Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article mis-identified Ali Gomaa as the “grand mufti of Al Azhar.” Gomaa is the grand mufti of Egypt, the nation’s second highest religious position, and a member of Al Azhar’s Council for Islamic Research.
A video of Sheikh Ali Gomaa (or Gom’a), the grand mufti of Egypt, which began circulating weeks before the massacre, helps elucidate. While holding that Muslims may coexist with Christians (who, as dhimmis, have rights), Gomaa categorized Christians as kuffar — “infidels” — a word that connotes “enemies,” “evil-doers,” and every bad thing to Muslim ears.
After quoting Quran 5:17, “Infidels are those who say God is the Christ, [Jesus] son of Mary,” he expounded by saying any association between a human and God (in Arabic, shirk) is the greatest sin: “Whoever thinks the Christ is God, or the Son of God, not symbolically — for we are all sons of God — but attributively, has rejected the faith which God requires for salvation,” thereby becoming an infidel.
Gomaa then offered a hypothetical dialogue between Christians and Muslims to illustrate further:
Christians: You have the wrong idea about us; we don’t worship the Christ.
Muslims: Okay, fine; we were under the wrong impression — but, by the way: “Infidels are those who say God is the Christ, son of Mary.”
Christians: But these are philosophical matters that we are unable to explain.
Muslims: Okay, fine; God is one—but, by the way: “Infidels are those who say God is the Christ, son of Mary.”
As a graduate of and long-time professor at Al Azhar university before being named grand mufti, Ali Gomaa represents mainstream Islam’s — not “radical Islam’s” or “Islamism’s” — position concerning the “other,” in this case, Christians. Regardless, many in the West hail him as a “moderate” — such as this U.S. News article titled “Finding the Voices of Moderate Islam“; Lawrence Wright describes him as “a highly promoted champion of moderate Islam”:
He is the kind of cleric the West longs for, because of his assurances that there is no conflict with democratic rule and no need for theocracy. Gomaa has also become an advocate for Muslim women, who he says should have equal standing with men.
How does one reconcile such sunny characterizations with reality? The fact is, whenever top Muslim authorities like Gomaa say something that can be made to conform to Western ideals, Westerners jump on it (while of course ignoring more “extreme” positions). It is the same with Gomaa’s alma mater, Al Azhar, the “chief center of Islamic and Arabic learning in the world.”