You talk to Muslims from all walks of life and they tell you: the days of glory are long gone, these are times of strife, and at best of challenge. You listen to people in the West talk of Islam and you're scared. What is this religion that makes people want to kill? What is this archaic system of thought that makes people so backward? Just last month the Nobel prize for literature went to the Trinidad-born British novelist V S Naipaul, who argues vehemently -- among other things -- that Islam is just not fit for the modern world.
Indeed, it sometimes seems that Islam has been hijacked by powers from both ends of an imaginary intellectual spectrum and that reduce it to violence (jihad?) and discrimination against women (hijab?). Whether staunchly Orientalist and anti-Muslim or staunchly fanatic and puritan, these two poles offer a confusing and scary (if unbelievably simplistic) picture of a rich cultural and religious tradition that goes back 15 centuries.
In the midst of this confusion, compounded by international political developments, there have been shy efforts in the Middle East and in the West to (re)define just what Islam is. Others, in apparently more traditional settings, have gone on doing what their predecessors have been doing for centuries. They teach, they preach, they write, they live their lives and call themselves Muslims. Others call them ulama.
There is -- naturally -- a certain aura about Al- Azhar, and a certain majesty. It was a Thursday morning when we went and were guided quite quickly to "Doctor Ali's lesson." It could have been a scene out of the middle ages. Al-Maqrizi could have written this. Across the spotless white marble we entered the doctor's riwaq (gallery). The lesson was already underway, Sheikh Ali Gomaa sitting with his legs up, knees bent, on a large traditional chair, his back to a wall and his students around him in a semi-circle, a halaqa, the men closer to him, the women discreetly at the back. They came in different colours, the students, in different costumes, from various corners of the globe, extremely young and middle-aged, traditionally-dressed, Westernised, you name it. We took our places amongst the women, at the back -- of course. All around the riwaq are bookcases laden with hard-backed volumes of the canons of jurisprudence. This was a lesson in economics, out of Al-Suyuti.
Ali Gomaa is professor of usul al-fiqh (the four canons of Islamic jurisprudence -- Qur'an, Sunna, qiyas or analogy, and ijma' or consensus) at the Faculty of Islamic and Arabic Studies, Al-Azhar University. He is also the khatib (orator) of the Sultan Hassan Mosque. His is not a name that is often mentioned in the press or on television; he's not one of the "popular media ulama," but he too has his sermons recorded on tape, and the Friday prayers at Sultan Hassan have their regulars.
For the inevitable introduction, one had to move out of the women's circle and encroach on the men's. Despite the flagrant trespass, I was completely ignored for a good while. And then suddenly he turned, impatiently it seemed, and asked what it was I wanted. I was from Al-Ahram Weekly? The Profile? "Sit down here on this chair, my child," he said and turned back to the students, who gathered around him asking him last-minute questions and favours. I preferred the ground, thank you.
A middle-aged woman with a little boy pushed her way through. "I want to ask him to help me get the boy into hospital."
Suddenly, the sheikh's mobile phone rang: the Nokia melody. And we were whisked back to the 21st.
And now to business, follow me, my child. Follow him we did, into his rooms off the riwaq, two offices and a sitting room carpeted quite modestly with the mass-produced red carpet now common to most mosques, several cushions thrown around to sit on and an ugly glass table with a mini-fridge on top. Nothing else: quite bare, this room. But there were windows on Al-Azhar street. And there was light.
How does one approach a man of God? Certainly with reverence. Remember not to extend your hand to shake his (I was forewarned). Dress modestly. I came prepared with a headscarf, notebook and tape recorder.
But he is hardly what one would expect of an 'alim.
He does not dress like one; no turban, no quftan; just one of those sporty summery cotton suits, at one time the emblem of the loyal government employee, blue, with a checked shirt underneath. Head bare, silver grey beard fashionably trimmed. Turko- Mongol traces in the face.
And he doesn't talk like the religious scholars on television. Except for the occasional "ya bunayyati," he talks in colloquial Arabic -- even with his students.
Could he please sit there, to let God's light fall on his face? Randa inquired quite respectfully. "What is this business of 'God's light? God's light is everywhere. Why don't you just speak directly? You want to take good photographs. Wait until we're done and then we'll go into my office and you can get better photos there. I've done a little photography myself, you see. You won't like any of those photographs. What you will like is the one you will take in the office." Smile.
Sheikh Ali Gomaa is quite well-known in scholarly circles. He has authored more than 20 books. But they're too difficult and specialised for the lay reader, he tells me dismissively. He is the general editor of the Encyclopaedia of Hadith launched just last month as part of the Sunna Project of the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation, a mega project aimed at documenting and publishing all works related to Muslim Sunna.
Yet unlike many ulama, Ali Gomaa did not enter the religious establishment in boyhood. He studied at the Faculty of Commerce, obtaining his BA from Ain Shams University in 1973. He then enrolled at the University of Al-Azhar, obtaining a BA in 1979, an MA in 1985 and a PhD in Shari'a and law in 1988. So why the change of course? What urges a man in this day and age to become an 'alim? Was it a family tradition?
"No, my father was actually a lawyer. But I was very influenced by him. I learnt a lot from him. I used to watch him analyse cases and prepare his briefs. I used to watch him stand up for what is right, unafraid of the powers that be. He used to address police officers and judges quite confidently. They were different times. He was also an avid reader, and our library at home was well-stocked. I've learnt to love reading from him. I read everything. My own library takes up three flats, I have more than 30,000 volumes in it."
But did he receive a particular calling? Why did he change paths? Which of his roles does he prefer: teacher, preacher or scholar? He quite cleverly avoids that. "It is not only a matter of choice. It is God who guides you, God who decides. The important thing is always to work hard and do your best at whatever you do, and pray to God to help you succeed."
The seminal Encyclopaedia of Hadith is his latest scholarly achievement. An ongoing project, it so far includes the seven major collections of hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Mohamed), and is also available on CD-Rom. This modern technology makes cross-references and links between hadiths infinitely easier. The documentation of hadith, and indeed hadith scholarship itself, is one of the achievements of classical Islam. But why an Encyclopaedia of Hadith now? Are modern ulama attempting to reinvent the wheel? Hasn't all this been done before?
"We lost it," Gomaa states emphatically. "We lost the methodology, and we are in dire need of it in Muslim thought now. We are not trying to rejuvenate a history that is archaic; we are trying to rejuvenate a paradigm. This paradigm consists of a holistic vision of the universe that includes humanity and animal kind. A Muslim deals with reality, he deals with this door you see here, realising it too worships God; he deals with natural resources respectfully while other cultures are only beginning to think of protecting the environment. He deals with animals respectfully as well, so that a woman who locked up a cat will go to hell because she dealt with the universe violently, while a prostitute who saved a dog from thirst will go to paradise. What beauty! This is the foundation of a whole man, a man who has a certain understanding of the universe."
All through our encounter the sheikh fingered his long, striking prayer beads. They stand out, they are not subdued or traditional beads. Well, he concedes almost shyly, they're modelled after Sheikh Abdel- Qader Al-Jilani's, which he saw in Brunei. They are made of boxwood, which he bought in Saudi Arabia and had made into beads according to this elaborate design, here in Cairo. It is a very tough kind of wood, he explains, used in making handmills. His beads have multiple counters, so that he can actually count to a hundred million prayers on them! Sometimes it takes him a week to finish a round, sometimes less.
But Muslims are now often perceived as violent people, their views archaic and out of this world. So who is this generic Muslim he is after, really? And how is he to deal with the modern world?
"Ever since the time of the Prophet they have been fighting us. This is nothing new, and the clash is not new... I mean the West, the Moscow- Washington axis, has been fighting the Tangier- Jakarta axis ever since the Prophet was sent and is still doing so today. We, on this axis of Tangier- Jakarta/Ghana-Fergana, now referred to as the South, mind our own business; but the other axis, the North, has been fighting us across ages.
"When we entered the countries [during the Arab Muslim conquests of the Middle East in the seventh century], ya bunayyati, we didn't force anyone into anything... We intermarried, and marriage means making a family and complete assimilation. Marriage is not about conflict but about affection, serenity and mercy. We didn't kill the native populations as they did in Australia and America, nor did we set up inquisition courts as they did in Spain, nor did we force anyone to convert to our religion.
"They, on the other hand (and we play dumb and ask 'who's they?'), they stole our children, enslaved them and humiliated them and wouldn't apologise in Durban. They set up inquisition courts and forced Muslims to abandon their religion and tortured them to death in Spain and expelled them. Look at racial discrimination: until today, Anglo-Saxons are the ones controlling those established democracies. Not one black [political leader] has risen, nor will one; no woman has ruled America, nor will one. Something basic is crying out here, saying: these people are good, and these people are evil.
"See, the Muslim is he whose sources of knowledge are both revelation and existence. There is God's visible book, this universe we live in; and God's written book, the mushaf: a major book and a minor book and both are from God. And a Muslim is ordered to read two readings: 'Read; In the name of thy Lord who createth, Createth man from a clot. Read: And thy Lord is the Most Bounteous, Who teacheth by the pen, Teacheth man that which he knew not' (The Clot, 96:1-5) -- a reading in the visible book and a reading in the written book.
"You see, a non-Muslim reads only one reading, in God's visible book only, the universe. He does not see a God behind this universe, and when a God is recognised He is seen as detached from this world and man does what he wants: laissez faire, laissez passer. I say no: Laissez faire laissez passer is theirs, not ours. As a Muslim I say listen to the Shari'a, see what God is ordering you to do, see what is good for this universe and do it."
A Muslim's way out of the principal historical predicament passes through rejuvenation of the Muslim paradigm, Gomaa explains. That will only happen through a return to both books of Islam, the visible and the written. The real predicament is that Muslims today are the products of a cultural attack "that has kept us away from the book and from understanding it. Anyone who reads it and understands it will find the first words to be: 'In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate' -- not in the name of God the Merciful the Vengeful, by the way, or in the name of God the Vengeful the Almighty. God is Merciful and Compassionate, as well as Vengeful and Almighty, but God chose two of his names of beauty, rather than two of his names of power, to begin the Qur'an. It is as if God is telling us stay beautiful, keeping power and vengeance for Himself. And even this is out of His mercy; to teach people lessons, so as not to do evil or harm others."
There was quite a crowd at Sultan Hassan for last Friday's prayers, the first of Ramadan. Many came in families, babies and all. There was a noisy air of celebration, especially as the children went on with their games around the open-air ablutions fountain in the middle of the mosque, unmindful of sermon and prayers, the mosque almost an extension of home. Afterwards people gathered to buy recorded tapes of previous sermons. "Last week's khutba was very good, you must get it," a kind gentleman advised. "Has Sheikh Ali shaved his beard this week?" a young boy asked his father.
At the mosque he dresses in the traditional garb. Last Friday's khutba outlined a programme for Ramadan: how a Muslim should spend this holy month. This is a month of prayer, and of charity. The market is stagnant, the sheikh reminded the believers; you need to spend money to enliven it, so spend money on charity. And it is a month of maintaining family contacts, and of mercy; have mercy on each other. It is Muslims who do evil unto themselves and each other, he admonished -- not "others." Particularly pertinent words in light of the ongoing turmoil.
The khutba naturally ended in prayers, the believers chanting after the sheikh from the four iwans of Sultan Hassan, crying "Aamin," their voices moving from one side of the building to the other like the waves of a calm sea. "God grant victory to the mujahidin everywhere... God grant victory to Muslims everywhere... God, we seek your protection from their evil... God, You who are the most Merciful, have mercy on us... God, make our hearts steadfast in faith... God, do not let our calamity be in our religion, do not let this life be our sole concern or all we own... God, You who are the most Merciful,, have mercy on us, You who are the Saviour save us. God, You who are the most Merciful, answer our prayers." Words that have been repeated for centuries, and yet still have poignant relevance today.
"A Muslim today is the product of a [Westernised] education that comes from England and the US," he laments. "Such an education doesn't teach us that the whole universe worships God; it doesn't teach us the hadith that if a Muslim has a budding plant in his hands when the day of judgement comes, let him plant it first. Where did this beauty go? After you teach [a young Muslim] nonsense -- that there is nothing beyond this world, nothing except conflict, and that man is by nature violent, that there is conflict between civilisations, conflict between man and the gods as in Greek mythology, and you deprive him of 'the Merciful, the Compassionate' -- after this sort of indoctrination, a boy is lost between ideas he just doesn't understand, he approaches the books haphazardly and finds that God says 'faqtulu al-mushrikin haythu wagadtumuhum (slay the idolaters wherever ye find them)' (Al-Tawba 9:5) But who is the mushrik, the polytheist? He really doesn't know. Anybody could be a mushrik and so he shoots just anybody."
Muslims today are confused, he insists, because they are brought up according to contradicting doctrines and philosophies. When Muslims were raised according to the truths of Islam, they were civilised people, they were productive. "Now Muslims are lost between two worlds and confused, not knowing what to belong to. There is no consistency between their faith and the governing systems and regimes they live under: educationally, legally, socially, and even politically. The public order Muslims live within is all taken from non-Muslim sources. There is a contradiction here. We need to restore a Muslim public order. This abnormal situation we are in, in terms of terrorism and violence, is something foreign to Muslims and it is the result of this lack of consistency. We need to understand and reinstate the Muslim paradigm and it is for this that we edit books like the Encyclopaedia. It is the duty of each Muslim, wherever he belongs, to work towards living a life consistent with Islam. But unfortunately the powers that be everywhere are afraid of Islam. Others do not trust this paradigm; they think it is too idealistic."
So obviously an individual Muslim needs a helping hand to extricate himself from this modern predicament. He needs someone to guide him, to show him the way to approach God and His books. But who? "Myself," the sheikh says instinctively, reassuringly (himself being the enlightened man of God), but also, perhaps, too confidently.
In addition to his traditional scholarly training, you can tell that his interests are wide. He reads a lot in philosophy, economics and literature. He's quite interested in carpets, he appreciates a good carpet, and semi-precious stones. He's also quite interested in Arabic calligraphy. His handwriting is respectable, yes, but not amazing -- or so he tells me. But he is interested in calligraphy as an art and in its philosophical aspects. Arabic calligraphy is so beautiful, he explains. The most beautiful Arabic script is that used in King Fouad's 1921 mushaf, the writing of the late Sheikh Mohamed Khalaf El- Husseini. And it is this script that was developed into a digitalised typeface for the Encyclopaedia. It is very important that Islamic books be well- produced and attractive. He appreciates beauty, God's work, around him.
And he's travelled widely, from Japan to the United States. Travel is quite important. Contact with people from various cultural backgrounds and trying to explain and spread the message of Islam: this was an important part of Sheikh Ali Gomaa's career. "It changes one's outlook. You see different peoples living differently. One learns a lot in trying to reformulate one's message of Islam to reach different audiences. There are different levels of discourse. I had to deal with African tribes, for example. And their women were half-naked. These are their customs and way of life. You can't just go in there and attack these customs. You learn to reformulate your message so as to make people love God." He also travels frequently to the United States, where one of his daughters lives with her family. The son-in-law is an American, but quite a practicing Muslim, quite a nice chap, we are told. Will things be more difficult for Muslims in America now? "No, no, they can't. They can't undermine the very fundamentals of freedom and equality on which the US is built."
It is perhaps telling that Sheikh Ali Gomaa's curriculum vitae starts with the familiar information name, address, certificates, positions, publications and so on. And then the final section lists his ijazas, like any traditional 'alim. Four ulama have particularly influenced his learning and education: his professor of hadith, Abdallah El-Saddiq El- Ghumari, his professor of usul al-fiqh; Mohamed Abul-Nur Zuhair, his professor of Shafi'i jurisprudence; Gad El-Rabb Ramadan and Sheikh El- Husseini Youssef El-Sheikh.
He himself, like many a contemporary Muslim, is also a product of more than one world. But unlike many others, he seems to have navigated and negotiated a way out of the modern predicament, to be living a modern life consistent with the teachings of Islam. "God doesn't change what is within people until they change what is within themselves. We must each change ourselves. Start with yourself. Start today. Do not confuse yourself, start living your life according to the tenets of Islam," he advises earnestly.
But do we not already?
God knows best...