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January 3, 2017

Why the world needs Egypt's Islam

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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*From the refinement of classical Qur'anic Arabic, to erudite theology, law and spirituality, no other country of the Muslim world has historically contributed as much to Islamic scholarship as Egypt. As we look with both hope and trepidation toward another new year, the value of Egypt's deeply rooted moderate approach to Islam has never seemed more timely or essential for today’s troubled world.*

Throughout history, Egyptians by nature have embraced a moderate style of religion – a term often misinterpreted as suggesting complaisance or even complicity with secularism. But in Egypt’s case it’s nothing of the sort.

What contributes to the distinctive character of Egyptian faith and practice is that this country can claim the oldest continuous central government in the world.

While Egypt has experienced its share of periodic civil or external conflict, it remains unique among surrounding European, African and Asian states for having avoided prolonged regimes driven by religious extremism, the very forces that have destroyed and continue to destroy, so many of its near-neighbors.

Perhaps the Egyptian temperament has contributed to this relative stability over eons of time, for the country is uniquely situated at a major geographical and cultural nexus. To the north, Europe is just across the Mediterranean; to the east, the narrow Sinai Peninsula links Egypt to the Near East and Asia; and it shares a common coastline with northern and sub-Saharan Africa.

No other country has so willingly mobilized its armies to defend not only its Muslim citizens from external aggression and potential genocide, but local Jews and Christians as well. In two notable examples, Egypt did not wait until either Crusaders or Moguls invaded its borders; instead it took pre-emptive action to repel them.

And in peacetime, no other country worked more diligently to preserve the scholarly work of early Christians and Jews.

At the same time, Egypt produced most of the world’s major Islamic reformers, even attracting religious leaders from places like Syria and Afghanistan, who launched their reform movements there.

From historic times until the present day, Egypt has learned and developed how to take the essence of modernity, assimilate it without compromise, and mold it into a shape acceptable to East and West alike.

An important basis for Egypt’s balanced moderation is its longevity, for even before the revelation of Islam, it had the oldest documented religion in the world.

There has never been a time when Egyptians were not religious to the core.

When they heard Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) calling for all to worship and revere one God instead of many, it sounded a collective chord of divine love throughout the nation. It was no coincidence that Ibrahim’s nobly-born wife Hajir (Hagar) and mother of Ishmael, one of his two sons, was Egyptian.

Decades later, when Joseph – whose father Jacob was born to Ibrahim’s other son, Isaac – reminded Egyptians of Ibrahim’s call to God, they greatly appreciated his faith and embraced the Hebrew side of the prophet’s family and tribe.

When Moses emerged as a religious leader from among the Hebrews in Egypt and continued Ibrahim’s teachings, the country’s reigning Pharaoh refused to follow his one-god religion. But Moses, having been adopted as an infant and raised in the royal court, found many converts there, including the Queen herself and many high-ranking nobles.

Later still, when the infant Jesus and his mother fled Palestine to escape Roman persecution under the genocidal King Herod, who tried to eliminate future threats to his power by having all male Hebrew babies slaughtered, Egypt became the first country in the world to embrace Christianity.

Early in the 7^th century CE when Prophet Muhammad renewed the ancient call to worship God and no other deity, Egypt sent a Christian, Mariam (Mary) to become one of his beloved wives and the mother of his son, Abraham.

When Al Azhar was established in 975 CE as the first comprehensive Islamic university in the world, Islam was being taught with a conservative and narrow approach, but this soon changed.

Al Azhar became the only Islamic university and theological institution anywhere in which /all/ schools of religious thought are taught and respected.

Today, more than a millennium later, when Muslim youth from all over the world want to study Islam as a /complete/ discipline, with all of its philosophies and sciences, they turn not to Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, but to Egypt’s venerable and contemporary Al Azhar.

Perhaps no other entity in Egyptian culture has borne out the value of Egypt’s moderate form of Islam more than Al Azhar. And the proof is in its graduates.

It is rare indeed to find an Al Azhar graduate who identifies as extremist, or who advocates violence as a solution to any of today’s political problems. Graduates who’ve joined the Muslim Brotherhood under its pretense of advocating for progress tend to leave once they discover its thinly-veiled ideology of violence.

Al Azhar has also built an impressive historical record of outreach in helping neighboring Middle East nations resist imperial aggression, whether from Turkey, France, Britain, Italy, or other European colonial powers.

In Egypt, Al Azhar and the ancient Coptic Christian church are still considered national institutions of the first order.

While Al Azhar may educate and serve more than 50 other countries of the Muslim world, it remains distinctively Egyptian.

Similarly, the Coptic Church is first and foremost an Egyptian expression of Christianity that has built over time a deep resonance with its surrounding Muslim communities, even more so than with Western branches of its core faith.

During my travels and visits to my birth country, I’ve met many of Al Azhar professors, including Dr. Ahmed Al Taype, the institution’s current Grand Sheikh.

I have advocated that Al Azhar should establish an international endowment fund whereby its graduates (many of whom include the world’s richest people e.g. the Sultan of Brunei) could contribute an ongoing support for teaching and research.

Al Azhar’s leadership is a prime example of why it is so important now to recognize the value and strength of moderate Islam – Egypt’s Islam – as an essential resource for establishing a future of peace and religious harmony in our world.

Egypt’s Islam has given a bold new face to the concept of moderate religion, an approach that has drawn upon the wide spectrum of human responses to faith and become stronger than the sum of its parts.

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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