The reform of religious discourse in Egypt and the Islamic world has become an urgent necessity, says Mohamed Othman Al-Khisht, the president of Cairo University.
“It is a matter of life and death, of to be or not to be. Muslims desperately need to understand Islam in new, modern way.
“Muslims around the world need a comprehensive and ongoing process of religious reform that leads towards an understanding of their religion as a force for reconstruction and progress and not of destruction and fanaticism.
“Political and militant Islamist movements have hijacked Islam since the mid-1970s and managed to spread their version of extremism and jihadism. For major education institutions the big challenge is to change this message to one advocating liberalism, enlightenment and free enterprise,” said Al-Khisht.
Al-Khisht, 55, a professor of the philosophy of religion, was appointed president of Cairo University in 2017.
“Muslims need a movement of religious reform like the one initiated by Martin Luther in Germany in the 16th century,” he says.
“Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation, a development that put Europe on the road to religious reform, tolerance and enlightenment.
“Luther challenged the Roman Catholic Church, insisting that ordinary people can read the Bible by themselves and that they can worship God without mediation. We are in urgent need of these Lutheran beliefs since political Islamist movements, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, began to claim that in order to be a true Muslim it is necessary to join a group that will help the individual understand Islam and obey God in a correct way.
“Political Islam managed to recruit a lot of people based on this perverted interpretation of Islam, and to use them as forces of darkness and extremism.
“These movements turned themselves into mediators between the individual and God. Yet Islam states that Muslims are free and can worship God directly and without mediators, be they clerics or representatives of Islamist movements.”
The history of Islam is replete with moderate clerics who tried their best to spread a message of tolerance, enlightenment, reason and reformation, says Al-Khisht, “including Sheikh Mohamed Abdou [1849-1905] who stated religious clerics have no authority over Muslims.
“The only authority they have is to preach sermons on the moderate teachings and message of Islam. Unfortunately, the teachings of Sheikh Mohamed Abdou suffered a setback when the Muslim Brotherhood came into existence in 1928 and began spreading its message of fanaticism and religious bigotry.”
Al-Khisht insists Cairo University is doing its best to contribute to the reform of religious discourse and the promotion of enlightenment.
“Cairo University believes that it is necessary to overhaul the religious mentality of Egyptians and Muslims around the world in order to achieve progress and economic development.
“To this end Cairo University launched its Religious Reform and Economic Development Project in 2017.
“The project has 600 participants each year and introduces them to the moderate teachings of Islam, innovative and critical thinking, individual responsibility, free enterprise and self-reliance.
“Students also attend lectures on the beliefs and doctrines of major world religions and how they have been exploited by extremists to spread intolerance.
“We stress the importance of dialogue with the West, and of opening up to its great philosophers who changed the world, particularly Emmanuel Kant, the preeminent philosopher of enlightenment and reason.
“Students also learn how some Western Orientalists tried their best to tarnish Islam while others made great contributions to Islamic studies.”
Al-Khisht argues that in terms of religious reform Cairo University is focused on updating, rather than reviving, religious sciences.
“One document published by Cairo University this year clearly explains our position that the Quran and the correct traditions of Prophet Mohamed are the only sacred texts and that commentaries produced by clerics over the ages should be subject to re-evaluation.
“This is in sharp contrast to Islamist extremists who insist ancient interpretations of Islam, such as those delivered by mediaeval clerics like Ibn Taimia on Jihad, constitute sacred texts.
“Islamist clerics espousing outmoded interpretations of the Quran and the prophet’s traditions spawn extremism and absolutist thinking which resists change and reform. What Muslims need is to adopt forms of critical thinking, and this is not new Islam.
“In the second Hijri century there was the current promoted by Moatazala, philosophers and clerics who gave reason paramount importance. The Moatazala insisted on free and critical thinking and we have to refer back to this great heritage.”
“Unfortunately, the current lost momentum when it faced the other ideologies favouring imitation and advocated Salafist thinking.”
Al-Khisht is particularly proud that Cairo University now ranks 341st on the Dutch Leiden list ranking 30,000 universities in the world.
“The Leiden listing, published two weeks ago, shows that Cairo University published 7,406 research papers in the previous year, 5,749 of which were in collaboration with other universities, 217 with industrial companies and 194 researches of which appeared in internationally renowned scientific periodicals.
“This listing is a recognition of the role of the university in spreading the values of scientific thinking, free thought, social development, and tolerance.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: ‘A matter of life and death’