Islam’s unlikely peacemaker
When the grand imam of AlAzhar met Pope Francis on Monday, it was a triumph for Vatican diplomacy. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, often described as the spiritual leader of the world’s Sunni Muslims, suspended dialogue with the Holy See in 2011. Now, just five years later, he was standing next to Pope Francis at the Apostolic Palace. It was a powerful image: the leaders of the world’s two largest religious groupings – Sunni Islam and Catholicism – meeting in tranquillity.
But it is a mistake to think that alTayeb is the Sunni equivalent of the Pope. It is also inaccurate to refer to Al-Azhar, as many do, as “the Vatican of Islam”. Unlike Catholicism, Sunnism does not have a clearly defined hierarchy. Many Sunnis would not consider al-Tayeb their leader or regard AlAzhar’s rulings as binding.
Nevertheless, Al-Azhar is one of the world’s most prestigious Sunni institutions – though it was actually founded by the Shia Muslim Fatimids.
The Sorbonne-educated al-Tayeb is a prolific author who belongs to the Ash’ari school of Islamic theology, associated with the 11th-century Persian scholar al-Ghazali. He has no time for the inflexible creeds of Wahhabism and Salafism. He believes in “moderation and dialogue among civilisations”, rejects the Muslim Brotherhood, regards ISIS as “false Islam” and opposes the niqab (face veil).
Fluent in French and English, alTayeb used to dress in sharp suits, rather than clerical garb, before he became grand imam in 2010. He was appointed
Francis has established warm relations with both Sunni and Shia leaders by Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s strongman president, and was a member of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
Relations between the Holy See and al-Tayeb have not been easy. Not long after his appointment he froze ties with the Vatican when Benedict XVI called for greater protection for Egypt’s Christian minority. That was a curious decision: the pope was simply speaking up for the victims of terrorist atrocities,
but that was unacceptable to the country’s political and religious authorities at the time. Five years on, Egypt has changed considerably. Mubarak is gone, as is the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government. Al-Tayeb appeared alongside Abdel Fattah el-Sisi after the latter took power in 2014.
The perception of Sunni Islam has also altered considerably. Most Westerners associate Sunnism with the strident clerics of Saudi Arabia and the psychopathic violence of ISIS, rather than venerable institutions such as Al-Azhar. It is therefore a good time for al-Tayeb to meet the Pope, underlining Al-Azhar’s claim to represent an older, more authentic version of Sunni Islam.
In January Pope Francis met Hassan Rouhani, president of Iran, the epicentre of Shia Islam. Renewed conflict between Sunnis (who believe that Mohammed’s first caliph was Abu Bakr) and Shia (who believe the first caliph was Ali bin Abi Talib) is claiming thousands of lives across the Middle East. As the Pope has now established relations with both Sunni and Shia leaders, is it conceivable that he could now mediate between the two great warring families of Islam?
The Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society, based at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, has published an enlightening report on “contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales”.
The study suggests that, at 8.3 per cent of the total, the Catholic population has remained fairly steady over the past few decades. But adherence to the faith is not evenly spread. Two areas stand out as particularly Catholic: inner London and the North West. This accords with what many have long supposed: immigration has greatly boosted Catholic numbers in London and Liverpool remains the heartland of
Must try harder the faith in England. Some 56 per cent of those who were born and raised Catholic say that they still regard themselves as Catholic. In itself, this is not a cheering figure, though it compares well with the retention rates of other Christian communities.
Converts, meanwhile, make up about eight per cent of our congregations, which represents one of the lowest conversion rates among the various Christian bodies. Is this because RCIA represents an arduous year-long entry course into the Church? If so, that is not altogether a bad thing: the most important thing is not making converts, but making converts who persevere.
Most of these converts are former Anglicans (no surprises there). A mere one per cent of Catholics are converts from no religion, and half as many come from other non-Christian religions. Given the huge efforts made by Catholics to reach out to other faiths and to non-believers, these figures are a disappointment.
But we should not be downhearted. The figures, like exam marks or a school report, highlight where we are doing well, and where we need to try harder. The report provides a factual basis for future evangelisation, rather than having to rely, as heretofore, on hunches and guesswork.
CATHOLIC HERALD, MAY 27 2016 3