Over one billion Muslims align themselves with the Sunni sect (roughly 85% of Islam worldwide). For them the most prestigious bastion of Islamic learning is al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, at which thousands of Muslims are trained as sheikhs (imams) and theologians. At the summit of this lofty theological mountain sits the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, the supreme Sunni authority on all Islamic teaching and doctrine. Ahmad Muhammad Ahmad al-Tayyeb has occupied that position since March of 2010. Prior to that he served for seven years as the president of Al-Azhar University, and before that had the role of Egypt’s Grand Mufti (the country’s most powerful cleric). It might be safe to assume he has a fairly good grasp of Islam.
At a December 2nd “round table” event at Cairo University, Mr. al-Tayyeb was asked why al-Azhar has consistently refused to anathematize ISIS as ‘un-Islamic” and therefore among the ranks of infidels, especially in light of the fact that the university has often condemned secular Muslims as infidels or blasphemers for discarding some teachings they consider outdated or unhelpful. Mr. al-Tayyeb’s response was that as long as a Muslim believes “in Allah and the Last Day” and does not reject the fundamental principles of Islam, he/she cannot be labeled a “kafir” (i.e., unbeliever/infidel), no matter what atrocities he/she has committed. This, although he disagrees with some of their tactics, he concludes that ISIS followers are still true Muslims.
He also believes they err in claiming the right to determine who are true Muslims (and either executing or banishing them), but argues that were he to engage in that same behavior (by determining that ISIS is un-Islamic) he would fall into the same trap that ISIS has.
Let me make two points based on Sheikh al-Tayyeb’s remarks. First, he and al-Azhar University believe, based on their selective anathematizing, that liberal/moderate Muslims are more dangerous to Islam than ISIS is. One anathematizes only that which threatens the integrity of one’s religion. According to al-Azhar and its learned leader, ISIS is firmly in the fold of Islam, but liberal Muslims are by and large not. Thus, the hope of Western leaders that moderate-liberal Muslims can lead the charge to sideline radical Islam, or to reform Islam as a whole, is extraordinarily misplaced. No moderate Muslim is going to overrule the settled views of al-Azhar in the minds of the Sunni masses.
Secondly, the politically liberal mantra that “ISIS has nothing to do with Islam” is exposed as a falsehood – unless, that is, Islamic experts such as John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, Martin O’Malley (and many mainstream media talking heads) wish to call on Sheikh al-Tayyeb and school him on his faulty understanding of Islam.
We are at a dangerous point in the security of our nation when prominent political leaders evince such a paucity of understanding concerning our acknowledged enemy ISIS and its acceptable standing within the orthodox Muslim world as confirmed by Sunni Islam’s highest authority. Where are the theological and ideological experts who should be informing our decision-makers? Or are the politicians willfully ignoring the brewing maelstrom being whipped up by resurgent Islam?