Egypt Pulse

Egypt grand imam's call for peace in Myanmar sparks backlash at home

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Article Summary
The speech of Al-Azhar's grand imam, Ahmed al-Tayeb, at a peace conference in Cairo raised the usual controversy with some Salafists, who thought his address was not in line with Islamic teachings.

CAIRO — Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb's kind words about Buddhism during a conference designed to promote peace sparked controversy among Muslims.

Tayeb headed the conference, "Toward a Civilized Humanitarian Dialogue for Myanmar Citizens,” which was held Jan. 3-4 in Cairo by the Muslim Council of Elders. The council seeks to quell violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar (formerly Burma).

During the peace conference, Tayeb directed his address to the estimated 500 million people in the world who espouse Buddhism. With his speech, he called for halting bloodshed and working to soften the hearts of people in the areas with the most religious intolerance.

“Buddhism is a humanitarian and ethical religion in the first place," Tayeb said at the conference. "The wise, silent Buddha is a great figure in human history. His attributes include calm and rationality. The world’s great historians described his message as [one] of everlasting mercy and characterized him as peaceful and humble. His teachings focus on loving and being charitable toward others.”

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Tayeb's statements were not well-received by some Muslims. Some believe that Buddhism is not a monotheistic religion and that Buddha himself was an atheist whose followers glorify him as a godlike figure, which is contrary to Islamic teachings. Others Muslim observers, however, noted that the speech was a call for peaceful coexistence in a sectarian region.

"The grand imam of Al-Azhar's doctrine and philosophy are those of a religions professor," Saif Rajab Qazamil, dean of the Sharia law faculty at Al-Azhar University in Tanta, told Al-Monitor. “He studied many religions before teaching them. When he spoke of Buddhism, he talked about its teachings, saying that they bear a great deal of humanitarianism. He did not say it is a monotheistic religion.”

He added, “Tayeb's address came at a peace conference calling for tolerance and compassion, which all religions that are against stealing, lying, killing and adultery call for. Tayeb stressed that the youth in Burma need to plant seeds of peace, disseminate a culture of citizenship and abolish the concept of minorities.”

He explained, “Many Egyptians have a negative image about Buddhism, due to the killings and torture of Muslims in Burma, although many Buddhists around the world do not embrace violence."

Qazamil stressed, “Islam is a religion of acceptance of others. A Muslim man is allowed to marry a Coptic or Jewish woman, which makes the other parent of his children a non-Muslim. Also, Islam guarantees the freedom of belief, and there is no compulsion in religion. Thus, some Muslims’ intolerance and rejection of others is a wrong that should be righted.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Sheikh Sherif al-Hawari, a member of the Salafist Call’s board of directors, said, “Had Tayeb's address been heeded, it would have become clear that he used terms to sway Buddhists into halting massacres against Muslims there. He was respectful in addressing them and said Buddhism is a humanitarian religion, as historians say about Buddha. He did not say that it is a monotheistic religion. This falls under the grand imam’s eloquence and [insight] that he is praised for.”

He added, “Tayeb's speech as a whole was balanced and has a noble goal that is in line with Islamic Sharia law."

Commenting on Tayeb's discourse, Sheikh Mustafa al-Adawi, a member of the Salafist Scholars Shura Council, said Tayeb abides by the Quran depending on his political conveniences. In this case, it was convenient to speak well of Buddhism.

“People now praise Buddha, the preacher of atheism, who is followed by millions who do not acknowledge the existence of God," he added.

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Found in: religious minorities, muslims, religious tolerance, islamic law, salafists, grand imam, al-azhar

Rami Galal is a contributor for Al-Monitor’s Egypt Pulse and works as an investigative reporter for the Rosa el-Youssef website. On Twitter: @ramiglal

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