For centuries botti Al-Azhar University and the city of Cairo have been home to countless scholars and sages of Islam. Al-Azhar attracted the top minds of the Islamic world, developing a curriculum and methodology that would eventually set a world-wide standard. In recent years the Muslim world has witnessed a breakdown of that system, symbolised by the overhaul of the Azhari curriculum and its subsequent fall from prestige as the highest seat of learning in the Muslim world. In an exclusive Islamica interview, Sheikh ‘Ali Jumu’a, professor of legal methodology and the current Grand Mufti of Egypt, shares his thoughts on Islamic education, its components, its future and more

ISLAMICA | Can you tell us a little about your studies?

‘ALI JUMU’A | I started school at the age of five and completed my high-school education in my home town of Bani Swayf in 1969, after which I entered the school of commerce. Before entering the school of commerce – while I was still in high – school I began memorizing the Qur’an. I had the choice of going into either engineering, or commerce. I chose the school of commerce because it required less hours and therefore allowed me the liberty to pursue religious studies. While I was in the faculty of commerce, I studied the six canonical collections of hadith as well as Maliki jurisprudence. In those days it was possible for someone who had an undergraduate degree from another institution to study at alAzhar. So as soon as I graduated I entered al- Azhar. I got all of the required texts for the religious sciences from the preparatory level through high-school, and studied and memorized them. I memorized the Alfiyya in grammar, the Rahabiyya in inheritance law, the Bayquniyya in hadith methodology, as well as a large amount of rules (dawabif) and legal principles. I also memorized Tuhfat al-Atfal, parts of the Jaziriyya, al-Tiba and al-Shatibiyya as well as various other texts. All of this was while I was in my first year at alAzhar University. When I graduated, I entered the school of Shari’a where I obtained my master’s degree and then my doctorate. After I received my master’s degree I was made an assistant teacher in the faculty of Islamic and Arabic studies, then I was promoted to assistant professor and then full professor. That is my thirtyyear journey through the religious sciences from 1973 to 2003. During that time I also transmitted (rawaytu) knowledge from about twenty-five Sheikhs in hadith, jurisprudence, and juristic methodology. I transmitted from Sheikh Muhammad Yasin alFidani in Mecca, and Sheikh Ismail al-Zayn in Yemen, and Sheikh ‘Iwad alZabidi, and Sheikh Said al-Lahagi, and Sheikh Alawi al-Maliki, and Sheikh Jabir al-Yemeni as well as many other scholars.

ISLAMICA | As far as education is concerned, many centers of Islamic teaching utilize modern teaching methodologies, but nearly every morning for the past six years you have been teaching in al-Azhar mosque in informal circles just like the Sheikhs of old used to do. What was your intention in setting up the Azhar lessons and do you think this approach is more conducive to creating scholars than the modern approach?

‘ALI JUMU’A | The educational process is composed of five essential elements: the teacher, the student, the curriculum, the book, and the educational environment. Wherever it is possible to implement these five elements, the educational process will succeed, regardless of whether it is with western or traditional methods. Knowledge is knowledge, but these five elements must be taken into consideration. There has to be inculcation (talaqi), there has to be two-way learning, there has to be a book, and there has to be an environment that encourages the student to memorize, review, and study. These elements are neglected in some educational systems. As a result the students emerge weak. Even the orientalists have become weak. In the past the orientalists were masters of Arabic. The orientalists today do not know Arabic as did the likes of GoIdziher, Bergstresser or Noldeke. They are weak, and yet they become heads of their departments. They are weak, weak in comparison to those who preceded them. Why? Because the educational process has become flawed worldwide.

What personally concerned me is that our intellectual heritage (turath) is written with a specific nomenclature, a specific terminology, and the modern educational process is about to lose this terminology. The turath has a shell, its terminology, and if we lose that terminology, we lose its meaning. The modern educational process has nearly lost its connection to the turath. I reestablished the Azhar lessons in order to protect the language of the turath so that there will remain people who can understand it. I am worried that some day the Islamic turath will become like hieroglyphics understood by no one. I do not want that. I want people to continue in the tradition of knowledge reading the classical texts the way they were written, not the way people want to understand them.

ISLAMICA | There are some people in the West who want to establish an education in the Islamic sciences for Muslims. The problem is that there are very few scholars and many people. As a solution they have turned to the internet as a means of transmitting religious knowledge. Is there anything we should keep in mind while utilizing these methods?

‘AU JUMU’A | This should be a cultural project Camiliyya thaqafiyyd) and not one of knowledge, because one-way learning, or even two-way learning over a long distance, will produce a general awareness but will not produce a comprehensive foundation in such knowledge. If there is a lack of scholars and we want to spread Islamic culture through the spread of Islamic information then there is nothing wrong with this. It must be clear, however, to both the student and the teacher, that what they are involved in is a cultural endeavor – which is extremely important – and not an endeavor of knowledge that leads to the development of a scholar. As long as the amount of scholars is limited then the educational endeavor should be limited as well. In this way knowledge will spread slowly but surely. If every scholar produced ten scholars, instead of one or two hundred, it would suffice, and it would spread so that each of these ten scholars would produce another ten scholars. The result would be that in a lifetime one man would have produced one-hundred scholars, and that is a lot Cultural awareness (thaqqfa), on the other hand, can reach thousands, no … millions.

ISLAMICA | What is the difference between cultural awareness and knowledge?

‘ALI JUMU’A | Knowledge has its sources, methodology, and tools by which it can be passed on to others through the educational process. Cultural awareness, however, does not. One can learn something, while remaining ignorant of other things; one can become proficient in one thing while lacking proficiency in other things, because the logical sequence of sources, methodologies, tools, and goals have not been completed to their proper end. There is a big difference between knowledge and culture. The difference is comparing a doctor to someone who has some medical awareness with regard to their personal hygiene, protection from disease, their dealings with over the counter medications. If they get a headache or become nauseous they can medicate themselves without recourse to a doctor since these are every day occurrences which do not fall into the category of things that require the consultation of a specialist.

ISLAMICA | How can we benefit from modern approaches to knowledge, whether they be in the natural sciences or the humanities, without jeopardizing our own beliefs as Muslims?

‘ALI JUMU’A i The paradigm is the judge. The Islamic paradigm needs to be clear in the minds of both the Muslim scholars and the general population. The Islamic paradigm is based on the fact that we believe in God, that He is One, and that He created; and secondly that we are held accountable (mukallafun) by the Divine revelation, bound in this earthly life by a ceiling that we cannot go beyond; and that tomorrow, after the journey, after death, on the day of judgment we shall be brought forth either for punishment or reward. Three essential questions that the Islamic paradigm answers.1 We have absolutes: goodness, truth, beauty, morality, and the fact that the basic reality (al-asl) between us and the universe, and between ourselves, is one of completion, not competition. So the basic reality of the relationship between a man and a woman, between the ruler and the ruled, between the rich and the poor is completion and not competition.

We have an understanding of the Divine order (al-sunan al-ilahiyya) which states that God created the universe in balance, that he created the universe with differences of kind not differences of opposition, that he created the universe as transitory, and that the universe is in a constant state of reliance upon Him. There is a Divine order, and concepts that reassert the fact that the Muslim’s paradigm is different from other paradigms. It is different from world views or models which assert the extinction of the Divine, that the human being is the ultimate judge, that matters are rela- tive, that the universe is as it appears, that there is no truth, and that the basic relation of things to each other is competition. We have an understand- ing of the sacred that commands respect So we venerate the Ka’ba, the Qur’an, and the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. There are others who do not have respect for anything. For them the Ka’ba is just a building, bricks, and the human being is just a piece of flesh. This is not my paradigm. The paradigm is the glass through which I view the natural and social sciences, the humanities and everything. If there is something in these sciences that originated in the Western worldview, in the paradigm of the “other” – whether it be from the East or the West – and it goes against the Divine paradigm I reject it. If, on the other hand, there is no opposition from the human knowledge then I accept it.

ISLAMICA | In that case, can we say that any mistakes the Muslims have made in accepting these sciences were due to a lack of commitment to the Islamic model?

‘ALI JUMU’A | Yes, and if they returned to the original Islamic model they themselves would reject these things. In sociology, for example, they claim that prostitution is a social necessity, that it has a role to play in society. According to the western paradigm this is acceptable, but according to the Islamic it would be impossible for me to agree with this. The western paradigm, in accordance with a parliamentary declaration, has made homosexuality acceptable; they even went as far as to include it among inalienable human rights. 1 could never do this according to the Muslim’s paradigm because I am bound by it, because this is forbidden, this is wrong, this angers God. So there is a difference. When we took these sciences in their entirety they were not sciences floating in emptiness; they were sciences which had sprung forth from a specific worldview. I have a different worldview, which is the basis of my evaluation, the measuring stick by which I can either accept or reject any of these particulars.

ISLAMICA | These days we see many Muslims applying different methodologies and following various schools of thought in their understanding of religion such as an inordinate attachment to texts without taking into account the surrounding they are living in. How should our intellectual heritage be interpreted in today’s world and what are the most important principles for helping people understand this?

‘ALI JUMU’A | There are certain basic concepts that we should be concerned with. The first is the concept of community ummah), the second is the concept of calling people to God da’wah), and the third is the concept of revelation (wahy). There are many such essential concepts.

As for the concept of da’wah, Muslims need to realize that Islam is much more than just law-giving, jurisprudence, Arab nationalism or history. Islam is the religion of God containing His last revelation addressed to the entire universe. Even George W. Bush is asked to embrace Islam. How can George Bush become a Muslim? Is George Bush going to become a Muslim through our telling him that he should hold his fork with his right hand instead of his left? What is that? That would mean that we have ignored differences in people’s cultures and environments. If we did this we would be putting up a barrier between people and God. Muslims need to realize that Islam is a religion of da’wah and not a religion reserved for a specific group or ethnicity like Judaism, which is specific to the Jews. Islam is a universal religion which all people are invited to enter, no matter what culture or civilization or perspective or school of thought they belong to. We need to move beyond this veil that we have set up between people and God, the veil of history, the veil of jurisprudence …

The understanding of community. Our understanding of community states that from Adam to the Prophet Muhammad – peace and blessings be upon him – is one community “Surely this community of yours is one com- munity, and I am your Lord; so fear Me” (Qur’an 23:52, Arberry trans.). And after the Prophet peace and bles- sings be upon him, the Muslims all make up one community in every time and place, every individual person in every state. This understanding of community as extending throughout humanity from the beginning of creation compels us to say that the story of creation in the Qur’an should be the basis for our dealings with the rest of creation. It says that we were created from earth, and that the Spirit of God was blown into us, and that He made the angels prostrate to us, and that He honored and preferred us over much of His creation. This understanding of community is very important and must be made clear. The understanding of daïvah must be made clear, the understanding of revelation must be made clear, all of these concepts – and others – must be clear in the minds of the Muslims. If these concepts were clear we would not find such variants like extreme textualism; these schools of thought that take approaches counter to the prophetic approach. The startling aspects of the Qur’an have no end. The Qur’an was not revealed for one age to the exclusion of another age. In light of this fact I caution against five approaches:

The self-destructive approach (intihar) begins with thinking and ends in destruction. This approach that we find among Muslims is rejected because it is an extreme approach, and it is not the approach of the Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him.

When the Prophet peace and blessings be upon him, was in Mecca, Ibn Mas’ud, may God be pleased with him, said to him “Let us go to war with the polythéiste.” Upon hearing this the Prophet’s face turned red with anger and he said, “Am I not the Prophet of God? … He will give us victory …” So he refused this approach of self-destruction.

The nostalgic approach (ij tirar) is to yearn for the past, to live in the past even though the world has changed; people, transportation, communication and technology have all changed. In spite of this we still want to live in the past. This approach is rejected.

The bedazzled approach (ibtihar) is to become dazzled by the “other” and thereby abandon one’s religion. This approach is rejected in light of the Qur’anic verse “whosoever of you turns from his religion God will assuredly bring a people He loves and who love Him” (5:54)

The delusional approach (ightirar) is that one becomes deluded and tries to turn cultural awareness into knowledge so that he becomes a doctor as a result of having some information about medicine. This is rejected, rejected by the dictates of science, but it is very widespread among those who want to set themselves up as teachers without first having been educated.

The confined approach (inhisar) which is seclusion. This may be the least harmful of the approaches we have mentioned because it means that the person secludes himself and does not make any positive contributions to society. This was permitted by the Prophet peace and blessings be upon him, when he said “It is as if the best of possessions a Muslim can have are some sheep with which he seeks out the mountain peaks and places of rainfall, trying to escape discord (filan) with his religion.” But he also said in contrast to this statement “He who mixes with people and is patient with them, it would be better for him.”

These are the five approaches that control people’s perspectives, but they are not the approaches of the righteous predecessors, the companions, or the Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him. The Prophetic approach is to be responsible, free of choice, intentional, knowing, and strong. “The strong believer is better and dearer to God than the weak believer, and in each of them there is good.”2 “He who pursues a path seeking knowledge, God makes easy for him a path to paradise.”3 We have been commanded to take part in the greater struggle (al-jihad al-akbar), the struggle with the ego in the spiritual sense, but we have also been commanded to take part in the lesser struggle (al-jihad al-asghar) which is the struggle of confrontation, when it is necessary “And fight in the way of God with those who fight with you, but aggress not: God loves not the aggressors” (Qur’an, 2:190). This is clear.

ISLAMICA | After 9/11 there have been many people in the West who are afraid of the Muslims, a fear that sometimes leads to hatred. What can Muslims do to counteract this?

‘ALI JUMU’A | We need to get involved effectively in the media. In all branches of the media. We need to get involved in the media and show people the reality of Islam; that there is an old testament, a new testament, and this is the last testament We need to make it clear that Islam is a religion from God, and that it is a protection over all the religions while being one of them, because there is one community from Adam on. It needs to be clear that any defect leveled at Islam is the same defect that will be leveled at Judaism and Christianity. People need to understand this, and that every time Islam is criticized by something, Judaism and Christianity are criticized by the same thing. It needs to be understood that people, and the world in general, have passed the phase of atheism. The dark atheism which was so prevalent in the late 18th and the 19th century no longer exists with the same force. That is why we see people believing in religions even if they are contrived, because religion is a social necessity. We need to understand that as Huxley said: “If God did not exist, we would have to invent Him.”

ISLAMICA | When events like the issue of the hijab in France occur it seems like many Muslims are confused, they do not know to whom they should turn. How can we deal with this?

‘ALI JUMU’A I There is something called the Islamic identity or consensus. This consensus has occurred regarding a limited number of issues. Muslims need to know this. They need to know that alcohol is forbidden, that pork is forbidden, that fornication is forbidden, that the hijab is mandatory, that prayer is mandatory and so on. These issues are very limited in number, I mean those about which there is consensus, they do not exceed one-hundred matters, while the total number of matters addressed by Islamic jurisprudence is around one-million two-hundred thousand. Of all these issues only one-hundred are the subject of consensus. This is the Islamic identity and consensus. It is very important to be faithful to these matters; we cannot abandon them except out of necessity. Necessity means that a Muslim would need to be in a situation of dire need, a situation that would bring him near death for him to break with this consensus, in which case it would be mandatory for him to do so. This is the measuring stick; that we know the matters of consensus as well as the necessity that can cause us to abandon that consensus.

ISLAMICA I A lot of people see a distinction between the outward religious sciences (al-sharlah) and Sufism. But we see you, a professor of juristic methodology at al-Azhar University and now the Grand Mufti of Egypt teaching the Aphorisms of lbn Ata’Allah in the mosque and passing out litanies after Friday prayer. What is the relationship between the outer and the inner aspects of religion?

‘ALI JUMU’A I There are three ways to enter Sufism. The first is Sunni Sufism, the second is salali Sufism, and the third is gnostic or philosophical Sufism. There is pretty much an agreement among the Muslims concerning Sunni and salafi Sufism. Some of them call it excellence (ihsan), some of them call it morals (akhlaq), some of them call it Sufism, but they all accept it Invocation (dhikr) and the Aphorisms of Ibn Ata’Allah, these are considered acceptable by everyone. That about which there is a discussion is the philosophical Sufism of Ibn Arabi and Ibn al-Farid and al-Khayyam and alShirazi and their like. This is what the debate is concerned with, but the reality is that this philosophical gnostic Sufism is exactly like science.

ISLAMICA I How is that?

‘ALI JUMU’A I Because it examines that which lies behind reality, but it does so through an unveiling, not a microscope. Science examines very small things like cells with a microscope and very large things like the planets with a telescope. It is looking at what is behind reality; it examines things like electricity and magnetism. The Sufi also examines what lies behind reality. When the outward aspects of religion were revealed they came to provide for this reality that we live in, that both Adam and I share. But water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen; hydrogen burns and oxygen assists in burning. This is what the Sufi sees. Can I say that I will not make my ablutions with water because it is fire? If the Sufi said that he would be misled and misleading, but his information is correct; water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen, and hydrogen burns and oxygen assists in burning. It is in his basing an outward ruling on this that he is mistaken, because rulings are based on the apparent not the reality. This is why some Sufis of this perspective speak about things like not being held accountable for religious observances, or monism, or pantheism and other false beliefs. There is no truth in any of these, these are all lies and the reality is that this is science, but in a gnostic manner. If they stick to this then it is acceptable, and if not and h leads to the establishment of the apparent on the hidden, then it is unacceptable. What we are doing is Salafi and Sunni Sufism. Salafi Sufism is what is called asceticism, and Sunni Sufism is what is called the path. I do not think there is anyone who disagrees with this. Someone even wrote a book called The Position the Leaders of the Salafi Movement Concerning the Honorable Sufis where he mentions the praise of the Sufis by Ibn Taymiyya and ‘Abd al-Wahab saying “The honorable Sufis said . . .” The honorable Sufis! They are praising them because this is something about which nobody differs. All the Wahabis did was object to some of the actions of the Sufis like the mawlid and the freemixing of men and women, and often they had a point When they find an orthodox Sufi, however, they leave him be, it is the gnostic Sufism about which there is a difference of opinion.

ISLAMICA I So what is the role of Sufism in today’s world?

‘ALI JUMU’A I Sufism is Islam and Islam is Sufism. All the rites of Islam, all of its goals, everything that it is calling to has no meaning without Sufism and the principles it embodies of love, and beauty, and mercy, and humanity, and compassion for creation. There is no meaning without Sufism.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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