Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Conference on "Dialogue between the East and West", held in Rome.

The Conference on "Dialogue between the East and West", held in Rome.

The speech of His Eminence Prof Ahmad At-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and the Chief of the Muslim Council of Elders, in the Conference on "Dialogue between the East and West", held in Rome.


In the name of Allah, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

Distinguished fellow panel members,

Ladies and gentlemen!

I would like to greet you with the greeting of Islam, or rather the greeting of all Divine religions: peace, blessings, and mercy of Allah be upon you.

To proceed:

     I have just returned from a prolonged meeting with my dear brother Pope Francis, his holiness the Pope of the Vatican. We discussed many of the ordeals that worry the human conscience and cause it to suffer from pain and misery. We have looked ahead at the future in order to forge cooperation to alleviate the suffering of the poor, the distressed, and the weak around the world. In fact, I am overly optimistic about this great and rare figure. He is bestowed with a heart full of love and goodness and a sincere desire that all people enjoy a prevailing peace, coexistence, integration and interaction among civilizations.

     My speech before you targets a certain goal, namely my belief in the necessity of a dialogue between the East and the West and the inevitability of its continuity between the Elders and the rational of both sides. This should rescue our contemporary civilization from what nearly drives it to decline to ages of ignorance and darkness in the literal sense of the word.

     The ongoing reciprocal violence between the East and the West has become the unfortunate characteristic that distinguishes our contemporary civilization from all the previous civilizations. I hope I would not be exaggerating if I were to say that the human civilization of the 21st century represents no more than a disappointing civilizational decline when compared with that of the 20th century. Although the first half of the twentieth century witnessed two world wars that left more than 70 million casualties, creators of the wars and their beneficiaries have quickly realized its fatal price and the absurdity of the motives so unworthy of a single drop of blood.

     Even though the world countries was then divided into two severely opposing camps in all intellectual, philosophical, and economical aspects, the Cold War, whose purpose was to maintain balance between the two adversary camps, had gone without blood or deaths. A feeling of security and settlement was experienced by the nations during the on-and-off Cold War. People felt that a new age was commenced, the kind of which was free from wars, killings and destruction, yet marked with a dominant feeling of fear from the unknown that surfaces sometimes and disappears most often.

     Then the communist camp collapsed at the end of the previous century, followed by the collapse of all communist-advocating political regimes. Afterwards, we thought that causes of conflict between the East and the West had started eclipsing, simply because the archenemy that had always challenged the Western camp, contested it in expansion and world domination, and threatened it with destruction and nuclear terror had collapsed forever.

     Rationally, a new era of prevailing cooperation, integration, exchange of benefits and interests between the wealthy and poor countries, and cross-fertilization of cultures between the West and the East was prospected and even hoped for humanistically and ethically. That was an era where the West and the United States were expected to hold their civilizational responsibility and pay the tax of civilizational and technological prosperity. Even the ethnic superiority the West had believed in throughout the era of colonization and relied upon to justify its colonial policy in the countries of the East was practiced in spite of the invalidity of that racial attitude in the view of the Western anthropologists themselves.

     Moreover, the belief of the European countries in that statement makes it rather mandatory upon them to lead the less prospered needy nations to gain the advantages of wealth, prosperity, technological, scientific, artistic, and humanistic progress God has bestowed upon them. The is a kind of advantage that makes it an obligation upon those fortunate countries to aid the deprived nations that once contributed to the rise of the West and its progress in all fields of civilization today. The ancient eternal European capital where we meet today is a solid proof of the bygone days when the Muslims were the pioneers of civilization, science and art and the messengers of enlightenment, education, and culture. Without their legacy, the modern Western civilization would not have entertained its current lofty stance.

     The common thought was then that the world affairs after the Cold War would follow a course towards peace, cooperation and coexistence. Yet, matters soon readopted their former shape. The world politics, driven by the logic of money, power, and weaponry, desired to replace the Cold War with a new war and a new camp, the Muslim camp, to confront the non-Muslim camp. We wish that at least the example of the previous Cold War was followed, that would have been more tolerable and endurable. Yet there appeared a new generation of war, the kind where the victims kill each other with the help of their own money in their own lands, in lieu of transoceanic systems of war brokers and weapon dealers. Necessarily, distorted images of Islam were to be propagated, depicting it a religion that fosters extremism and promotes a call of murder, bloodshed and beheadings, all in the name of Allah.

     It is not our concern now to address, in this short speech, the phenomenon of extremism, its causes, its prime suspect and financial providers, its terrorizing force, and its capabilities to transport armies, equipment, and weapons from the far East to the far West in Asia and Africa without having to be stopped at the borders of countries. Still, some facts must be honestly emphasized in this context. Primarily, Muslims are the victims of this extremism. They pay its heavy price from their bloods a hundred times more than anyone else does They are the target of its weapons and fire, paralyzing their economy, dissipating their energies and leaving them to live a condition between life and death aiming for accurately clear and calculated ends.

     Elders and scholars, forgive me if I have extensively addressed a matter you are most definitely well aware of and experienced with both in the East and West. My purpose has been to emphasize that our current and previous similar meetings are no entertainment but a necessity ordained by the endeavor to find a solution to this crisis that has been evolving like a malignant cancer with no cure so far. I am also pleased to assure you that the esteemed Al-Azhar, together with the Muslim Council of Elders, is prepared to provide all the necessary mastered experience to bring about unlimited cooperation for the dissemination of world peace and the establishment of values of coexistence and the culture of dialogue among civilizations.

     In my belief, the problem lies in the scientific progress, the emblem of the modern Western civilization. After it had appeared as contradictory to war in the era of Enlightenment, it completely shifted to a direct correlation with it in our contemporary era. The philosophers of Enlightenment heralded the everlasting demise of wars after the expansion and progress of civilization. In other words, ‘world peace’ would prevail side-by-side with the modern civilization. That is why the French philosopher Condorcet, the most famous advocates of educational reformation (1787), said, “We shall witness the demise of wars, slavery, and misery in proportion to the expansion of civilization.”

     In the wake of this delightful dream that lasted for one century, a new reality emerged in which the relationship between science and war has become one of a direct correlation, incurring the increase of more lethal and vicious wars whenever science progresses. This has transpired into a fact in the Egyptian culture since the thirties of the previous century. This has been evident in the writings of Al-Azhar scholars and the rational thinkers and intellectuals. Identically, it has presence in the writings of Western intellectuals, most recently echoed by Todorov Tzvetan, the Bulgarian and French philosopher who died this year. He said, “Cultures, with all of their technological and artistic components, have been expanding increasingly around the world and acknowledged by large segments of the world population. Yet, wars still rage, misery continues and slavery, despite banished by the formal laws, is still existent in real-life practices.”

     This statement reflects the modern reality of our world. I am, therefore, forced to maintain that there is no hope in depending on civilizational progress to tame the raging monster of war, deeply settled in the conscience of the modern man, particularly after the civilizational progress had destroyed all the legacies of values, morals, and disciplined human manners. This claimed progress has eroded the instinct of religiosity, the very instinct of morals and virtues a human being uses to avert criminalities against oneself and others. After the dissolution of boundaries between freedom, as a virtue, and chaos, as a condemned immorality, we are no longer able to distinguish between a behavior, dictated by the human right in free and responsible self-expression, and another chaotic behavior that impinges the status of the human being as a moral and responsible entity. Notably, this progress has turned its back to religion and its teachings, replacing it with unbridled freedom so irresponsible that we have witnessed the modern man display the kind of behavior and conduct impossible to be even imagined by those with upright conscience of the past generations.

     In my opinion, our dialogue should focus on presenting the issue of religion as a lifeboat to be prioritized over other issues to be discussed, such as secularism and globalization, among others. I already know the non-identical, if not diametrical, position of religion in the East and the West. I also know that the materialist and atheist philosophies may mock at this very discussion and believe it to be backwardness related to ages of ignorance and darkness. Notwithstanding, it is the right of the nations which suffer from the politics of authoritarianism, domination, and coercive displacement, in addition to the bloodshed of millions of the weak, poor, widowed, and orphans, to cry out aloud, “NO”. I do join their calls in the heart of Europe, “NO, and a thousand NO.” It is our right to demand the correction of the current course and claim our right to live in a world of peace we are deprived of, while dogs, cats and other animals everywhere else are enjoying this.

     It will be said that resorting to religion and its teachings only worsens the situation because the difference between religions with regard to their respective doctrines and laws is one of the most notorious drivers of wars. Are we to ignore the scale of bloodshed spelled due to religious conflict? Are we to ignore that Europe put an end to its domestic wars only after it had isolated religion from the lives of the public, commonly called secularism?

     Such objections with which many modern Western and Eastern youth are convinced might seem plausible at first glance, yet they fall apart when discussed within the framework of a sound, deep reading of religion that aims at discovering its essence and its critical importance for a happy human life.

     Our response to these objections is that the Divine religions, sent down from God, Glorified be He, upon His messengers and prophets can by no means become the cause of human misery. How is that possible, given their exclusive goal to guide humanity to goodness and the righteousness? Both in the past and contemporary time, wars that broke in the name of religion, have been driven by a single cause: politicizing religions and exploiting their advocates to gain devious goals. Evidently, all religions unanimously agree to the sanctity of the human blood and the protection of life. They may differ in their teachings depending on the circumstances of time and place, but they firmly forbid the killing of human beings. This forbiddance is based on two authorities: the authority of the Holy Scripture: “Do not kill” and the authority of the moral conscious, which is central in distinguishing between the good and the evil. This also applies to the popular principle of general duty. Religions have appointed elders and saints as experts and guardians over those divine devices instilled deep in the conscience of the human being, given their eligibility to steer them in every time and every place.

     In this very context, the Qur'an is fundamentally connected to the Torah and the Gospel in one common goal. The Prophet of Islam advocates the very same causes Jesus and Moses have advocated, along with the previous chain of the prophets and messengers, peace be upon them all. Anyone who desires to read a recorded moral code, identical in meaning but different in language with great time intervals, should read that code in the Holy Bible and the Noble Qur'an. The only difference the reader may notice when tracing our current topic is the Qur'anic distributed format in addressing it, unlike the Bible that addresses it compiled in a single place. The most accurate and relevant example is the Ten Commandments, compared with the invaluable moral treasure and the sublime human wealth called the Admonition of the Mountain, i.e. the meeting on the mountain of Sinai mentioned in the Gospel. We can find it similar to the various verses of the Qur'an in both of its Meccan and Medinan periods. I have studied this subject most deliberately and concluded with an unshakable doctrine: the three scriptures must be of the same source since the similarities among them are identical to organic fraternity aiming at guidance of humanity and protection of the human life.

     Therefore, there is neither any mention of a call to bloodshed of the human beings in the Holy Scriptures, nor does it ever exist in the behavior of the messengers and prophets. I will even claim that any unfair bloodshed of animals is forbidden in the Divine laws that project nothing but merciful and kind legal rulings towards animals.

     The time is too tight for me to mention in detail the vast difference between wars broken due to religion on the one hand and those due to religious manipulation on the other. If we assumed that religion was the cause of destruction, the Muslim civilization would then have been the reason behind the two world wars which claimed the lives of 75 million persons, as well as the blood shedding crimes committed today in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere! The injustice of man to his fellow man, the death of the human conscience and insensitivity toward others' pains and griefs are the main causes behind the blood shedding; religion has nothing to do with that. It was due to suffering from the scourges and griefs of wars that Europe put an end to the wars which erupted in the last century, rather than to excluding religions from the orientation centers in society as commonly claimed.

     The accusation of religions as a source of promotion of wars is based on the fact that the followers of every religion claim that they possess the absolute truth while the others are wrong and that they have to call people for adopting such truth either by reason or by force. Such accusations have urged many senior theologians to search for a solution to what seems to be the "dilemma" of religions in today’s world. In this regard, several questions have been raised, starting from the necessity of claiming the truth while incorporating others to ignoring the differences between religions. This is due to the difficulty of distinguishing between truth and falsehood and because religions are subject to the law of evolution and historical variation. Thus, the truth, in the view of this trend, is relative rather than absolute.

     My opinion, based on the philosophy of Islam regarding this issue, is that religious belief is a faith that must be tantamount to uncontroversial knowledge. Thus, such faith is to its believers not questionable or doubtful, a case which necessitates its being an absolute truth.

     In my point of view, such absolute truth is the solid foundation of any religion. Otherwise, if we opened the door to religious relativism, suspicion about religious beliefs, or recognition that another religion also has the truth, despite contradictions between them, the followers of each religion would have to choose between two things: either to have suspicions about their own religion, and then they would not any longer be believers in that religion, or to accept the assumption that an idea can be right and wrong at that same time. This is rationally impossible. Consequently, the believers of every religion should believe in their only absolute truth. Therefore, recognition of religious relativism with regard to any religion is a complete undermining of the principles and teachings of that religion.

The assumed conflict among the believers of religions regarding their absolute truths is unlikely due to the following reasons:

     First: The holy books include conclusive evidence to the prohibition of religious conversion and consider it a murder equivalent to or more serious than killing innocent people, as the believers may unhesitatingly sacrifice their lives and money for their religions and beliefs. The Qur’an and the Bible have many clear verses confirming that coercion of religious conversion is nonsensical because belief is an internal act of the heart that cannot possibly be controlled.

     Second: Should any coercion to religious conversion be irrational and nonsensical, it is necessary for everyone to respect and accept religions of the others. In addition, the states should ensure the right of religious freedom and provide sufficient places of worship for the followers of all different religions.

     To conclude, one’s faith is incomplete as long as one doesn’t firmly believe that it is an absolute truth. A believer must respect the other religions believed to not have the same absolute truth like one’s own religion. Furthermore, one must respect the people of other religions as much as s/he does with her/his own religion.

     There is a vast deference between full respectfulness of another religion and believing in that religion. In this regard, in particular, extremists have deviated from the right path; it is from this particular source that their calls for declaration of others’ disbelief, their terrorism and killings the others have emanated. 

I would like to apologize for speaking at some length.

Peace and blessings be upon you all.

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