A Speech by
His Eminence the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar
Professor Ahmad Al-Tayyeb
At the Catholic University, Lisbon, Portugal in 2018
Religious Values and the Crisis of Contemporary Communities
Jumada Al akhirah 27, 1439 AH
March 15, 2018 CE
In the Name of Allah, the lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy
My dear daughters and sons
Ladies and gentlemen
My speech, which I am pleased to deliver to you today, is part of the common activities of Al-Azhar and the Muslim Council of Elders (MCE), in their responsibilities to consolidate and engage "East-West Dialogue" in various capitals of Europe, Africa and Asia and throughout the world.
The primary objective of this activity is to build the bridges of cultural acquaintance between fellow humans, no matter how much the differences may be in their races, languages, beliefs, religions and the peculiarities of their cultures and traditions. This is done by means of shedding light on the multiple inter-religious values among the believers in the divine religions and even among non-believers who respect religions and know their critical importance in setting the course of the contemporary world and guiding it to the straight path, given that the whole world was about to lose compass, plunging into some sort of moral suicide and drowning in sweeping anarchy that is perhaps unprecedented.
Dear respected audience,
In East and West, it is commonly acknowledged that our contemporary world undergoes several acute crises, on top of which is the economic crisis that resulted in the spread of poverty, hunger, youth unemployment, and debt accumulation, widening the gap between the rich and the poor. Added to this are the crises of environment and contemporary international politics, and their disastrous consequences that fuel conflicts, international polarizations and struggles for power control. There are also the crises of family breakdown, marginalization of women , and other moral, social and humanitarian crises and illnesses that afflict humanity in the 21st century with frustration and despair, spoiling the pleasures of life, the peace of mind and the tranquility of conscience.
These crises have urged the Western elders and religious scholars to pause and reflect on the warning signs gathering today in the world horizon, just like the gathering of dark clouds boding destruction and drowning. Therefore, international conferences are held, most notably of which was the Second World Religions Conference, where the representatives of different religions highlighted a universal moral necessity to establish a new world order so that we can overcome the crisis. This proposed order is based on unshakable benchmarks: commitment to maintain a violence-free culture, respecting all living beings, culture of solidarity and tolerance, fair economic system, equal rights and partnership among men and women."
That statement is praiseworthy for underpinning the critical role that religious scholars play in building the new world order by calling for realization of lasting peace primarily among themselves before preaching it to others. So, the wisdom stating that "an empty hand has nothing to give" does not apply to them. The statement concluded that there is no peace for the world without realizing it among religions that respect each other; no inter-religious peace is possible without dialogue; and survival for humankind is not possible without universal morality.
We are in complete agreement regarding these issues if it means calling for practical embodiment of the ethics of religions in people’s life, towards enhancing their behavior in accordance with its grand moral code that can bring justice and equality, and that is a constant reminder of the centrality and necessity of peace for people as a critical need equal to the need for food and water. However, if the objective of the reference to the necessity of establishing peace first among religions is a negative insinuation that religions ignited wars and that they are responsible for bloodshed, to confirm the common saying that "religions are the cause of war", then I think that religious scholars of different faiths neither acknowledge nor believe in it. Conversely, they believe that the absence of divine religion, neglecting, marginalizing, underestimating it, and mocking at belief in God, disbelieving in Him and shaking off religious ethics are the real causes of wars. This is especially the case in the past century, and in the early 21st century, the century of claimed scientific progress, human rights, and the international peace charters. We do not deny that horrendous wars lasted for decades during which religion was exploited to legitimize fights. However, religion was in fact the first victim of such wars.
Allow me to express my surprise that the claim that "religion is the cause of wars" is established not only in the minds of our youth but also among many elders, causing them to believe that humanity can enjoy peaceful coexistence only when religion is excluded from the center of life guidance, confined into the boundaries of private affairs of the individuals or to the hearts of the believers. Then religion would no longer have an impact at all on the behavior of communities. This allegation has opened up the doors for atheism among our youth, and driven human beings of the present era to lose the most precious element in their life, being a moral creature by nature. It is proven that dismissal of religion has more than one reason and cannot be attributed to any single cause.
The precepts of historical research, past and present, indicate that religion alone is not enough to explain the outbreak of wars, since their causes are multiple and intertwined. They equally include psychological, social, economic and political reasons. Other respective reasons also include the lust for power, self-defense in face of aggression against homelands and cultures, and coveting the resources of other nations. Other causes involve arms trade and its corollary of sustaining hotbeds of tension between peaceful peoples to create markets for arms trade.
Some may think that my statement—at its best–is in praise of religions, a case which is routinely reiterated, and that we are free to live in the way we desire without the need for moral controls, beliefs and other metaphysical elements. However, this thinking, and the like of it, is but a disregard of the nature of humans, a misunderstanding of it, and a manifest failure to bear due responsibilities on top of which is feeling for others and helping them gain their full rights, especially their right to lead a peaceful life. Here springs the need for and significance of religion in people's lives. Religion is the only force that protects the believer from being an easy prey to individual whims and tyranny that instill selfishness and disregard for others. Rather, religion preaches living up to responsibility maintaining conscientiousness. I would claim that such morality is the criterion of distinction and the standard of proper progress for the individuals as well as the countries and peoples.
Here is an example of a religious principle under which fighting in the cause of Allah and the fighting for saving oppressed men, women, and children are equally fair. Almighty Allah says, "And what is the matter with you that you fight not in the cause of Allah and for the oppressed men, women and children who say, "Our Lord, take us out of this city of oppressive people and appoint for us from Yourself a protector and a helper?" [Qur’an, 3: 75]. Another example of the necessity of bearing the responsibility to help the followers of other religions is that Almighty Allah has originally permitted the Muslims to fight in two cases:
First: to repel injustice inflicted on them by tyrannical idolaters.
Second: to secure freedom of belief for all the followers of divine religions, whether they be Jews, Christians or Muslims. Allah says, "Permission [to fight] has been given to those who are being fought because they were wronged. And indeed, Allah is competent to give them victory - * those who have been driven unjustly of their homes only for saying, "Our Lord is Allah." And had it not been the repelling by Allah of humankind, some by the means of others, indeed there would have been completely demolished many monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is much invoked. Allah will definitely give victory to whomever vindicates Him. Surely, Allah is Ever-Powerful, Ever-Mighty." [Qur’an, 22: 39–40]
It is clear, in this Qur'anic text that the primary reasons for permitting fighting in Islam are supporting the oppressed and securing a safe life for them. A sound mind can never doubt the legality of such purposes, because it is clear that fight, as mentioned in such text, is permissible for the purpose of defending divine religions against aggression of polytheism and polytheists. It is interesting in this regard that permissible fight in Islam is not limited to defending the freedom of worship for Muslims alone, but also for the followers of other religions. Ibn ‛Abbas commented on this verse, saying: «The non-Muslims living in a Muslim state with legal protection are to be defended by Islam and its followers". Exegetes of the Qur'an wondered about the reason behind including monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques in the Islamic defense plan. Their answer to such a question was that these are all places of worship for believers, regardless of their faiths. Imam al-Rāzi denies that defending these places is limited to the time of Prophets Moses and Jesus, peace be upon them. He emphasized that defending them in Islam means preventing destruction of them during the era of the Prophet Muḩammad (pbuh) and of his followers, because these "are places where Allah is mentioned, not places for worshipping idols." The noble verse takes into account the defense of non-Muslim places of worship.
This quoted interpretation was acknowledged during the life of the Prophet of Islam (pbuh), and was applicable in the seventh century before it was transmitted by Muslims over ages and generations. All these Muslim generations adhered to the interpretation of Ibn ‛Abbas, cousin of Muḩammad (pbuh) and his close disciple. Imam al-Tabri - in the fourth century after Hijra - and Imam al-Rāzi - in the seventh century after Hijrah - adopted the same interpretation of Ibn ‛Abbas. It is also the same interpretation which I have learned when I was a student at Al-Azhar during the fifties and sixties of the last century, and which we teach our students today, especially in the department of Exegesis at the Faculty of Theology.
This example, invoked to stress moral codes based on religion as a referential authority, defies materialism that has recently prevailed and for more than two centuries wasted the lives of thousands of innocent victims in the wars it kindled.
I am not talking here about the two World Wars or other civil wars in Europe and elsewhere during the twentieth century, but I mean the absurd wars that have just broken out in our countries. I am referring here to Iraq, which was completely destroyed in just a few hours during the war that began in 2003 and that caused horribly inescapable and unforgettable pains. In Syria, it has become evident that the conflict is not between the followers of the two main Islamic sects, Sunnis and Shiites, as was maliciously alleged. Rather, a global conflict is raging in Syria for arms and bloodshed. I would like to draw the attention here to our sanctities in Palestine and to the Palestinian people's suffering because of the arrogance of power controlled by a ruthless tyrant, leading to genocide and displacement. The same is true in the cases of the tragedies in Yemen, Libya, etc.
I would also like to refer to today's miserable Middle East that has turned into a pool of blood, a seat of poverty and disease, and a testing ground for the development of deadly weapons. The main cause behind all the terrible tragedies suffered by peoples in the Middle East is the Western possession of power sustained by irreligious modernity destroying human heritage, precious knowledge and divinely inspired ethics.
Under the scorching sun of modernity, humans have lost sense of their true identity and have been transformed into materialistic opportunists, having no heart or sympathy towards the pain and suffering of the others. They are moved only by supply and demand and by the boom-bust cycles .
Dear respected audience,
To cut it short, I would like to assure you that I am not here to recite routine praise of Islam as a religion, but rather to tell you about the unprecedented Islamic openness towards divine religions. There are no different divine religions; rather there is only one divine religion preached by all the prophets and messengers, from Adam through Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus to Muhammad (peace be upon them all), the last of all the prophets. The salient common elements among divine messages, besides creed, are fundamental ethics included in the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and the admonitions introduced in the Noble Qur'an. Our faith as Muslims is perfected only when we believe in the Scrolls of Abraham, the Torah of Moses and the Gospel of Jesus (peace be upon them). We read in our Noble Qur'an Allah's description of the Torah and the Gospel as guidance and light. In addition, the Noble Qur'an endorses both Testaments, and all the prophets are fellow brothers as stated by Prophet Muḩammad (pbuh), who noted that all prophets are paternal brothers. The paternal brothers share the same father but they have different mothers. In this statement, father refers to the divine religion they all affiliate to it, while their various mothers refer to their laws, which may change over time and place. We believe that Jesus (peace be upon him) is a messenger of Allah, and His Word which He gave to
Mary, and a created spirit by Him. We read in the Noble Qur’an the description of the followers of Jesus (peace be upon him) as the closest in affection towards Muslims. Allah instilled in their hearts compassion and mercy as unique characteristics, “We ordained in the hearts of those who followed him Compassion and Mercy” [Qur’an, 57: 27].
The Muslim history abounds with examples of the relation of affection between Muslims and Christians. It is authentically reported that when the helpless and the oppressed companions of Muḩammad (pbuh) who were tortured by the polytheists of Mecca, were encouraged by the Prophet (pbuh)–when he could no longer afford protecting them–to migrate to a country led by a Christian king, Negus of Abyssinia. Migrating to Abyssinia, they enjoyed the care, protection, and hospitality of Negus who granted them freedom to practice their religion and guarded them against the people of Mecca who then tracked them down to Abyssinia. Muslims continued to enjoy the full protection of king Negus, and freely practiced the rituals of their religion until they came back stronger. That is why we can clearly state that Christianity was the first safe haven for early Muslims.
Dear respected audience,
What I mentioned here is only part of the so many common grounds among the followers of the heavenly-revealed religions. That is why I believe that, through following the lights of revelation and prophethood, we should start together to extinguish the fire of wars and to call to restore international peace that shall be based on the morals and teachings of religions which shall put an end to the pools of bloods that are shed without any ethical or civilizational justification in the midst of that chaotic scene of death, destruction, orphanage, viduity, loss of the breadwinner and displacement from homelands.
We, as followers of the heavenly revealed religions have the ultimate right to call people to the way of truth, mercy and equality in a manner that is best, and to call for an international meeting for the religious leaders like the “Parliament of the World Religion” held in 1933 in Chicago and to build up on the previous recommendations.
I hope that meeting would result in the following two important facts which I view as the most important factors to regulate the East-West Interfaith Dialogue:-
First: There is no dialogue between creeds, because to do so will certainly result in bitter conflict, let alone spreading of hatred, enmity and terminating the ties of belief in Allah.
Second: It is not wise to view religions as the fundamental reason behind the eruption of wars on the basis that the followers of a particular religion claim that their religion monopolizes the truth while other religions not. This point led many theologians to search for a solution to what they call “The dilemma of religions”, and to propose that the belief in the relativity of religious truth is the solution. However, I do firmly believe that the proposed solution will put the question of religious faith in the wind. That is because true belief is a conviction that shall be based on ultimate certainty; otherwise it would be built on doubt and thus could not be true. In addition, if we open the door to that solution on the relativity of religions and the possibility of skepticism concerning their origins, followers of religions shall then select between the following two options:
1- Either to be skeptical about their religion and thus cannot be described as true believers of such religions; or
2- To accept the possibility of the existence of wrong and right in one and the same single fact which entails that this fact shall be absolute and relative at the same time, which is impossible to imagine. Thus, it is inevitable that every true believer should believe that his religion is the absolute truth, and not any other religion.
In my viewpoint, I believe that the correct solution for what is called the “The dilemma of religions” lies in the differentiation between the following two concepts: recognition and respect. To show respect to the religion of the other does not necessarily mean that I believe in it but rather means that I believe that the other is free to embrace a religion other than mine and that I should totally respect his choice. This does not yet mean that I must believe in that religion. At that point, we can correctly understand the Saying of Allah, the Almighty, “There shall be no compulsion in religion” and His, Glorified is He, Saying: “…let those who wish to believe in it do so, and let those who wish to reject in it do so …” [Qur’an, 18:29] Furthermore, the verses of the Holy Bible are in total agreement with those of the Quran in this regard, which clearly tells that the entire matter is based on mutual tolerance and respect among (the followers of different) creeds and religions. In this vein, Islam makes it an obligation on the Islamic State to enable people with different religions to freely practice their religious rituals and to provide houses of worship for them, let alone its full responsibility to provide all guarantees that enable them to practice that right.
Thank you for your attentive listening.
May Allah's Peace, Mercy and Blessings be upon you!
Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif
26th Jumada II, 1439 AH/14th March, 2018 AC
Al-Azhar Center for Translation
Dr. Kamal Boraiqa Abdelsalam Hassan
 Taha Abdel Rahman, Global Ethics: Its Scope and Limits, Tabah Papers Series, First Edition, June 2008, p. 12. In this paper, Dr. Taha studies the "Universal Declaration of Ethics" issued by the World Religions Parliament in 1993 in Chicago, criticizing the Declaration's rejection of religious authority in the moral code it called for, and proposing the authority of Islam because of its wealth.
 Hans Koning, Limaza Maqayyis Alamiyyah lil Akhlaq? Al-Din wa Al-Akhlaq fi ‘Asr al-A‘wlamah, trans. by Thabit Eid, introduction by Muhammad Emara pp. (262-272), Dar Eid, Zurich 2010 AC.
 Ibid, 20, 1 (paraphrased).
 See statements of Abbas Al-‛Aqqad, which are profound and precious regarding the philosophy of the Qur'an; Al-‛Aqad's Islamic Encyclopedia, vol. 5 (pp. 31–32), Al-Maktaba Al-‛Asriya, Beirut, 2015 AC.
 Al-Rāzi, Ibid, page, 41.
 See statements of Abbas Al-‛Aqqad, Ibid, p. 13