Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Allam, the Grand Mufti of Egypt (Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The truth about the Grand Mufti’s visit to the UK

Shakwi Allam speaks the language of religious pluralism to western audiences, but sanctions persecution within Egypt

The news in Egypt has been dominated by the visit of the Grand Mufti to Britain, supposedly at the invitation of the British Parliament to address the Lords and Commons. In fact, it was at the invitation of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Egypt, a somewhat more modest informal grouping of parliamentarians.

A number of UK Islamic organisations have reacted to the Grand Mufti’s visit with much heat and steam, particularly the Muslim Association of Britain. It described his visit to Britain as “simply appalling”, demanded his invitation be withdrawn, and sent a letter to the mayor of London Sadiq Khan, urging him not to meet the Grand Mufti, who it accused of “a blatant disregard for human life and human rights”.

Meanwhile, the Grand Mufti delivered a speech which gave the impression that Egypt was a model to the world of toleration and peaceful co-existence between Muslims and Christians. 

Let’s start by explaining who the Grand Mufti is. His main job is to oversee the issue of fatwas — Islamic legal rulings. Because Egypt with its famous al-Azhar University is in many respects the intellectual centre of the Sunni Islamic world, its influence here extends across much of the Muslim world. Since the Ottoman era the Grand Mufti’s other role has been to advise the Egyptian government on Islamic law (shari’a). In this respect he’s a bit like a shari’a Attorney General. Consequently, it’s always been something of a political role, and whatever he says is likely to reflect the views the Egyptian government wishes to promote. 

So, what is the truth behind the claims and counter claims about the Grand Mufti?

The Muslim Brotherhood and President Sisi

It all goes back to The Muslim Brotherhood — more properly known in Egypt as al-Ikwan al-Muslimin, the world’s first Islamist organisation founded in Egypt in 1928 (motto: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope”). In June 2012 its candidate Muhammad Morsi narrowly won the Egyptian Presidential election. It rapidly began to Islamise the constitution, including restricting freedom of speech and then proposed removing the right of judges to hold the government to account, in effect giving Morsi unlimited power. Major street protests across the country in response led to the army ousting Morsi from power, with President Sisi, who had been army chief, subsequently becoming President. Many Egyptian Christians had been prominent in the street protests — scared of what the future might mean for them. They heaved a huge sigh of relief when the Morsi government was no more. 

Amnesty raised similar concerns when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power

President Sisi has built on this and reached out to Egypt’s Christian minority more than any other President. He’s not only publicly dropped in on Christmas services, he’s introduced a new church building law. This sought to reverse some of the restrictions originally dating from the Ottoman era which had prevented new church buildings and even many church repairs. These measures have not always been as effective as one might hope. Sisi is reputed to have once complained that being President was like pulling a lever — but finding nothing attached to it. There are probably a few government ministers in the West who would sympathise with that. Anything Sisi does for the Christian minority in Egypt faces the massive deadweight of a conservative Islamic establishment which works to either dilute or prevent what he has ordered.

The group most unhappy with Sisi’s government is the Muslim Brotherhood. It immediately blamed the Christians for its loss of power and, in large mobs up to a thousand strong, began attacking Egyptian churches. More than fifty churches were destroyed in the aftermath of the military coup. In some places Christians whose church had been destroyed began meeting in tents, and Brotherhood supporters then burnt down the tents.

The Muslim Association of Britain’s claims

That brings us to the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), which called for the withdrawal of the Grand Mufti’s invitation to visit Britain. The MAB, established in 1997, featured among its founding members a number who had been members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, including its first President. It has also spoken publicly of being “proud of the notions and principles of the Muslim Brotherhood”, describing them as “an inspiration to Muslims”. It is hardly surprising that it campaigned to stop British politicians meeting the Grand Mufti.

What about its claims that the Grand Mufti is responsible for human rights abuses? Sisi’s government has faced militant and sometimes violent opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical groups, including Islamic State. It has responded in two ways. First, part of the role of the Grand Mufti is to issue fatwas that counter the most extreme teachings of radical Islamic groups. Secondly, the government has responded with authoritarianism — large numbers of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and members of other radical groups have been arrested and put on trial, with quite a number sentenced to death. Each of these sentences has to be formally approved by the Grand Mufti before it is carried out. In that sense the Grand Mufti’s role is somewhat akin to that of the UK Home Secretary who, prior to the abolition of the death penalty in 1967, had to make the final decision whether a death penalty went ahead or was commuted to life imprisonment. 

The MAB accused the Grand Mufti of having “approved hundreds of executions, many of which are political prisoners and critics of the government in unfair trials…which have been roundly condemned by a number of local and international human rights organisations including Amnesty International…” Whilst Amnesty has certainly raised concerns about what is currently happening in Egypt, it must be admitted that it also raised similar concerns during the time that the Muslim Brotherhood was in power. The MAB’s attack on the Grand Mufti in this respect is broadly similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which is now criticising the present Egyptian government for amongst other things clamping down on freedom of expression — the very thing that the Muslim Brotherhood government was doing. In other words, what we are really seeing is Islamists using the language of human rights — not because they actually agree with it, but simply as a way to attack their opponents and advance their own agenda in the West.

Politicians should be cautious about taking anything that groups like the MAB say at face value.

The Grand Mufti’s speech

What about the Grand Mufti’s speech in which he depicted Islam in Egypt as a paragon of peaceful co-existence between Muslims and Christians? He claimed this conviviality was merely being challenged by those who have “attempted to set themselves up as religious authorities” not having studied in “genuine centres of Islamic learning”? The first is code for Islamists — such as the Muslim Brotherhood. In many respects the essence of Islamism is the belief that one can bypass the interpretations of Classical Islam, the majority of which were fixed in medieval times, and go straight back to the Qur’an and Hadith and interpret them for oneself in order to create a modern Islamic society. The second, is code for institutions such as al-Azhar which teach Classical Islam — the interpretations which were derived in the first three centuries of Islam (i.e., prior to the tenth century AD).

In other words, the actual content of what the Grand Mufti was really saying, although couching it in the language of tolerance and mutual co-existence that his hearers doubtless wanted to hear, was that the answer to “extremism” is Classical Islam. 

Classical Islam is simply not tolerant of Christians

This is essentially the counter-extremism policy of not just Egypt, but also of Islamic countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia and the Maldives: enforce Classical Islam through government approved mosque sermons, coupled with an authoritarian clampdown on any other expressions of Islam. It doesn’t work — at least judging by the outcomes seen in those countries. Egypt has a rapidly growing problem of jihadism, with an increasing number of attacks on Christians. Five years ago a report from a UK think tank found that much of the funding for UK extremists came from Saudi sources, while the Maldives reportedly produced the highest number of recruits to Islamic State per head of population of any country in the world.

The basic problem is that Classical Islam is simply not tolerant of Christians. Take for example, apostasy. Egypt’s al-Azhar university boasts that it has teachers from all four of the main schools of Islamic law. However, each of these requires the death penalty for any sane adult male Muslim who leaves Islam to become a Christian, and three of them also require female converts to be executed. That’s the underlying reason why it is impossible for any Egyptian former Muslim to get a new government identity card with “Christian” on it.

Classical Islam treats Christians and Jews as dhimmis. Western liberals sometimes claim this is a form of toleration, but the textbooks of Classical Islam which are taught in places such as al-Azhar University describe dhimmis as conquered people who are allowed to live provided they keep certain conditions. These include only meeting for worship behind closed doors, and not displaying the cross or their books where Muslims can see them. They are forbidden to build or repair churches, not allowed to defend themselves and must be totally subservient to Muslims, symbolised by the payment of jizya. Any breach of the dhimmi code allows any Muslim to kill them with impunity. This is based on the Qur’an (Q9:29):

Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which has been forbidden by God and His Apostle, nor acknowledge the religion of truth, [even if they are] of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.

Far from payment of jizya being a form of toleration, Classical Islam treats it as a form of humiliation as the commentary of al Baidawi, one of the most important works of Classical Islam, explains:

And have been humbled: brought low. According to Ibn Abbas the dhimmi (one of the people of the book living under Muslim rule and paying jizya in return for protection) is struck on the neck (with the hand) when the jizya is collected from him…

What the Grand Mufti is doing is what al-Azhar has been called out for doing in the past — saying one thing in Arabic to a conservative Muslim audience and saying something which is dressed up to look like tolerance to a western audience.

For example, Muhammad Tayeb, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar University and a former Grand Mufti, claimed in a 2016 speech to the German Parliament that the principle of religious freedom is enshrined in the Quran. Yet a few months later he stated in two episodes of his Ramadan television program that both classical and contemporary Islamic scholars agree that apostasy is a crime punishable by death. At the time the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies described these comments on Arabic TV as “incendiary”, observing that:

Al-Tayyeb claims there is no contradiction between upholding the principle of religious freedom and sanctioning the killing of citizens simply for changing their religious beliefs… Al-Azhar adopts two contradictory discourses, a relatively open-minded discourse directed abroad and another sanctioning violent extremism intended for domestic consumption.

Should we really be surprised when another Grand Mufti claims his “sole aim” is the preservation of human dignity and freedom?  Jesus told us to be as wise as snakes and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16).

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover