As someone who teaches theology in a Jesuit university, I always wondered how my Catholic colleagues felt when the Pope made a statement with which they disagreed. Today, I have some sense of what it’s like. Not because of anything said by the Holy Father, but because of comments made by the Shaikh al-Azhar. I understand of course that the comparison is not exact. There is, for example, no magisterium in Islam. But Al-Azhar, founded in Cairo in 970, is second only to Al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco (founded over a hundred years earlier) as the oldest university in the Muslim world. And the leader, or shaikh (literally, “old man”) of Al-Azhar carries tremendous authority and respect in the Sunni Muslim world. On January 20, the current Shaikh al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayyib, announced that Al-Azhar was “suspending” dialogue with the Vatican due to comments made by Pope Benedict XVI about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
Shaikh El-Tayyib is a good and decent man. I met him in 2009 at a conference on dialogue that he organized at Al-Azhar. At the time, he was the Rector, and the following year, after the death of Shaikh Tantawi, he was appointed as the Shaikh al-Azhar. The 2009 conference was called “Al-Azhar and the West: Bridges of Dialogue,” and it was a great success. At the conference, I met Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the Apostolic Nuncio in Egypt, who has done much work on interfaith dialogue between Catholics and Muslims.
I do hope that Al-Azhar resumes its dialogue with the Vatican, precisely because difficult times are when dialogue is most needed. As William Blake wrote, “It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity”. It is much more difficult to stay together when things are tough. And the sad truth is that Christians are being persecuted in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world. The proper response to that persecution was what Egyptian Muslims did during Christmas, serving as shields for Coptic Christians, standing beside them in their churches. Yes, Muslims are being persecuted around the world. But this gives us no moral high ground. We must do what we can to protect minority communities.
The Qur’an is clear in commanding Muslims to always act out of justice, and not out of hate: “Oh you who believe! Be upright for God as witnesses to justice, and let not hatred of a people incite you to not act equitably; act equitably, that is nearer to piety, and observe your duty to God. Surely God is aware of what you do” (5:8). Muslims are therefore called to treat people on the basis of how they behave, not because they identify themselves as Muslims, monotheists, or polytheists. Another Qur’anic verse is even more explicit about the righteousness of faithful Jews and Christians and the reward of such righteousness: “Some of the People of the Book are a wholesome nation. They recite God’s signs in the watches of the night, prostrating themselves, having faith in God and the last day, bidding to honour and forbidding dishonour, and vying with one another in good deeds. They are among the wholesome. Whatever good they do, they will not be denied its reward” (3:113–115). The Qur’an, therefore, envisions a peaceful coexistence that comes from a common revelation and a common God. If they do come into conflict, then they should remember the common God that they worship. “Argue not with the People of the Book” we are told, “unless it be in a better way, except with such of them as do wrong; and say: ‘We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you; our God and your God is One, and to God do we surrender’” (29:46).