Speech delivered by H.E. Prof. Ahmad At-Tayyeb,
Grand Imam of Al-Azhar,
at the International Symposium titled,
"Islam and the West: Diversity and Integration"
in the premises of
Al-Azhar Conference Hall
13-15 Safar, 1440 AH/ October 22-24, 2018
All praise is due to Allah, and peace and blessings be upon our Master, the Messenger of Allah, and upon his family and companions and those who follow his guidance.
Dear luminaries on the platform, respectable guests and honorable attendees,
May Allah's Peace, Marcy and Blessings be upon you all!
Welcome to the safeguarded Egypt, confluence of civilizations and incubator of sciences and cultures, the land of the Nile valley and the pyramids, the land of Al-Azhar Ash-Sharif, the oldest scholarly institutions and the forerunner of universities. You're most welcome. May your journey and stay here be safe and blessed.
Al-Azhar Ash-Sharif and its institutions thank you for your response to the invitation to participate in this round of international symposium on dialogue between the East and the West in a debate that is grounded on openness and forthrightness and that takes into account the harsh circumstances afflicting our peoples here in the East, which require pondering and treatment by judicious figures like you.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I pondered much on the statement through which I would contribute to this symposium and I found myself feeling like compelled to address a frequently engaged topic, about which much is said and regarding which numerous significant statements and recommendations have been issued. Such statements and recommendations preached cross-civilizational dialogue and the necessity for these civilizations to reach a common ground for the sake of delivering our contemporary world from the perils of struggle and tension-ridden peace, the cold wars of yesterday, and the blazing wars of today. Despite these appreciable efforts by the wise figures of the East and the West, still we have a long way to go and greater effort should be exerted. Pondering on the illogical paradox between reality and expectations, it seems to me that perhaps the reasons behind it is that there are obstacles on the way of dialogue, and that engagement in investigating these obstacles, by diagnosis and treatment, is perhaps worthier and more helpful in cutting that long way short. Based on this perspective, in particular, comes my speech today in contribution to this symposium, and which I would summarize in something like reflections, contemplations and creative imagination.
I would like to assert, in your presence, that my conviction in this regard is that the East has no problem whatsoever with the West, whether we conceive of it in the Christian sense as being represented in major religious institutions or in the sense of a scientific, materialist and secular civilization. This conviction takes into account, as its point of departure, the history of eastern civilizations and their fixed position in respecting religion and science wherever their homeland may be and whoever its respective scholars and believers are.
I do not think this claim requires demonstration or inference. There is clearly noticeable evidence to the possibility of rapprochement between the Muslim communities in the East and Christian communities in the West. In ancient times, the Andalusian civilization laid at the heart of Europe is historical a demonstration. In recent time, Al-Azhar Ash-Sharif adopts openness towards all major religious institutions in the West. This is also evidenced by the earnest and most reliable positive response of these Western institutions to such rapprochement. Such rapprochement did once happen, and it could happen twice and thrice, over and again. The case is, therefore, not as described by Rudyard Kipling, the poet, when he said, "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet"!
Here, I would recall excellent research conducted by some Western scholars concerned with the Andalusian model and the ways to invest it in promoting modern Muslim-Christian dialogue." In this paper, the author highlights the Andalusian paradigm with its open multicultural civilization, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic. It is depicted as a guide model in outlining a roadmap for the current dialogue track, and in designing a theoretical and practical framework for the rules and main purposes of this dialogue. In particular, contemporary Western efforts are meant to coincide with eastern efforts towards pushing the Islam-West dialogue process. On top of these efforts are the following: the resolutions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965); the visit of Pope Paul VI to some Arab countries, on top of which was the State of Palestine; and the UN declaration adopting the Alliance of Civilizations project (2004), which encouraged holding international conferences on dialogue in the East and the West. These efforts also include the following: Pope Francis' visit to Egypt (April 2018) and his participation in launching Al-Azhar International Peace Conference; and the exchange of visits between Al-Azhar on the one hand and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the World Council of Churches in Geneva, and the Protestant Church in Germany, on the other.
Such specialists had the feeling, experienced by all those preoccupied with the issue of lost peace, of concomitant troubles and difficulties which represent a stumbling block in the way of local and international efforts, and of the gap between such efforts and the limited results of these meetings.
What asserts my conviction that the East or Islam does not have an issue with the West at all is the reality, sweet or sour, good or bad, in which we have been living since the gates of the Muslim have been open to the West during the last two centuries until today. Since then, the Muslims have been adopting a great deal of the Western civilization in their lives, theoretically and practically. Today, in our schools and universities, and particularly in international schools, students are taught much of the Western literary and scientific subjects that are perhaps equal to those taught to the European students in their respective schools and universities. Sometimes, it is even the case that our young children in these educational institutes learn to speak European languages even better than their own mother tongue. Al-Azhar University is proud to be the only university that teaches the Islamic heritage of knowledge side by side with modern Western educational curricula, for example in the faculties of medicine, engineering, pharmacy, science, agriculture, etc. This university encompasses a faculty of foreign languages, where foreign literatures are taught in different academic departments and the names of pioneers of diverse schools of Western literature resonate in its classrooms and auditoriums. I would go further by saying that the department of Arabic literature in our university teaches all the critical schools known in the West. I would go still further by noting that I myself studied philosophy in the Faculty of Islamic Theology (Uṣl Uddīn) in the sixties of the past century at the hands of established sheikhs (scholars). Those religious scholars studied in European universities and earned their higher degrees at the hands of European professors. They would implant in our minds respect and reverence for those (European) professors and show appreciation of their favor, no matter how much we may disagree with them. This tolerance which our sheikhs were keen to instill in us was not as only a reflection of what they had learned in Western universities but also an implementation of the philosophy of Islam regarding communication with the different others, in terms of influencing and being influenced by them. For example, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), the well-known scholar whose positive impact on Medieval Europe is well acknowledged, laid in a splendid statement the foundations for rational thinking, the legality of the Muslim openness to other cultures, and the necessity of benefiting from the efforts of predecessors in all disciplines. This principle does not exclude philosophical sciences, which have to deal with the sensitive issues of creeds and faiths. Averroes said that "whenever we find, in the works of former nations, a reflection on the existence … we should assess their statements and the relevant recorded writings. So, whatever of it conforms to the truth, we should gladly and gratefully accept it from them; otherwise, we should draw their attention to whatever contradicts the truth, warn against it, but excuse them."
Through this statement, Averroes did not mean self-prizing or paying compliment to the others. Rather, he was revealing a firm principle of Islam that promotes the quest for truth and gratefulness to whoever discovers it, while excusing whoever fails to do so. This is what we have learnt by heart from the Prophet of Islam (pbuh). The hadith states that a mujtahid (one who reaches correct opinion through individual effort) is double rewarded from Almighty Allah, once for the effort exerted and once for reaching the correct opinion. If a mujtahid errs (after expending due effort), he is then rewarded only once for the effort exerted in questing for the truth.
Hence, in the philosophy of Islam, the one who attempts to find the truth but fails is excused while the one who manages to find it is still excused. I do not think there is any other equation that reaches that level of tolerance.
Whoever amongst you, our honorable guests, visits our traditional faculties at the ancient district of Al-Azhar (Islamic district in Fatimid Cairo) would come upon Al-Azhar foreign Language Institute, where our current students, who are the prospective religious scholars, learn foreign languages. Besides, distinguished students among them get qualified to obtain postgraduate degrees from European universities. This institute is jointly directed by the British Council, the French Cultural Centre (Institut français d'Égypte), and the German Goethe-Institut Ägypten, under the umbrella of Al-Azhar Ash-Sharif Headquarter.
Such are Al-Azhar curricula, in their authenticity and conscious openness to wisdom wherever it is found, which mold the moderate mentality of Al-Azhar in terms of both thinking and conduct. This mind is always capable to adapt to the modern age and address its given reality and problems.
Another issue that might not be known to many people regarding the East-West relationship is that numerous European cultural and civilizational aspects are quite pervasive in the heart of our Eastern culture, in all political, educational, social and art fields. Moreover, the difference between both cultures is almost limited to the field of religion and creed, along with their related historical and cultural traditions and values. This is an indispensable value for any people or nation that is keen to guard and protect its culture from aggression, assimilation and extinction.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
After this lengthy narrative, you may agree with me that there is an inevitable and justified question to raise, Where is the exclusive Islam which is stuck with the past, and whose followers are a critical danger to the Western culture and its great achievements of global and human sciences? Where is the Muslim country that has a factory of mass destruction weapons or a source of violent and deterrent power that may represent a threat to the global powers? Unfortunately, these global powers have limitless freedom to say and do whatever they want, and threaten any country that objects to them or dares to oppose them!!
In my point of view, which may be true or false, the issue is associated with the global powers which are filled with a sense of their false right to control and utilize others in quest for their own selfish interests. This sense is stemmed from their belief that they are the owners of the best and most elegant civilization and the holders of the absolute right of sovereignty over the others.
This is the main pretext and justification that the old colonial powers utilized to justify their usurpation of the people's wealth and fortunes.
I am one of those who strongly believe in the cross-culture acquaintance, integration and cooperation. In fact, I have learnt from the Glorious Qur'ān which I memorized at an early age that "acquaintance" is the base of relations among nations and states. The Glorious Qur'ān states this fact in a verse well-known to the Muslims and non-Muslims alike, "People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you may know one another. In God’s eyes, the most honored of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is All Knowing, All Aware." (Qur'ān, 49:13). Moreover, I learnt this fact from my study of Muslim intellectual heritage and its interaction with the Indian and Greek cultures and religious philosophies in the Middle Ages.
It never crossed my mind that the 20th century, which is the century of advanced civilization, human rights and the conventions of world peace, will end with the emergence of theories and ideologies that paved the way to the outbreak of wars and clash of civilizations. Although, the theories of "Class Struggle", "End of History" and Huntington's Clash of Civilizations continued to resonate in our ears, they have gone unheeded. These theories are based on racial theses, at the top of which is the thesis of the German sociologist and philosopher, Maximilian Weber (1854 – 1920 AD), who has died about a century ago. This scholar based his theory on the argument that "Comparing Western civilization with other human civilizations proves that the former has unique and unparalleled features. These features cannot be found in any human culture other than that of the West"
After that, the famous English orientalist, Bernard Lewis, confirmed in his book entitled Islam that he was the originator of the idea of "Clash of Civilization". He developed this idea soon after the decision of Gamal Abdel-Nasser to nationalize the Suez Canal in 1956 and the Tripartite Aggression waged against Egypt in the same year. In 1990, Lewis referred again to this idea when he was talking about the Arab and Muslim World. He affirmed that the relation between Islam and West is just a real and historical clash of civilization. In addition, he stated that the clash between Islam and Muslim civilization on the one hand, and the West on the other, is a reaction to an old enmity to our Jewish and Christian heritage. "The clash of civilization is an important aspect of the modern international relations", he added.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I hope that my statements are not interpreted to mean to solely reproach the West and its civilization. Indeed, the East has its own pitfalls and shortcomings that contributed to the establishment of Islamophobia. This phenomenon has recently spread in the West. The dubious silence in the face of terrorism has enabled the armed political movements to associate its terrorist acts with Islam. They chose religious names to their organizations to recruit many young men and women who are deceived with this false religious appearance. As a result, it has been established in the mind of the majority of Europeans and Americans that violence and Islam are closely-connected twins fed from the same source.
It has thus become difficult for us to clarify the truth to the West and the Westerners. This religion is forcibly abducted to commit despicable terrorist acts in full view of its adherents and followers. Muslims, who are depicted as violent and barbaric people, are in fact the main victims of such black terrorism. Detecting the reasons behind terrorism may not be sought in Islam or in any other Heavenly religion. It is rather the global systems that maliciously exploit religions, values, ethics, and norms in order to promote arms and armament markets, and abhorrent racial policies, and neo-colonialism.
Thank you for your kind attention!
Peace be upon you all.
Safar 28, 1440 AH/October 21, 2018 AD
Prof. Ahmad At-Tayyeb
Grand Imam of Al-Azhar
 Islam and the West: Civilizational Dialogue, pp. 19-43, Emirate's Center of Strategic Studies and Research, 2012.
 Ibn Rushd, Faṣlu l-Maqāl (A Conclusive Statement on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy). (Beirut, 1997, p. 93).