Brief Lives July/August 2005

The Show-Me Sheikh

The grand mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, is peddling a new kind of radical Islam—traditionalism without the extremism

On the night of December 30, 2004, the streets of downtown Cairo were unusually crowded. Government police officers, conspicuous in white gaiters, stood at attention outside a mosque, diverting traffic into a single congested lane. The police were on hand not to keep people out but to hem the mosque's occupants in. The speaker that evening was Mohammad Hassen, one of Cairo's most inflammatory sheikhs. President Hosni Mubarak's administration, anxious to allay fears of growing extremism after the October bombings in Sinai, was not taking any chances. Hassen and his followers had been known to advocate violence against Israel in the past.

That evening, however, the mood of the hard-line Islamic community was defensive, not aggressive. Earlier that day, in an appearance on Egyptian national television, Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt and one of the highest-ranking clerics in the Sunni Muslim world, had denounced what the West refers to as fundamentalism. Although many Muslim leaders have stepped forward to condemn terrorist violence in recent years, no one before had even implicitly attacked the philosophy, often known as Wahhabism, that is thought to give rise to it—in no small part because Wahhabism is the official doctrine of Saudi Arabia, which controls the holy city of Mecca. But Gomaa did so, and went further: he referred to the extremists as khawerig, or "outsiders"—persons who fail to follow true Islamic law. Historically the term has been attached to the early Islamic dissidents who murdered Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. In Arab Islamic society it is traditionally taboo to criticize the lifestyle or personal philosophy of any practicing Muslim. Never before had such a respected Islamic scholar and sheikh—much less the religious leader of the most populous Arab nation—laid bare the division between practicing fundamentalists and the rest of the Muslim umma, or religious community. In a region where extremist sheikhs have all but silenced their moderate rivals, this was a dangerous stance to take.

For Gomaa, however, it was not an unprecedented one. Since his appointment by Mubarak, in the fall of 2004, the mufti, who is the highest religious authority among the Egyptian sheikhs, has become the most explicitly anti-extremist cleric in mainstream Sunni Islam. In his sermons he frequently refers to "sheikh lock," a twist on a colloquialism for a narrow-minded or ignorant person. The insult is clearly aimed at Cairo's radical clerics. Sheikh lock, Gomaa says, represents an imagined Islamic past, not an attainable Islamic future. Among other things, it denies something written in the Koran and repeated in the words of the Prophet: that women are the spiritual equals of men. "Al Jeeli, one of the great thinkers of Islam, learned the Hadith [sayings of the prophet Muhammad] from fifty female sheikhs," Gomaa said in his December television interview. "Fifty female sheikhs! And yet there are those who deny that women have equal spiritual status in Islam. This is a disgrace."

Gomaa typically chooses to address his community face-to-face—in his office at Dar el-Iftah, the Egyptian clerical organization responsible for passing official religious rulings, or at Masgid Sultan Hassan, the medieval Cairene mosque where he delivers a sermon nearly every Friday. He also gives lectures and holds question-and-answer sessions at al-Azhar Mosque, adjacent to the University of al-Azhar, the oldest continuously operating religious school in the world. In Egypt governmental intolerance has forced extremists to confine their activities to the mosques, and it is from within the mosques that Gomaa has taken on radical Islam.

On a summer evening in 2004 a man in the crowd at one of the mufti's Q&A sessions posed a difficult question. His wife had asked for khola, the kind of divorce accorded to women under Egyptian law. The man didn't want the divorce—thus his problem.

"What did you do?" the mufti asked immediately. There was a ripple of laughter. The man looked confused. Could he compel his wife to stay? What action should he take?

"Set her free," the mufti said. "You have neglected some part of your duty, and she doesn't want you anymore. That's it."

Understandably, the man was stunned. For most inhabitants of the Arab world the prevailing cultural attitude toward women—fed and encouraged by Wahhabi doctrine, which is based on Bedouin social norms rather than Islamic jurisprudence—often trumps the rights accorded to women by Islam. Most sheikhs, out of either ignorance or a desire to preserve the status quo, support common assumptions regarding a woman's duty to stay with her husband, to cook and clean, and to raise children. But not Gomaa: a frequent command of his is "Show me." Show me where it says in the Koran or the Sunna (prophetic tradition) that a woman is obligated to cook, or that she can't ask for a divorce. Those listening are often left speechless, because no such support exists within canonical Islamic texts.

The mufti is also adamant about the role of the fatwa, or extrajudicial religious edict, in modern Islam. In the West the word conjures up Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini and his fatwa calling for the assassination of Salman Rushdie in the 1980s; it also brings to mind a more recent case in Nigeria, in which a pregnant woman, accused of adultery after being raped, was condemned to death by stoning. To Gomaa, both represent the flagrant misuse of a long-standing tool of Islamic justice. "Fatwa should follow certain criteria taken from the Koran and Sunna," Gomaa told me in his office at Dar el-Iftah. "No one should be made to pay for someone else's misdeeds, because the theory of inherited sin is not present in Islam. There is an emphasis on individual responsibility. Another criterion is that a person should not harm himself or others. Also, actions should be judged by their intentions and goals, so the intention of the action in question must be good, and must be for God." He paused, and added in a graver tone, "In addition, suspicion is not a substitute for certainty. This is one of the foundations of straight thinking." This pronouncement alluded to a weighty issue: Islamic law demands that in order for someone to be convicted of adultery, four witnesses must be able to prove that they saw the accused in the act. This requirement is meant to prevent the authorities from invading a Muslim's private life without irrefutable proof of wrongdoing. However, in modern Islamic courts—many of which are presided over by sheikhs who have no working knowledge of classical Arabic, and thus only the most superficial understanding of Islamic law—this stipulation is often ignored.

Presented by

G. Willow Wilson is a freelance journalist based in Cairo, Egypt. Her work has appeared in Cairo Magazine and several U.S.-based publications.

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