Pope Francis makes headlines on a regular basis. On May 17, his comment that Islam and Christianity share a common “idea of conquest” rooted in their common evangelizing mission, sparked headlines around the world.
The comments were covered in the Arab world as well, but received less attention than a 30 minute event that took place the following week: the Pope’s hosting of Egypt’s Sheikh al-Azhar at the Vatican. Or, as most Arabic-language news outlets put it: “The Sheikh al-Azhar Meets the Vatican Pope”. But why was this meeting so important?
As the cliché goes, Islam (and particularly Sunni Islam) has no clergy, no institutionalized church, and no pope. It is a decentralized religion in which the consensus of the ulama (scholars of religion) has generally determined the dominant stance on matters of belief and practice, while allowing considerable space for minority interpretations.
Yet just as in earlier centuries the views of scholars who enjoyed state support often had greater impact than that of others – those of the sheikhulislam in the Ottoman Empire, for example, versus that of an ordinary faqih (expert in fiqh, or sharia interpretation) – there are some figures today who enjoy symbolic prominence in Sunni Islam. The rector or sheikh of al-Azhar – today part of the Egyptian state university system, and historically one of the pre-eminent sites for advanced study of Sunni Islam – has become one of those figures in the modern era. Indeed, many Azhar rectors have also served as Grand Mufti of Egypt – including the current Sheikh al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb.
El-Tayeb is no anti-Western hardliner. In addition to his Egyptian education, he obtained a doctorate in Islamic philosophy from the Sorbonne in Paris. Descendant of Sufi ulama, he has been described as pro-Sufi in outlook, although he has been criticized for his anti-Muslim Brotherhood, pro-government stance. He was appointed Sheikh al-Azhar in March 2010, nearly 10 months before the popular protests that brought down Hosni Mubarak and led to the Egyptian revolution. He supported the 2013 military coup that overthrew the elected government of President Mohammed Morsi, leading to criticism for his support of authoritarianism over democracy.
But El-Tayeb also picks up where his predecessor, the eminent scholar Muhammad Tantawi (who died in office in early 2010) left off after Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 Regensberg lecture, which included an anti-Islamic quote from a medieval Byzantine emperor that was widely perceived among Muslims as reflecting the Pope’s personal views. Although Tantawi and other eminent Sunni figures asked merely for an apology (which Benedict gave), relations cooled. This meeting (which was predicted in March by al-Azhar) marked the “resumption of dialogue between al-Azhar and the Vatican, after a break of almost five years” due to the global fallout from Benedict’s speech, noted Jordan’s Al Majd.
Hence the publication’s optimistic title: “Sheikh of al-Azhar and Pope of the Vatican inaugurate historic reconciliation”. The most concrete outcome of this meeting, as most outlets noted, was the commitment to jointly organize an international conference for peace and dialogue between religions, to promote world peace and diminish extremism.
Yet El-Tayeb’s perceived closeness to the Egyptian regime has led to questions about the impetus for this reconciliation. “Al-Azhar and the Vatican … religious dialogue or political interests?”, asked al Jazeera. “Some have minimized the importance of this development,” it noted, “commenting that Azhar is trying to improve Egypt’s relationship with Italy”. Some observers argued that the visit’s true purpose was to obtain the Pope’s support for Egypt’s 2013 military coup, given his popularity with Western governments and citizens. While unsubstantiated, the comments fit with a broader perception that al-Azhar has come under government control, and lost its historic independence.
It is not clear whether anything will come of the proposed joint conference. Nor could much substantive have been accomplished in a 30-minute visit. But if, as Pope Francis was quoted as saying, “our meeting is the message”, then the message appears to have resonated strongly in the Arab world. El-Tayeb’s visit with the Pope matters because al-Azhar is seen as a key institution of Sunni Islam, and because the Pope is seen as a key arbiter for Christian Europe.
Neither perception may be wholly accurate, but together they may productively move Sunni Muslims and Roman Catholics toward inter-religious amity at a moment when global tensions have been pushing hard for hostility instead.
Andrea Stanton is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, focusing on twentieth and twenty-first century Islam in the Middle East and globally. Her research focuses on media and religious identity, and investigates the sometimes conflictual, sometimes cooperative relationships between new technologies and claims to religious authority. Her most recent historical work examines government management of religious broadcasts in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s, connecting this to a broader trend of Middle Eastern states controlling religious communities’ access to radio and television. Her most recent contemporary work examines the emergent phenomenon of “Islamic emoticons,” which appear in online Islamic chat forums and websites. Stanton’s recent work on the Middle East includes an examination of the role of the Olympic Games in fostering national and regional identities in Lebanon and Syria, and an analysis of themes found in US-based Syrian aid appeals and in Syrian political cartoons.