hearts.”
Unfortunately, this was a far cry from the open-mindedness of his predecessor and his readiness to accept Israel while advocating the creation of a Palestinian state.
SISI CANNOT replace him because the new constitution which he himself drafted and which was adopted in 2014 emphasizes the independence of the Grand Imam who is chosen by the leaders of al-Azhar. Divergences between the two men are stronger than ever, as was demonstrated last January on the occasion of the “World al-Azhar conference on the renewal of Islamic thought.“
In his inaugural speech, Sisi, who sponsored the event, said that he had been calling for years for a change in the Islamic narrative and that not addressing the issue was hampering scientific developments and economic progress, driving Egyptian youth with no hope for a better future to terror on the basis of a faulty understanding of the Sharia. He meant youngsters joining Al Qaeda and Daesh.
He found an ally in the president of al-Azhar University, who complained that study and research on religious subjects are stagnating for lack of critical analysis. Sheikh al-Azhar replied that it had been the Sharia which had unified religiously illiterate Arab tribes and had led them to victory in Andalus (Spain) and as far as China. The so-called opposition between modern needs and tradition, he said, is artificial and is a Western ploy to prevent the development of the Islamic world, with Western leaders such as US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trying to impose their decisions on Arab nations.
It seems that the modest attempt by Rabbi Bakshi-Doron to open a dialogue with al-Azhar, Islam’s most revered institution – which though ably sustained by Rabbi Lau never took off – is not likely to be revived in the foreseeable future.
To conclude on a more positive note, the Grand Iman did state that the Egyptian people as a whole must act responsibly in the fight against the coronavirus and the protection of humanity against that grave threat, and must obey government injunctions. He gave his full support to the decision to close mosques and learning centers, stop joint prayers and have people pray alone in their own homes, including during the holy Ramadan month – all measures running contrary to long entrenched traditions. Furthermore, he warned that this  is an injunction derived from the Sharia and it would be a grave sin not to respect it.
Will the dreaded virus which carried away Rabbi Bakshi-Doron be the instrument of the long-awaited change in Islamic thought? One can only hope.