The reasoning of reform
Is US pressure to blame for all the talk of religious reform? According to Religious Endowments Minister Hamdi Zaqzouq -- who spoke extensively to Omayma Abdel-Latif -- the process was underway long before the "r" word became vogue
In the months following the cataclysmic events of 11 September, Hamdi Zaqzouq consistently dismissed predictions that the future only held "hard times" for Muslims worldwide. Egypt's Awqaf (Religious Endowments) minister firmly believes that the storm of reflexive bigotry against all things Islamic will eventually pass, opening the way to a thoughtful understanding of the faith that moves more than one billion people on earth.
Minister Hamdi Zaqzouq
He is a strong believer in the continuity of inter-faith dialogue. "I always say that we should sit down and reason with people who disagree with us, instead of denouncing each other's cultures and faiths. This is the core message of the Islamic ethos," Zaqzouq told the Weekly in an interview at his ministry office.
The 69-year old Zaqzouq is a soft- spoken figure whose smile is constant, even when he is being aggressively challenged about the controversies surrounding the establishment over which he presides. He attributes his tolerant nature to the deep-rooted Azharite traditions to which he has always remained faithful. A 1959 graduate of Al-Azhar University's School of Arabic Studies, Zaqzouq's life -- both personal and professional -- were irrevocably changed when he received a scholarship to do his PhD at Germany's University of Munich. His thesis was a comparative study of Cartesian thought, on the one hand, and the teachings of Mohamed Al-Ghazali, the 11th century theologian considered mediaeval Islam's most important scholar, on the other. After six years in Germany, Zaqzouq came back with a Phd -- and a German wife. He took on a job as a professor of Islamic thought at Al-Azhar University, rising to become dean of the Usul Al- Deen (Islamic theology) School from 1987-1995. A year later, he took on the ministerial post he still holds today.
It is impossible not to notice the influences Zaqzouq's different roles have had on him. He seems to balance out his scholarly, institutional and governmental outlooks in everything he does. He calculates his words and thinks twice before uttering a thought -- not because he is being diplomatic, he said, but simply because the issues at hand are "very sensitive".
Despite Zaqzouq's firm belief that his ministry's role is purely religious, as well as the concerted efforts he makes to separate politics from religion at all times, in the aftermath of 9/11 he has found himself, his ministry, and his policies at the heart of heated political debates. It has, therefore, become increasingly difficult for him to remain faithful to this doctrine of separation, especially when defending ideas like reforming religious discourse, changing religious textbooks, and urging imams to address certain issues in their Friday sermons.
These measures have been vehemently attacked by both opposition movements and establishment conservatives, who have consistently accused the government and Zaqzouq of bowing to US pressure. Zaqzouq flatly denies that he is forcing Egypt's religious establishment to dilute its discourse against US policies in the region. He insisted that his policies "have absolutely nothing to do with America's plans for the region. The US might have its own grand designs for 'reforming' the region's religious discourse or introducing changes to its textbooks, as is claimed, but Egypt is not concerned about this at all", Zaqzouq said. "There have not been any directives or external pressures -- American or otherwise -- to reform our religious discourse. If there were, they would be rejected outright," he said.
The public, however, remains sceptical. After all, they are routinely bombarded by both press reports and heavy-handed rhetoric from official Washington on the need for the reform of Muslim societies and Islamic thinking. Confronted with such scepticism, Zaqzouq insisted that initiatives to reform religious discourse find their roots in the Islamic faith itself. "Reform," he said, "is among the basic precepts of the faith and is based on rigorous scholarship, so that it carries weight." He also argued that self- criticism was very much needed and that this was part of the soul-searching process that Muslims were undergoing because, he said, mistakes have been committed. "The issue of reform is too complex to be obscured by simplistic arguments that it is being done based on the requests of external forces. Actually, long before the events of 11 September, we thought it was inevitable."
Zaqzouq said the idea actually dates back to the mid-'90s when he first took office, and sought out the views of a group of selected intellectuals from across the spectrum on the ways by which religious discourse should be reformed. Zaqzouq said this ambitious project was catalysed by the fact that the ministry is constantly being approached by ordinary Muslims who complain that their local imams have lost touch with reality, and were veering towards more austere interpretations of the Qur'an rather than addressing real issues that affect their daily lives.
"We were facing a situation," Zaqzouq said, "where some preachers have completely alienated themselves from the everyday concerns of the ordinary Muslim. Despite the fact that there are social issues that local preachers are in the best position to address because of the huge influence they wield, particularly in rural areas, they simply were not doing so. We did not want them to preach hellfire but rather to restore hope for Muslims." Zaqzouq insisted that regardless of what was being said abroad, the ministry's plans were formulated mainly for the benefit of "the call of Islam itself".
As such, the ministry has issued a booklet, featuring guidelines and suggestions for preachers regarding the issues to be discussed in Friday sermons. Despite the elementary nature of this guide, Zaqzouq said, many people interpreted it as an instruction manual, commanding preachers to steer away from politics -- at the request of the US. "This booklet is titled Rasa'el Al-Deen wal-Hayat (Messages of Religion and Life)," said Zaqzouq, "which makes clear that they are not restricted to specific issues, that they can talk about anything. We merely believe that issues like the high rates of illiteracy, addiction and birth control in Egyptian society are a priority. As for changing textbooks, this is a university tradition; every three years, we would revise the reading lists."
Zaqzouq pointed out that the impetus for reform also stems from the belief that the mosque -- as an institution -- should be made relevant and central to the life of Muslim society. In order to better connect Muslims to this institution, the ministry is introducing new conditions that need to be fulfilled before licenses are granted to build mosques. Beginning in October, new mosques must allocate space for a medical unit, literacy and other educational classes, and a library. The mosque, Zaqzouq said, should not just be a place for prayer, but should also provide citizens with all kinds of social services. In Cairo, there are already more than 70 clinics in different districts that are affiliated to mosques.
It is precisely these issues -- the increasing centrality of the mosque as a religious institution as well as the general importance of religion in society -- which have catalysed raging debates within some Muslim societies, between those who embrace a secular ideology that separates religion from politics, and Islamists who firmly believe in an overall Islamic order. Although Zaqzouq does not allow himself to get emotional over this kind of debate, it is impossible not to miss a note of weariness. "It is a healthy sign that we have such debates," he said, citing the hadith (saying of Prophet Mohamed) about "the mercy of a divergence of opinions".
According to Zaqzouq, "divergence of opinion has been a deeply rooted tradition in the history of Islamic thought. Islamic scholastic tradition itself is not unitary but was often diverse and multifaceted." What he finds threatening about such debates, however, is the acute polarisation between the debating parties, with each party claiming to be upholding the ultimate truth. "Extremism on both sides becomes dangerous and the fact that each party claims to possess the ultimate truth becomes a real problem."
Many contend that even the official arbiters of piety, as well as the religious establishment itself, should also be the targets of the reform process. While Zaqzouq admits that state religious institutions have flaws, he takes issue with claims that Al-Azhar, one of the pillars of Egypt's religious establishment, has ceased to play an effective role with respect to a revival and reform movement in Islam. This has been argued by prominent Islamist scholars such as Tarek El-Bishri and lawyer Mohamed Selim El-Awwa, who speak of an 'underground Islam' that has been responsible for most of the revival initiatives that have taken place over the past three decades. The claim is that this sort of revival mainly stemmed in movements that were outside the religious establishment, and particularly via political Islamic groups.
Zaqzouq strongly disagrees with this line of thought. The weakness of education of Al-Azhar is only a reflection of the education system as a whole, he explained. He also does not believe that the cultural and civilisational role of Al- Azhar has been eroded as a result of its connection with the state. In fact, said Zaqzouq, any separation between Al-Azhar and the state would have catastrophic results for Al- Azhar, since it is entirely dependent on the state budget. Its only non-state revenues, which it receives from its waqf (endowment), amount to no more than LE600,000 (less than $100,000 at current exchange rates). "With its current resources, if Al-Azhar became financially independent, it would have to shut down its university as well as some 6000 Azharite institutes nationwide. Al-Azhar would no longer exist," he said.
Zaqzouq professed to not "understand how the state was controlling Al- Azhar", as many people claim. "I am very close to the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar and he has not been put under any kind of political pressure," he said. As for Al-Azhar's political role, Zaqzouq noted that ever since the second Intifada erupted, demonstrations have been taking place at Al- Azhar after Friday prayers. It has become routine, he said, for speakers to make political statements critical of the state. "This argument -- that the relationship between the state and Al-Azhar has weakened it -- has no foundation," said Zaqzouq. "I still believe that Al-Azhar should continue to develop itself as an educational institution with deeply rooted traditions."
In fact, Zaqzouq does not accept the term "underground Islam" at all. He argued that the end game of so-called political Islamic groups was to take power by claiming to have the exclusive truth. "We are all Muslims and no one has the right to claim to be the sole spokesman of Islam. These groups have proved their utter bankruptcy, and the fact that they have now renounced many of the views they upheld in the '80s proves this," Zaqzouq said. "All they want is to seize power, and as such, they use Islam to serve political purposes."
At the same time, Zaqzouq refused to blame the religious establishment itself for the emergence of such groups, nor would he accept responsibility for the emerging popularity of TV preachers who do not belong to the official establishment. "Many people think it is easy to speak in the name of Islam," he said. "Some use it to achieve public exposure via the media."
Zaqzouq acknowledged that these are difficult times for Muslims, but said it was imperative that they take stock of their own attitudes, and not allow a superficial reading of their faith to become its default image. He does not believe that hostilities provoked after 11 September will lead to a religious war between Islam and the West, although he did concede that there are elements on both sides who are forcing this kind of agenda on Muslims and non-Muslims alike. "There can never be a religious war between Islam and any other religion simply because this would be acting against the basic tenets of the Qur'an. Even the Crusades, which were conducted in the name of religion, were actually politically inspired. I think there are extremists working on both the Muslim and the Western sides, trying to kindle a religious war meant only to serve political purposes," Zaqzouq said.
He believes that dialogue with the 'Other' goes hand in hand with Islam's rich humanitarian tradition. He has authored 25 books, most of which deal with the relationship between Islam and the West. And for the past two decades, Zaqzouq has also been keen to attend numerous inter-faith encounters. He does not see these inter-faith conferences as mere forums for a polite show- and-tell about Islam -- particularly after 11 September. Instead, he said that Muslims need not be apologetic about Islam simply because "Islam -- the religion -- should not be held responsible for the acts committed by an extremist few."
Islam -- in Zaqzouq's view -- is not addicted to warfare and the Qur'an's core message is pluralistic, featuring respect for the values of other traditions. "Extremists exist in every religion, thought and civilisation. Islam is no more inherently violent than Christianity or Judaism, and the fact that there are extremists in Islam does not justify holding Islam -- the religion -- hostage to distorted images and clichés," Zaqzouq said. "Didn't a Jewish extremist kill former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin? Did anyone call it Jewish extremism? When Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma, no one dared describe it as Christian terrorism. So why is it when a Muslim commits some foolish act, that his or her religious identity becomes the marker here? In the second half of the 20th century, when Europe witnessed the mushrooming of terrorist organisations which committed atrocities in Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain, no one spoke of it as Jewish or Christian terrorism."
Zaqzouq said that textbooks in Europe and the United States continue to feed children incorrect information about Islam. He cited a late '80s study carried out in Germany, which examined the information about Islam in school textbooks. It found that textbooks played a central role among the many sources of the religion's distorted image.
Zaqzouq strongly believes in dialogue as a way to ease the tension. He even encourages the opening of channels of dialogue with the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Even though they are people who "distort Islam", he said, "we can have a dialogue with all of them."
Responding to claims made against Islam has long been a preoccupation for Zaqzouq, who authored a book some 15 years ago which addressed some of the most frequently asked questions about Islam in the West. It has since been translated into many languages. He also initiated an ambitious project meant to counter anti-Islamic campaigns via a Web site and CDs outlining Islamic doctrines and teachings.
Zaqzouq opposes the view that the West should be treated as a monolith; in the same way Islam is also not a monolithic entity. "We should not generalise when we talk about the West," he said. "The West is not America. There is Europe and it has its weight in world politics." He said that dialogue with Europe was much easier than dialogue with the US because "Europe has a better understanding of the Muslim world than the US, whose experience here is very limited. I suggest that the US listen to Europe on this particular issue," he said.