Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Grand Mufti of Egypt on "Freedom of Religion"

The Washington Post has published a collection of articles, on 21 July 2007, under a section entitled "Muslims Speak Out" that featured, among others, Ali Gomma'a, the Grand Mufti of Egypt. One third of his statements were specific to the question of "Freedom of Religion in Islam."

Coverage of this article was also published in Arabic in Egypt's Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper and Al-Arabiya website.

The Washington Post describes the Grand Mufti as follows: "Since 2003, Dr. Ali Gomaa has served as the Grand Mufti of the Arab Republic of Egypt, a position of religious authority second only to the Sheikh al-Azhar. As one of Islam’s most respected scholars of Islamic law, Dr. Ali Gomaa oversees Dar al-Ifta, Egypt’s highest body for delivering opinions on religious law. Details"

In that section of the Washington Post the Grand Mufti stated the following when he addressed religious freedom question:

Freedom of Religion in Islam

The essential question before us is can a person who is Muslim choose a religion other than Islam? The answer is yes, they can, because the Quran says, “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion,” [Quran, 109:6], and, “Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve,” [Quran, 18:29], and, “There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is distinct from error,” [Quran, 2:256].

These verses from the Quran discuss a freedom that God affords all people. But from a religious perspective, the act of abandoning one’s religion is a sin punishable by God on the Day of Judgment. If the case in question is one of merely rejecting faith, then there is no worldly punishment. If, however, the crime of undermining the foundations of the society is added to the sin of apostasy, then the case must be referred to a judicial system whose role is to protect the integrity of the society. Otherwise, the matter is left until the Day of Judgment, and it is not to be dealt with in the life of this world. It is an issue of conscience, and it is between the individual and God. In the life of this world, “There is no compulsion in religion,” in the life of this world, “Unto you your religion and unto me my religion,” and in the life of this world, “He who wills believes and he who wills disbelieves,” while bearing in mind that God will punish this sin on the Day of Judgment, unless it is combined with an attempt to undermine the stability of the society, in which case it is the society that holds them to account, not Islam.

All religions have doctrinal points that define what it is to be an adherent of that religion. These are divine injunctions that form the basis of every religion, but they are not a means for imposing a certain system of belief on others by force. According to Islam, it is not permitted for Muslims to reject their faith, so if a Muslim were to leave Islam and adopt another religion, they would thereby be committing a sin in the eyes of Islam. Religious belief and practice is a personal matter, and society only intervenes when that personal matter becomes public and threatens the well-being of its members.

In some cases, this sin of the individual may also represent a greater break with the commonly held values of a society in an attempt to undermine its foundations or even attack its citizenry. Depending on the circumstances, this may reach the level of a crime of sedition against one’s society. Penalizing this sedition may be at odds with some conceptions of freedom that would go so far as to ensure people the freedom to destroy the society in which they live. This is a freedom that we do not allow since preservation of the society takes precedence over personal freedoms. This was the basis of the Islamic perspective on apostasy when committed at certain times and under certain circumstances.

After reading this, one must ask the following questions:

1) What is the definition of a "religion other than Islam?"
2) It is a known fact that Egypt recognizes three religions only (Islam, Christianity & Judaism). What is the status of other religions then? Are these teachings and interpretations applicable to them? How about Hindus, Buddhists and Baha'is?
3) As the quotations from the Qur'an, included by the Grand Mufti, give no reference whatsoever to which religions a person is free to choose, Who is to decide then that only certain religions are to be acceptable for the individual choice of belief--without falling into the trap of being accused of "a crime of sedition against one’s society?" Why should there be any restrictions on personal freedom of belief in this age? Don't these restrictions violate the individual freedoms guaranteed by all international declarations of human rights, including those of Egypt's own constitution?
4) As 51% of the world's population does not belong to any of the three recognized religions in Egypt, what is the proportion of these world adherents that would be considered "to undermine the stability of the society" as stated by the Grand Mufti?
5) Who would make that judgement, i.e. a determination that a group of adherents is attempting "to undermine the stability of the society" and what criteria are to be used to make that determination?
6) Do his statements imply that Egyptian Muslims are free to convert to Christianity, Judaism or any other religions that are deemed not "to undermine the stability of the society" without any fear for their civil and human rights, or without a threat to their life?

I am sure that there are many other questions to ask, and I suspect that the readers would be eager to express their opinions and questions regarding this in the comment section of this post.


  1. The Grand Mufti states" the act of abandonning one's religion is a sin punishable by God on the Day of Judgement." What would have become of the Moslem religion if the first followers (who started of with other beliefs) did not sin?

  2. Apostasy is the renunciation or abandonment of a particular religious belief. If this is a crime that is to be dealt with in civil courts, then one might ask how that would protect the integrity of society. If religious belief is simply a matter of heredity, how would that result in integrity? Is it not more genuine and resolute to form a belief based on diligent and sincere investigation? Society is not above God's will, and there was certainly no relevance or significance to maintaining the quiet of society when a Manifestation of God appeared – otherwise They would be the first to be proclaimed as the very destroyers of established societies. If one believes that there is a Divine Plan - the progress towards a unified humanity - then maintaining pockets of isolated "integral societies" would be a very narrow view indeed. This is an overstep however as one would hope to witness any form of integrity in the society that the Mufti is attempting so hard to preserve. What is being stated is a convenient interpretation whereby any and all belief in conflict or even slightly distasteful with the interests and views of the religious authority may be prosecuted as crime. The argument lacks coherence and detailed points of justification. Unfortunately, this has been repeated only too many times throughout history and the results have been clearly witnessed. This is not integrity, but diversion and repression. This is the very meaning of "compulsion", no matter how it is dressed.

  3. Today, the Grand Mufti retracted the statements made by him on the Washington Post. Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper published an article today challenging his retraction and confirming that the translation from Arabic to English of the Grand Mufti's article was carried out by his own office in Cairo.
    Clearly the Grand Mufti is contradicting his own statements in order to satisfy whatever audience he is addressing at any given time. One theme is for the western media while the other theme is for local consumption.

  4. anonymous,
    A brilliant observation...thank you!

    Very insightful comment!

  5. Here is another example of the Grand Mufti's denial/retraction published in English on Gulf News website:

    Top cleric denies 'freedom to choose religion' comment
    By Ramadan Al Sherbini, Correspondent
    Published: July 24, 2007, 23:05

    Cairo: Egypt's top cleric yesterday denied in a statement that he had said a Muslim can give up his faith without punishment.

    Ali Goma'a, the mufti of Egypt, was quoted as saying in a posting on a Washington Post-Newsweek forum that Muslims are free to change their faith and this is a matter between an individual and God.

    "What I actually said is that Islam prohibits a Muslim from changing his religion and that apostasy is a crime, which must be punished," Goma'a said.

    The alleged fatwa coincides with an uproar over the case of 12 Egyptians who converted to Islam from Christianity and now want to re-embrace Christianity.

    "There is a campaign by secularists to distort the image of Dr Ali Goma'a," a senior official in Al Azhar told Gulf News.

    "He cannot deny punishment in this life for the apostate," said Mustafa Al Chaka of the Islamic Research Centre.

  6. The Grand Mufti's statements are full of contradictions. After quoting from the Holy Koran what supports the definition of religion to even include idol worshiping (not necessarily divine) then practiced in Arabia and referring to strong statements about "no compulsion in religion" then the Grand Mufti restricts the rights of choice of religion confirming that compulsion of religion is his interpretation of the Holy Koran!

  7. Point of clarification: Al-Masry Al-Youm article about the Grand Mufti's retraction referred to in my previous comment, included the original text of the Mufti's article in Arabic which is identical to the one published in English in the Washington Post.

  8. The most perfidious way of harming a cause consists of defending it deliberately with faulty arguments.
    - Friedrich Nietzsche

  9. Anonymous,
    This is so real!
    Thank you for the comment....

  10. When a child of few months old my mother babtised me as a muslem. She acted with the best of her intention. When I grew up I recognised the Station of Baha'u'llah as the Manifestation of God for this age. I then embraced Islam ( submission to God) based on my knowledge and free will. My mother, God bless her soul acknowledged my right and honoured my freedum for this I honour her too. Dear Mulas and Mufties your efforts to curtail the freedum of the children of God the Mercyfull in the name of protection of religion or society is clearly an attempt to maintain your hold and power over the masses whom you have kept in ignorance for centuries. We are no longer naive, if you have succeded to to tie our hands and feet and stich our lips, yet our souls are free and our hearts are open. We are the children of light, we see, we hear, we know, we excercise our freedum and we make informed decisions. Let us remember you with honour too.

  11. Anonymous,
    Thank you for this very touching account of your life and feelings.

  12. well the grand Mufti has one thing in common with the Aytollahs of Iran and Patrick Robinson of the United States..

    all of them are GUILTY for the sin of HYPOCRACY!!!!

  13. Anonymous,
    Instead of degrading and accusing the Grand Mufti, it would be preferable if you suggest something positive for him to pursue.

  14. I am not Bahai, but I am in total opposition towards the Egyptian government's persecution of non-Muslim minorities, even Copts, etc. These muftis and sheikhs who give legitimacy to those idiots in power who go about not caring about those religious minorities, etc. seriously need to shut up because they're shaming Islam.

    Kudos to making your voice heard. Salaam.

  15. Dear Saracen,
    Your support for the good causes is greatly appreciated. Let us hope that the attitude of tolerance and acceptance would spread throughout the world, and in particular in the Middle East which is in great need for a change. The alternatives are too grim to recount.


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