Azhar Grand Sheikh, Cairo University president debate ‘renewing’ religious discourse

Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb of Egypt’s premier Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, debated President of Cairo University Mohamed al-Khosht on Tuesday during a session on renewing religious sciences in an effort to keep pace with the modern era, as part of Al-Azhar’s International Conference on the Renovation of Islamic Discourse.

The conference, which was held amid calls by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for the renewal of religious discourse, part of broader efforts to fight extremism, aims to revive discussions about Islam without sacrificing Islamic values, according to Egypt’s State Information Service.

In his speech, Khosht said he supported the renewal of religious discourse and advocated for reliance on the Quran and “what is true” of the Prophet’s Sunnah, which is defined as the body of social and legal customs and other practices of the Islamic community based on the life and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. The Sunnah, alongside the Quran and the Hadith, or recorded sayings of the Prophet, form the basis of Sharia, or Islamic law.

“It is necessary to renew the science of Usul al-Deen (Roots of Religion) by returning to the pure sources of the Quran and what is true of the Prophet’s Sunnah,” Khosht argued.

“The current reality of religious sciences is based constantly on transmission and reproduction,” Khosht added.

He continued: “If al-Shafi’i (founder of one of the four schools of Islamic law in Sunni Islam) returned, he would have followed a new legal philosopher system, and so would Ibn Hanbal if he returned,” he said, in reference to the founder of the Hanbali School of Sunni jurisprudence, another of the four main legal Sunni schools.

“There is an accusation of extremism against Ibn Hanbal,” he went on to say. “I am here speaking before the sheikhs (and) we find that Ibn Hanbal has three (different) opinions on the same issue. ”

“We are still focused on the ideas of Ash’ari and Mu’tazila, and the Ash’ari theological school is based in large part on Hadith Ahad, and we are still living in the period of the Uthman Sedition (otherwise known as the First Fitnah, which began with the assassination of Caliph Uthman Ibn Affan in 656) until today,” Khost said.

He explained, “The current religious discourse was created for an era other than ours and various (modern) challenges.”

For his part, Tayyeb disputed Khosht’s earlier statement that the Ash’ari theological school, the foremost theological school of Sunni Islam, is based on Hadith Ahad, or Hadith narrated by only one person, not fulfilling all of the conditions needed to be recognized as Hadith Mutawatir.

“(The) Cairo University president called for abandoning the Ash’ari theological school, and he talked about the Hadith Ahad, and I say: Ash’ariis do not base their beliefs on these Hadith, but rather the Hadith Mutawatir,” Tayyed said.

He added: “The heritage that we play down today and trivialize has created an entire nation and (achieved) coexistence (in that nation)…tell me your honor: How was the Islamic world going before the French campaign? It was following the laws of heritage.”

He continued: “We know from Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal what confirms that the renewal is a traditional saying and not a modernist saying, and the sedition from the era of Uthman is political strife, (and) is not (related to) heritage.”

“As for our depiction that we have nothing but the Quran and interpretation — this matter needs to be reviewed,” he said.

Khosht responded to Tayyeb, stressing that he does not advocate destroying or erasing Islamic heritage, but whoever believes in the infallibility of heritage or other traditions should question that conviction.

He added: “I am a Muslim, and I respect Al-Azhar very much, and I agree with it on some matters and differ (with it) on others.”

Edited translation from Al-Masry Al-Youm

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