I am honored to be in the timeless city of Cairo, and to be hosted by two remarkable institutions. For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning, and for over a century, Cairo University has been a source of Egypt’s advancement. Together, you represent the harmony between tradition and progress.

Woe is me! After all Tawfiq Pasha’s attempts at modernizing al-Azhar, there goes Obama in his speech branding it as “tradition” and harmonizing it with progress. The Pasha must be rolling in his British-ridden grave. Which reminds me of a fascinating fatwa issued in 1888 by Shaykh Muhammad al-Inbabi, Shafi`i mufti and head of al-Azhar mosque. Responding to the problematic of how al-Azhar graduates were to function in a European-molded world, the fatwa adapts its understanding of religion and reshapes the curriculum by grounding its arguments in practicality and tradition. Enjoy:

It is permissible to study the mathematical subjects such as arithmetic, geometry, and geography, because nothing in them contradicts religious matters. Indeed, it is our duty to learn what [these subjects] contribute to the benefit of religion or worldly affairs on behalf of the community, just as we are obliged to learn the science of medicine, as al-Ghazali advised us in the passages of The Revival [Ihya´`ilm al-din]. Furthermore, it is beneficial to teach those subjects that increase one’s ability to undertake this duty. But, one must not undertake the study of astronomy, seeking out the shapes of stars, planets, and their orbits for the purpose of astrology, seeking to infer from celestial movements the events of the netherworlds. This is forbidden, as al-Ghazali mentioned […]

[..] The study of natural sciences [is permitted], that is, the description of bodies and their characteristics and how they transform and change, as in The Revival, in the second chaper of the “Book of Knowledge.” If the research is done according to the method of the legal specialists, there is no prohibition of it. Likewise, the learned Shihab al-Din Ahmad bin Hajar al-Haythami advised us in a part of his book, Fatawa al-jami`, of several important issues at the time, such as familiarity with the characteristics of metals and plants for use in medicine, and knowing the workings of tools that may benefit the welfare of the worshipers. But, if it is done according to the methods of the philosophers, it is forbidden, because it leads to falling into doctrines that contradict the shari`a […]

[…] There is no harm in teaching the mathematical subjects as the instrumental subjects are taught, and the same is so for natural sciences and the science of composition of parts [chemistry], as long as they are taught in a manner that cannot be immediately understood to oppose the legal tradition, as with the remaining rational studies, such as logic, discursive theology, and argumentation. Indeed, it is incumbent upon us to know these three subjects to the extent required to defend religious doctrines.

1 Dhu al-Hijja 1305 H

Muhammad al-Inbabi, Servant of Knowledge and the Poor, at al-Azhar. May he be forgiven.

(Source: The Modern Middle East: A Sourcebook for History, eds. C. M. Amin, B. C. Fortna, & E. Frierson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 480-481)

Seventeen days later, the Hanafi mufti Shaykh Muhmmad al-Banna’ issued a fatwa of his own agreeing with al-Inbabi’s. The subjects of study discussed were incorporated into al-Azhar’s curriculum in 1896.


Hassan Nasrallah has always been careful with his criticisms of the “moderate” Arab regimes despite the obvious animosity. He recently broke with this diplomatic hypocrisy, indirectly accusing Egypt of complicity with the Israeli attack on Gaza. This elicited criticism from Samir Geagea and other Lebanese politicians who find this an inappropriate time to drive a wedge between Arabs.

But the wedge has been driven a long time ago and Nasrallah did nothing more than place his finger on a popular pulse. The attacks on Egyptian embassies across the Arab world did not need the instigation of Nasrallah. Neither did the demonstration led by an Egyptian parliamentarian. The Egyptian state, not knowing how to deal with the situation, is conducting a campaign against the Secretary General of Hizballah through various media outlets. The spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry even held Nasrallah repsonsible for the attacks on the Egyptian embassy in Yemen. As Abu al-Ghait’s vicious attack on Nasrallah makes clear, however, the effusive praise of the patriotism of the Egyptian army and people are meant more for domestic consumption than for Nasrallah himself.

Saudi Arabia too is scrambling. Faced with demands for demonstration permits from all quarters, it is responding the way it responds best: repression. The Saudi authorities also announced that they will forbid any demonstrations against Israel’s war on Gaza.

The Israeli atrocities in Gaza are plain for all to see, but the complicity of the moderates, primarily Egypt, is a sinister thread that runs through it all. The coup de grâce of this complicity came today when Egypt declared it would open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza on the condition that it be placed under the forces of Mahmoud Abbas. As Ibrahim al-Amin points out, this, along with extending Abbas’s term and dissolving the Hamas government, were the conditions Egypt was trying to impose on Hamas before Israel launched its attack. At best, Egypt’s condition for opening Rafah is an attempt at procrastination. At worst, it is in line with Israel’s declared aim of changing the rules of the game in Gaza.

Indignation, in the mean time, is coming from totally different quarters. Erdoğan is very upset with Olmert and the Turkish press is not mincing its words on Israel.


This war is not waged by Israel alone. Egypt is as much part of this aggression on Gaza as Israel is. First as a partner in the siege and now as the almost good-cop in a strategy aimed at changing the rules of the game with Hamas. Neither is this war being waged on Hamas. Gaza is a plot of land between 6 and 12 km wide and around 40 km long, inhabited by 1.5 million people, i.e. the density of 4000 people per square kilometer. When it gets bombed, its entire population is targeted.

But collective punishment, targeting family members,  destroying homes, uprooting people and their livelihoods, etc… is standard policy to this conventional army, frustrated by its ineffectiveness and unwilling to subject its soldiers to combat (!?). Goliath used the same methods of collective punishment in Lebanon in 2006. Goliath uses a more domesticated form of the same methods on a regular basis in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

What is most mind boggling in this war is neither Israel nor Egypt (or other Arab regimes), but the reaction of Israeli citizens. More voices have come out in condemnation of the war on Gaza than in the early days of the Lebanon war, but most just repeat the official line “we have no other choice”. Most reactions I have seen are a curious blend of the “civilized” feeling of sympathy for the people of Gaza and a joy at the killing. Illogical? Why, it makes perfect sense. See, the civilians being killed… that is the fault of Hamas. As for “the Khamas” being killed… that is the accomplishment of the IDF. Brilliant.

Violence has obviously NOT taken Israel a long way in resolving its problems and securing its borders. On the contrary, its policies have helped shaped its most serious adversary yet: Hizballah. But why learn from history, be it recent or ancient, when perpetual conflict has become your defining characteristic as a nation? As for the Egyptian government, that proverbial lid on a boiling pot, they have an interest in ending the war on Gaza as soon as Israel deems possible.

In the mean time, I add my voice to the voices of other bloggers calling attention to these atrocities.