The two foremost representatives of Christianity and Islam, Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb—the Grand Imam of Al Azhar who was once named the “most influential Muslim in the world”—recently signed “A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.” This document “forcefully rejects,” to quote Vatican News, “any justification of violence undertaken in the name of God,” and affirms “respect for believers of different faiths, the condemnation of all discrimination, the need to protect all places of worship, and the right to religious liberty, as well as the recognition of the rights of women.”
Despite all the fanfare surrounding the signing of this document—which is being portrayed as a “historic pledge of fraternity” and a “historical breakthrough”—it is hard to take it serious, to see it as anything more than a superficial show. Why this cynicism? Because one of these men, Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb, has repeatedly contradicted—if only when speaking in Arabic and appearing on Arabic media—all the lofty sentiments highlighted in the document that he signed.
For instance, it asserts that,
Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action… [T]he fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept.
Yet al-Tayeb is on record saying that apostates—that is, anyone born to a Muslim father who wishes to leave Islam—should be punished. As to the penalty they deserve, in July 2016, during one of his televised programs, he reaffirmed that “Those learned in Islamic law [al-fuqaha] and the imams of the four schools of jurisprudence consider apostasy a crime and agree that the apostate must either renounce his apostasy or else be killed.” To underscore the point, he cited a hadith, or tradition, of Islam’s prophet Muhammad, saying, “Whoever changes his Islamic religion, kill him” (Sahih Al-Bukhari vol. 9 no.57).”
So much for religious freedom.
What about al-Tayeb’s views concerning the “other,” the born non-Muslim? The document he cosigned with Francis calls for “respect for believers of different faiths, the condemnation of all discrimination, the need to protect all places of worship, and the right to religious liberty.”
Yet many liberals and Muslim reformers in Egypt insist that the “unprecedented persecution” Egypt’s Christian minority, the Copts, experience, is directly traceable to the institution al-Tayeb heads: Al Azhar.
For example, after two churches were bombed on Palm Sunday, 2017, leaving 50 Christian worshippers dead, Dr. Islam al-Behery—a popular Muslim theologian whose incessant calls to reform Islam so irked Al Azhar that it accused him of “blaspheming” against Islam, leading to his imprisonment in 2015—was interviewed on the Egyptian television program (Amr Adib’s kul youm, or “Every Day”). After offering various details concerning the radicalized curriculum of Al Azhar, he estimated that “70-80 percent of all terror in the last five years [in Egypt] is a product of Al Azhar.”
To bolster his argument, he quoted from a standard Al Azhar text that said “whoever kills an infidel, his blood is safeguarded, for the blood of an infidel and believer [Muslim] are not equal.”
Whereas al-Tayeb’s predecessor, Egypt’s former grand imam, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi (d. 2010), had “without even being asked removed all the old books and placed just one introductory book, when al-Tayeb came,” said al-Behery, “he got rid of that book and brought back all the old books, which are full of slaughter and bloodshed.”
Similarly, Egyptian political commentator Dr. Khalid Montaser once marveled that, “at this sensitive time—when murderous terrorists rest on [Islamic] texts and understandings of takfir [accusing Muslims of apostasy], murder, slaughter, and beheading—Al Azhar magazine is offering free of charge a book whose latter half and every page — indeed every few lines—ends with “whoever disbelieves [non-Muslims] strike off his head”?
So much for the much touted and “historic” document al-Tayeb cosigned with Pope Francis, which says that “we resolutely declare that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood.”
Other political commentators in Egypt have noted how, despite Al Azhar’s draconian attitude concerning “infidels” and “apostates,” when asked to denounce the Islamic State as “un-Islamic,” al-Tayeb refused: “It’s amazing,” opined Egyptian talk show host Ibrahim Eissa: “Al Azhar insists ISIS are Muslims and refuses to denounce them. Yet Al Azhar never ceases to shoot out statements accusing novelists, writers, thinkers—anyone who says anything that contradicts their views—of lapsing into a state of infidelity. But not when it comes to ISIS!”
During another televised interview, Dr. Muhammad Abdullah Nasr, a scholar of Islamic law and Al Azhar graduate, went one step further in exposing his alma mater:
It [Al Azhar] can’t [condemn the Islamic State as un-Islamic]. The Islamic State is a byproduct of Al Azhar’s programs. So can Al Azhar denounce itself as un-Islamic? Al Azhar says there must be a caliphate and that it is an obligation for the Muslim world [to establish it]. Al Azhar teaches the law of apostasy and killing the apostate. Al Azhar is hostile towards religious minorities, and teaches things like not building churches, etc. Al Azhar upholds the institution of jizya [extortion, “protection money” demanded of non-Muslims subjects]. Al Azhar teaches stoning people. So can Al Azhar denounce itself as un-Islamic?
Similarly, in 2015, when the world was shocked because the Islamic State videotaped a Jordanian pilot being burned alive, Egyptian journalist Yusuf al-Husayni remarked that “The Islamic State is only doing what Al Azhar teaches.” He too went on to quote and cite from textbooks used in Al Azhar that permit burning people alive.
Al-Tayeb’s response to all these critics has been to accuse Israel: During a March 2018 televised Egyptian interview he said:
I have noticed that they are always telling us that terrorism is Islamic. All those mouthpieces that croak—out of ignorance or because they were told to—that the Al-Azhar curricula are the cause of terrorism never talk about Israel, about Israel’s prisons, about the genocides perpetrated by the Zionist entity state…. If not for the abuse of the region by means of the Zionist entity, there would never have been any problem.
Such, apparently, is the true face of Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb—at least as he is known in his Egyptian homeland, where he speaks Arabic freely and plainly, as opposed to when “dialoguing” with naïve Western leaders who are all too eager to believe what they want to hear. As the Cairo Institute for Human Rights explained in a statement:
In March 2016 before the German parliament, Sheikh al-Tayeb made unequivocally clear that religious freedom is guaranteed by the Koran, while in Cairo he makes the exact opposite claims…. Combating terrorism and radical religious ideologies will not be accomplished by directing at the West and its international institutions religious dialogues that are open, support international peace and respect freedoms and rights, while internally promoting ideas that contribute to the dissemination of violent extremism through the media and educational curricula of Al Azhar and the mosques.
It is for all these reasons that al-Tayeb’s signature on “A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” is not worth the paper it is written on.
And if Sheikh al-Tayeb is a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing, Pope Francis is apparently a starry-eyed shepherd leading—or at least leaving—his flock to the slaughter.
Raymond Ibrahim, author of the new book, Sword and Scimitar, Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute and a Judith Rosen Friedman Fellow at the Middle East Forum.