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.

Unlike many Muslim clerics, Gomaa had a secular early education. He was born in 1952, and his father was a lawyer in Cairo. Gomaa's first career interests were finance and business. "I was very influenced by my father," he said in a 2001 interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, a Cairo-based English-language newspaper. "I used to watch him stand up for what is right, unafraid of the powers that be. He used to address police officers and judges quite confidently. Those were different times." Encouraged by his parents, Gomaa studied commerce at Ain Shams University, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1973. After two years in the commercial world, however, he decided to pursue his passion for religious scholarship. He entered al-Azhar University as a freshman, and earned a B.A. in Islamic studies in 1979, followed by a master's and a Ph.D. in Islamic jurisprudence. In 1988 Gomaa began work as an instructor at al-Azhar. Over the next ten years his popularity in the religious community grew steadily. His sermons, though not available on cassette tape as readily as those of his radical contemporaries, were nonetheless highly sought after, and his classes were always full.

When he became the khatib, or orator, of Masgid Sultan Hassan, a mosque long favored by devout Cairenes, Gomaa began to attract a following of another kind. His rational, contemporary religious views, coupled with his background in commerce, made him appealing to a segment of Egyptian society that was fast becoming a thorn in the side of both the post-Nasserite government and the rising Islamic extremists: the religious middle class. Entrepreneurs, schoolteachers, bankers, engineers, Gomaa's new followers were socially conservative but financially and politically progressive. They favored extended privatization and transparent governance. Most had been educated in secular institutions, but—owing to the Islamic revival that swept the Middle East in the 1980s and 1990s—many also had a working knowledge of the texts that play a central role in Islamic law: the Koran, the Sunna, and the Hadith. These people saw the growing Wahhabi movement as irrational and an impediment to material progress. "What Dr. Gomaa was attempting was unique and very important," says Hamdi Sabri, one of the mufti's early followers. When he first met Gomaa, in the late 1980s, Sabri was a struggling young businessman, eager to take advantage of his government's move away from socialism. Frustrated by the anti-progressive stance of the fundamentalist movement, Sabri turned to Gomaa for religious guidance. "He was struggling to present Islam in its unaltered form: simply, as the love of God."

Gomaa was free of the Westernization that characterized the liberal sheikhs who were often targets of extremist vitriol. One such sheikh, the leader of a popular Sufi sect, was denounced as decadent and corrupt when he failed to reprimand his followers for drinking liquor and wearing revealing clothes. Gomaa's ideas were countercultural, but his lifestyle was orthodox: he refrained from physical contact with women outside his family, encouraged abstinence before marriage for both sexes, and could often be seen walking with his prayer beads in hand, counting them methodically. Wahhabi extremists had no choice but to keep quiet; any public criticism of Gomaa would have jeopardized their credibility on the Egyptian street.

Government viziers, however, viewed him as a potential ally. Since 1982, when the Mubarak administration appointed its first grand mufti, it has habitually named liberal sheikhs in an effort to reduce the influence of fundamentalist sheikhs. Often the left-leaning edicts of Mubarak-appointed muftis conflicted with Egypt's conservative social norms and were met with public disgust. The former grand mufti Mohammad Sayyed Tantawi, for example, famously affirmed the religious legality of a sex-change operation if the subject had been declared incurably transsexual by a licensed psychiatrist. The fatwa was met with bewilderment and outrage; Tantawi spent the rest of his tenure defending his reputation.

In Gomaa the Mubarak administration must have seen an opportunity to correct its course. By appointing him grand mufti, it could both appease Egypt's increasingly restless business community and dampen the viral spread of Wahhabism in its streets. Gomaa's moderate and inclusive religious stance made him the perfect intermediary. By keeping him close, the administration has ensured that Gomaa has remained virtually silent with regard to government policy. Thus far Mubarak's choice has been successful: the mufti has become wildly popular. At his Friday sermons in Sultan Hassan more and more ex-Wahhabis in uncut beards and face veils can be seen gravitating toward the front of the crowd and laughing at Gomaa's jokes, reluctant converts to moderation.

But greater tests lie ahead for the grand mufti. Many of his original followers are now successful businessmen, and their political clout is increasing. Hamdi Sabri's company, Soft Salt, is the second largest salt manufacturer in Egypt, and another of the mufti's early devotees is a high-ranking executive at the United Bank of Egypt. As they and others of their cadre begin to pressure the government for privatization and tax reduction, the mufti may find his position more difficult. And as anger mounts over America's aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East, Gomaa will have to bring all his influence to bear to combat the appeal of anti-Western extremism.

For now, however, Ali Gomaa is optimistic. He feels that an informed interpretation of Islamic law is the best defense of Islam, and of its people. "Sharia is meant to protect Islam for Muslims, and protect the religions of all people who follow texts that proclaim the existence of God," he says. "Sharia also aims to protect human dignity and human rights within the context of a global society and its stewardship of the earth. It forbids tyranny, prostitution, suicide, drug abuse—anything that reduces a human being to an object. Under all these rules and goals human beings can live out their lives, happy, safe, and at peace."