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INTERVIEW: An Egyptian voice of enlightenment

Al-Ahram Weekly talks reform of religious discourse, culture, and enlightenment with Cairo University President Mohamed Othman Al-Khosht

Gamal Essam El-Din , Friday 4 Jun 2021
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Mohamed Othman Al-Khosht, 57, is the president of Cairo University. A professor of the philosophy of religion and contemporary philosophy, he is a leading authority on Islamic culture and a member of the Association for Intercultural Philosophy, an organisation that promotes dialogue between philosophers and thinkers from all over the world. In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Al-Khosht answers questions about his views on the reform of religious discourse, and Cairo University’s decision to set up a council for culture and enlightenment.

What is the Document on Culture and Enlightenment which Cairo University recently released to a chorus of praise?

When I was named president of Cairo University on 1 August 2017, I was keen that the university recover its leading role in spreading the values of liberal culture and enlightenment in Egyptian society. To achieve this I decided to create Cairo University’s Council on Culture and Enlightenment. The council’s board includes a selection of prominent cultural leaders and intellectuals, including philosopher Murad Wahba, thinker and literary critic Gaber Asfour, and novelist Youssef Al-Qaeed.

This group decided to release a document aimed at highlighting the cultural identity of Cairo University, and espousing the liberal principles which were adopted by the university’s founders in 1908. The document lays the foundation for a rationalist culture in the face of extremist currents, and spreads the values of enlightenment, independence of scientific and academic research, religious tolerance, religious reform, citizenship, and democracy.

Most of those who signed this document are secularists, or members of secular movements…

Though the founders of the Council on Culture and Enlightenment are a mix of intellectuals hailing from different ideological backgrounds, all of them are rationalists who believe in the sovereignty of reason, and the separation of religion and state. We have secularists such as philosopher Murad Wahba, liberals such as literary critic Gaber Asfour, and religious reformers such as Al-Azhar professor Saadeddin Al-Hilali.

Cairo University does not have any political or ideological inclinations. It does not belong to any political party or ideological sect. It is a university for all Egyptians, an umbrella for everyone who believes in the principles of rationalism and enlightenment.

Religious institutions and Islamist groups hate the words secularism and enlightenment, characterising both as anti-Islam. They equate secularists with infidels…

Enlightenment denotes an intellectual movement that believes in reason, liberty, tolerance, and scientific thinking rather than myths and fables, while secularism advocates the separation of religion and the state, free thinking, religious tolerance, multiculturalism, and a rejection of religious dogmatism and bigotry. To me, these values do not contradict Islam which promotes free thinking, tolerance and stands against any religious authority.

Fundamentalist religious clerics and political Islam movements hate the words enlightenment and secularism because they contradict their beliefs which are based on extremism, absolute religious authority, and mixing religion with politics. They want to monopolise the interpretation of religious texts and impose their own views on society. But again, I would like to stress that Cairo University’s Council on Culture and Enlightenment acts as an umbrella for all kinds of thinkers, including traditionalists and reformists — conservatives and liberals — who believe that rationalism and reason are indispensable tools for states seeking to develop and progress.

What are the main points of the recently released document?

The document argues that since its foundation in 1908 Cairo University has passed through three phases. The first generation focused on education and transfer of information and knowledge while the second generation stressed the importance of liberal education and scientific research. The third generation, the current one, believes that knowledge should be used to serve the state’s comprehensive development plans. We believe that knowledge should not be a value in itself, but a tool for developing society and the economy.

I would argue that the role of Cairo University today is not to produce graduates who become employees in the state’s bureaucracy. We want our graduates to be business leaders who believe in the values of modernity, enlightenment, and progress.

The document also stresses that religious tolerance is central to Egypt’s future and progress. It also calls for a liberal interpretation and rational reading of religious texts. We want to create a new generation of Egyptian and Arab rationalists who support the values of liberalism, rationalism, and independent academic research, and reject terrorism, extremism, bigotry, and fundamentalism. In this respect, the document calls for building bridges with countries that have passed through their own periods of enlightenment and modernism.

The document calls for a change of the education system which at the moment is based on memorising and rote-learning. We want education in Egypt in the future to be based on innovation, analytical thinking, and experimental methods.

The document also advocates the principles of citizenship: i.e. that everyone is equal before the law and democracy is the basis of social peace and progress.

You have been described as the Lotfi Al-Sayed of contemporary Egypt because of your defence of rational and liberal values and for your battles with conservative and traditional movements. What do you think of the comparison?

It is a great honour for me to be dubbed the Lotfi Al-Sayed of the new age. Al-Sayed was the first president of Cairo University, the real founder of this university and the father of academic independence in Egypt. He was the architect of secularism and liberalism in this country. He defended Taha Hussein when he published his book on pre-Islamic poetry and threatened to resign if Hussein was expelled from the university. He also drew the attention of intellectual circles in Egypt and the Arab world to the importance of translating Greek philosophy. Cairo University needs Al-Sayed’s liberal heritage. We want to resurrect this heritage to defeat extremism, fanaticism, and dogmatism.

In January 2020, you were at odds with the grand imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb over how religious discourse should be reformed. How do you see this reform progressing?

Most religious institutions in Egypt and the Islamic world have begun to change fundamentalist views in favour of more liberal thinking, and greater support for women’s freedom. We now hear religious institutions expressing liberal views on women, saying women have a right to assume all kinds of leading positions, that they can travel without male guardians. Religious institutions also say they do not object to the reform of religious discourse and agree that the interpretation of religious texts can change in line with the times.

In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman said if conservative cleric Mohamed Ibn Abdel-Wahab were to come to life again, he would be the first to adopt religious reform. The issue of religious reform has gained a lot of momentum in religious circles, so much that conservative circles can no longer resist reform.

During the Al-Azhar conference on Renewal of Islamic Thought in January 2020 you said there was a need to develop, rather than revive, religious sciences. What did you mean?

What I intended was to draw a distinction between the Quran and Prophet Mohamed’s traditions (Sunna) and Hadith, and the Islamic legacy or heritage — interpretation, jurisprudence and so forth. The latter are the product of particular times and need to change from time to time.

What is Cairo University’s current focus?

Cairo University puts a lot of focus on scientific research. We spent LE281 million on scientific research last year. We have also set up a centre for psychological support, and the university is involved in developing the National Cancer Institute, increasing its capacity by 30 per cent. We have established a faculty of nanotechnology sciences, the first of its kind in the Middle East, preparing graduates to work across the whole range of hi-tech industries.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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