Prof. Dr. Ahmed El-Tayyib
The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar
The President of the Muslim Council of Elders
This speech was delivered in
9/ 6/ 2015
In the Name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy
Honorable Elders from the East and the West
Peace be upon all of you,
Allow me to begin my speech by expressing my deep gratitude and sincere thanks to Prof. Andrea Cardy, prof. Romano Prodi and Mr. Dario Nardila, the Mayor of Florence for their warm reception and generous hospitality.
I would like also to express my sincere thanks to the audience and to the youth who have volunteered to serve this event and to organize it in such excellent manner.
It is a pleasure, Elders, to be among you at this meeting, and I am sure it will be an historic one. One day, the history of humanity may stop to ponder upon this meeting and record it in letters of light; this is not hard at all for Allah.
The work whose first fruits we witness now, and whose coming stages remain uncertain, was once just an idea in a world of hopes. This idea grew when my old friends, Father Voterio Inare, Prof. Paula Pesos, and Mr. Andrea Trinity visited me more than a year ago in my house in Heliopolis, Cairo. We talked about "inter-faith and inter-civilization Dialogue" and the degree to which it affects relations between the East and the West, and we also discussed whether or not this dialogue borne fruit in bridging the gap between civilizations and relieving tensions in this relation, which has unfortunately recently become one of dreadful conflict.
After taking part in many inter-faith dialogues across the globe, it is my opinion that these meetings cannot identify the sources, both hidden and apparent, between the Arab and Muslim world and the West. As such, these meetings could not formulate a vision to assuage this international crisis. If this crisis is allowed to fester, it will snowball into something greater, and all of humanity will suffer. The price for this crisis will be destruction, ruin, and bloodshed beyond even the world wars of the 1900s. This is inevitable due to the continuing development of destructive weapons, the dominance of militaristic regimes, and Western efforts that install armed military presence in most Eastern countries.
Frustrated by this state of affairs, and nearly despairing for our world, which stands on the verge of collapse, an idea came to my mind. I came up with the idea of a meeting where an elite group of Western scholars would meet with their Eastern counterparts to examine this difficult and complicated topic. This group would either come up with a solution, or at least sow the seeds of a tree of peace that may one day bear fruit.
The enthusiasm and eagerness of the Muslim Council of Elders to defuse tension throughout the world made me consider this seriously. We would designate envoys to spread peace all throughout the world.
My friends in Sant'Egidio have also encouraged me, and showed their readiness to support this suggestion and turn it from a dream into reality. According the teachings of the Prophet of Islam, "He who does not thank people is not thankful to Allah." So I must express my deep thanks to the officials of this Association, which has a long history of promoting human fraternity, international peace, love, and mercy communicated by both Prophets: Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon both of them).
Brothers of Elders
I thought it would be easy for any researcher to realize what is meant by the East and what it is meant by the West. Moreover, I thought that it would be easy to define the differences that distinguish the two concepts and remove any sort of ambiguity in this regard. However, it was futile, from the very beginning, to come up with such definite divisions and to reach a mutually comprehensive and totally exhaustive definition –as logicians would call it- for those two geographically distant but historically and culturally close entities.
If we start with defining the "West", a series of contradictions and ambiguities will puzzle us, and the "West" will not be a clear and decisive European entity versus the East. We cannot define the "West" in terms of religious and ethnic characteristics. For example, we cannot say that the West is "the European peoples that believe in Christianity". This definition becomes groundless if we take into consideration the millions of Muslims who migrated to Europe and America and became a prominent part of the social structure of the West. These millions have had their effect on various fields including customs, arts and behaviors.
Additionally, this mutual effect is not a new development; rather it is an old process. We can recognize it throughout the histories of both Eastern and Western civilizations, and in the histories of centers of civilization in Europe that received and were affected by the Arab civilization and later conveyed it to all European peoples. Florence, a city with a long history of civilization, religion, and culture, which hosts this forum today, was at that time one of the most important centers of communication.
In such a way, we do not know how the East perceives the West. Is it synonymous with Christianity, Secularism or Atheism? Is it a reference to the military and economic power? Is it an embodiment of enlightenment and human rights or of fascism and radicalism?
Is it Arts and culture? Is it the latest fashions and houses of fashions? Does it refer to production and assumption? Is it science, technology or factories of destructive weapons? No matter how we try to define the inherent features of the West, we will reach no more than a complicated and contradictory construction.
The same applies to the definition of the "East" and identifying it in a clear-cut way. The effect of Western civilization on Eastern and Islamic civilization is so clear that an observer can not overlook it. The Western effect resulted in the invasion of most Muslim countries. Moreover, the Islamic world does not represent one geographical unity. In addition, nationalism may be sometimes stronger than the bond of religion; Iraq and Iran are for example two Muslim countries, but they have fought against each other for many years on the basis of nationalism and differing interests. The bond of religion could not defeat the ferocity of war.
The calls to establish a united Muslim nation did not create positive results for the unity of the Muslim peoples. This failure even led some people to say that there is no an entity called the Islamic World that can constitute a danger to the West, which has the most powerful and fiercest military power.
From my point of view, which is highly abstract and optimistic, I think that these overlapping elements between the East and the West, represented in the communication of the scientific, cultural and artistic elements between the two civilizations, may constitute a common ground for building the convergence of civilizations. This convergence will be based on integration, the exchange of interests and the establishment of principles of democracy, freedom and the right of the Eastern man - like his Western brother - to enjoy an honorable and safe life. We have also a great hope that the rich and powerful countries will cease the practice of despotism, bias, and double standards that discriminate between the East and West. We hope that these countries will end their authoritative policies against the weak. It seems that these policies aim to divide the world into two parts: a part for richness, security, welfare, and scientific, cultural and societal progress; and another part for war, shedding blood, terrorism, devastation, poverty, ignorance and illness.
You may agree with me that the status quo of our world is extremely bad, and that the position of the majority of Muslims in the East regarding the dominance of power and its excessive use to demolish the will of the peoples is surely not a respectable one. Yes, one may admire the dominant system and its power; however, s/he may scorn it because of its lack of morality, human fraternity and brotherhood. This is the difference between a brutal application of power and a just and peaceful one.
Moreover, I would go further and argue that the overwhelming feeling of hatred towards tyrannical world order is not restricted to Muslims in the East; it is a common to them and a large number of lovers of justice and peace among the westerners. Human morality drives these thoughts and feelings - they are created by humanity’s natural disposition. These motives have not yet been distorted by the rules of power, interest and the philosophy of "the ends justify the means" regardless of how abhorrent those means are.
I hope that you believe me when I say that we – Eastern Muslims and Christians - no longer consider a civilization based on power and domination as the model which people should pursue, in spite of the voices that advocate for globalization all over the world that support this idea. In fact there are great reservations concerning this model of civilization which we may admit that it brought happiness to many people, and made the majority of people who have good conscience suffer at the same time.
It is fair to say that easterners – Muslims and Christians - are responsible for making the effort to adjust their view towards the West and westerners. There is a feeling of fear and apprehension towards the West.
This fear is somewhat justified, but it is – surely - an exaggerated fear. In most cases, its limits intermingle with the limits of hatred and love of revenge. This is the catastrophe which if left to continue will lead not only to the demise of Islamic civilization under the clash of civilizations theory, but also to the demise of Western civilization alongside it.
People of the East should build closer and more harmonious relationships with people of the West. They should not view the civilization of the West as an evil civilization without religion and virtue. The Easterners should have an optimistic view, in which the civilization of the West is seen as a humanitarian one. We must therefore change the existing pessimistic views into optimistic ones. Western civilization must be viewed a civilization which, despite containing some defects and shortcomings, undoubtedly saved humanity and brought it to scientific and technological horizons that would not have been reached without it and its hardworking scholars. The East, on the other hand, has the cure to the spiritual and religious shortcomings of the West, the ingredients to help it cast away all factors of decay and decline; and the West has much to offer the East to pick it up from scientific, technological, and industrial backwardness.
Is there any hope that may urge the West to diminish its conceit and ostentation? Is there any hope that we may successfully urge the East to think well of the West so as to bring them to a point where East and West can come together and engage in cultural exchange for mutual benefit?
Elders of the council
Allow me to highlight two important points regarding the convergence of East and West.
The first point is about the Qur'anic verse that is frequently repeated by ordinary Muslims; men and women, young and old, and even Western intellectuals have memorized this verse due to its frequent citation in many dialogue forums and ceremonies. This verse is "O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily, the most honourable of you with Allah is that (believer) who has At-Taqwa (piety) (i.e. one of the Muttaqun). Verily, Allah is All-Knowing, All- Aware". (Qur'an 49:13).
All Muslims understand that getting to know each other and communicating with them, as stated in the verse, is one of the divine goals for which people were created. It encourages cooperation and the exchange of interests, not conflict, exclusion of others, and absolutism. Since Allah makes getting to know each other and communicating with one another a Divine decree that governs international relations, does not it mean that it is an attainable matter if intentions are sincere and decisions are sound?
Ladies and gentlemen, you may be surprised when I inform you that Al-Azhar Sheikhs of 1940s have precendent in referring to this sole solution. Sheikh Muhammad Mustafa al-Maraghi (d. 1936), the Sheikh of Al-Azhar at the time, called for international cooperation among nations to avoid conflicts arising between people and nations, in his speech before an international conference on religions held in 1936.
Ten years later, Sheikh Muhammad Arafa wrote an article in 1946 in Al-Azhar Magazine on its 10th anniversary emphasizing the necessity of cooperation between the East and the West. He was motivated to write this piece by the invention of the atomic bomb and weapons of mass destruction at the end of World War II. He warned that such weapons may cause the end of the world if used by terrorists. He asserted the necessity of the convergence of people, the elimination of reasonsfor hatred, and unification of the world’s population.
In his call for international cooperation, he said that the West should understand Islam well, as well as the East should understand the civilization of the West. If they came to common ground, any mistrust between them would cease and they could live together in peace, and participate in serving humanity. He also calls for Muslim scholars to show the true image of Islam to Western civilization, and to substitute conflict with harmony and enmity with peace.
The second point is the imminent danger that threatens all of us; that is the terrorism and violence that threaten the world, in addition to all the organizations, groups, and armed militants that act under the pretext of religion. These groups utilize their sacred books to attack, kill, rob and make others homeless. We must collaborate to eradicate this danger. You, Eastern and Western elders, know best about the danger that always comes as a result of misinterpretations of the sacred books, blind policies of the world that give support to terrorism, and the large amount of money flowing from many countries for the expenses of the terrorist groups that one tenth of which is not spent to confront poverty, illiteracy, illness and backwardness in the third world countries.
Elders of the West!
We have come to you full of great hope and absolute confidence in your sincerity, determination, and insistence on swimming against a violent stream whose proponents are keen on keeping the East separate from the West, and who have endeavored to keep them from reaching a meeting point since Kipling expressed his hope that the East and the West should not meet together on the same line. Is it destined that the bird of peace will tweet to bring the East and the West together again here in Florence, which overlooks the Mediterranean sea whose shores link between the East and the West? It is now time for the wisdom of the Elders to ring today in the East and the West and to chant for a prevailing peace; peace that prevails in a world full of wars and conflicts; that can save humanity from the imminent destruction which will wipe out everything. The wisdom of the elders and the sincerity of the faithful can eliminate these conflicts forever.
Thank you for your good attention.
Peace be upon you
Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh: