Egypt’s Grand Mufti visits Leiden University

Egypt’s influential Grand Mufti, Dr Shawki Allam, is touring Europe to show the moderate face of Islam. On 20 April the legal scholar visited Leiden University to examine some exceptional Arabic manuscripts and familiarise himself with research in Leiden.

Ancient Quran fragment

Shawki Alla—who speaks no English but was accompanied by an interpreter—was impressed with the manuscripts made available for him to examine. One of these was a fragment of the Quran from the 8th century, about a hundred years after the death of the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. He also seemed both surprised and pleased with the depth of the research conducted in Leiden. ‘I expected it to be focused on general aspects, but now I see that the research is detailed, which leads to deep scholarly research.’

The Grand Mufti listens as professor of Arabic Petra Sijpesteijn elucidates an old Arabic manuscript. The Egyptian ambassador can be seen between them.

The Grand Mufti listens as professor of Arabic Petra Sijpesteijn elucidates an old Arabic manuscript. The Egyptian ambassador can be seen between them.

Al-Azhar University

The unassuming Grand Mufti was welcomed by Wim van den Doel, dean of the Humanities, Petra Sijpesteijn, director of the Leiden University Centre for the Study of Islam and Society, and Kurt De Belder, Leiden University Libraries director. Van den Doel presented an overview of Leiden University, ‘the oldest university in the Netherlands’, but added that ‘our university’s age is nothing compared to that of your institute.’ Shawki Allam has close ties with the Al-Azhar University in the Egyptian capital of Cairo, that was founded in the 10th century. The Great Mufti spoke with Petra Sijpesteijn in Egyptian dialect about his own work and about manuscripts and books. 'I found him very open and approachable,' Sijpesteijn commented.  

Relation between theology and everyday life

The Grand Mufti commented on the work of a few of the eight scholars (also including students and PhD candidates) who gave short presentations of their research. In particular, he referred to Hayat Ahlili’s doctorate research concerning inscriptions on centuries-old papyrus and paper amulets. Shawki Allam was impressed by this research topic: the relation between everyday human struggles and theorical and literary discussions. He also commented on legal scholar Jan Michiel Otto who is investigating and comparing the influence of the sharia on the legal system in twelve Islamic countries, saying, ‘I think that the sharia could be quite suitable as the basis of a legal system.’

No opportunity for discussion

A fragment of the Quran from the 8th century.

A fragment of the Quran from the 8th century.

Unfortunately there was no opportunity for discussion, which was disappointing for Islamic scholars Prof. Maurits Berger and Dr Nico Kaptein. ‘I understand that changes are going to be made in Al-Azhar’s curriculum,’ Berger explains. ‘I would have liked to ask him about the how and why of those changes.’

Kaptein had brought a couple of students along with him to the conference room in the University Library and had prepared some questions with them. ‘For example, how Shawki Allam operates with respect to the sharp contrast between Sunnis and Shiites. Can he do anything about that?’ Sunnis and Shiites are two different branches of Islam. In recent years, differences between these two branches have played an increasing role in armed conflicts.


Comparable to the Pope

The Grand Mufti’s influence extends far beyond Egypt’s borders. ‘You can compare his influence with that of the Pope,’ says Kaptein. ‘That is due to his connection with Al-Azhar University, which has a lot of clout in the Islamic world. Countless Islamic scholars from all corners of the world have being going there for centuries. The Grand Mufti even has access to the Egyptian president.’ The Grand Mufti, who is chosen by Al-Azhar scholars, expresses his opinion on a variety of areas, including economics, from an Islamic point of view. But his power is not absolute. For example, he can issue an opinion on the death sentences that are being handed down rather liberally in Egypt, but that opinion is not binding. Nonetheless his judgement greatly influences the way Muslims view particular issues.

Petra Sijpesteijn explains who is studying what in the area of Islam at Leiden University. On the left, the Mufti’s interpreter sits next to him.

Petra Sijpesteijn explains who is studying what in the area of Islam at Leiden University. On the left, the Mufti’s interpreter sits next to him.

Charlie Hebdo and the open letter

After a number of staff were killed at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, Shawki Allam warned the editorial board about reactions to the edition that was published shortly thereafter. While he did not come out against Western freedom of expression, he did point to the risk of deeply offending Muslims. On 19 September 2014 the Grand Mufti was signatory to an open letter from 126 Islamic and legal scholars around the world addressed to the Iraqi extremist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had declared himself caliph of the Islamic State (IS) two months earlier. The essence of the letter was a condemnation of the way that IS rejects Muslims holding opposing views. Recently the Grand Mufti issued a fatwa condemning IS’s destruction of antiquities.

On 21 April, Shawki Allam was at Utrecht University to explain his view of IS, the Islamic State.

(22 April 2015)

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Last Modified: 17-08-2015