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.”
MEMRI, for instance, recently published a report titled “The Sheikh of Al Azhar in an Exceptionally Tolerant Article: Christianity, Judaism Share Basic Tenets of Islam.” Of course, the day after this report appeared, the same sheikh insisted that the American ambassador wear a hijab when meeting him: just as Muslim “radicals” compel Christian girls to wear the hijab, “moderate” Al Azhar compels U.S. diplomats.
In short, yes, there are commonalities, but they are secondary to the differences, which are more final and define the relationship. Or, to put it in Ali Gomaa’s paradigm: Fine, Christianity and Islam share similar tenets — but, by the way: “Infidels are those who say God is the Christ, son of Mary.”
The fact is, this Quranic verse is as much a cornerstone of Islam’s view of Christianity as the unity of God and Christ is a cornerstone of Christianity, articulated some 1700 years ago in the Nicene Creed. The issue is clear cut for all involved.
Accordingly, how can one fault Gomaa? As grand mufti, he is simply being true to Islam’s teachings. Indeed, his consistency is more commendable than the equivocations of Western ecumencalists who, by falling over themselves to assure Muslims that they all essentially believe in the same things, demonstrate, especially to Muslims, that they believe in nothing.
Incidentally, if Gomaa upholds the plain teachings of the Quran concerning who is an infidel, is it not fair to assume he also upholds the Quran’s teachings on how to treat them, as commanded in Quran 9: 29: “Fight … the People of the Book [Jews and Christians] until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” Of course, prudent Muslims, undoubtedly like Gomaa himself, know that now is not the time to talk openly about such things.
Either way, here is another reminder of how Quranic verses and terms that Western people brush aside as arcane or irrelevant have a tremendous impact on current events — such as the Maspero massacre: For the same word Gomaa used to describe Christians is the same word Muslim soldiers used when they opened fire on and ran over Christians; the same word twenty Muslim soldiers used as they tortured a protesting Christian; and the same word Muslims hurled at Christians during the funeral procession for their loved ones slain at Maspero: infidel.