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MANAMA, Bahrain (ChurchMilitant.com) - The grand imam of Al-Azhar offered a robust defense of "true" Islam before Pope Francis at the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue on the first day of the pontiff's apostolic journey to Bahrain.
"What is said and promoted from time to time about the institution of war in Islam against the infidels is not true," Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb told Francis at the Sakhir Royal Palace during a dialogue session on Friday.
"Indeed, it is a real lie about Islam and the life of its prophet, even if this is affirmed by some followers of the same religion, a religion that is based on evidence and testimony, not on ambiguity and lies," al-Tayyeb claimed.
"I hope you are not bored with the constant claims that Islam is a religion of peace and equality," the grand imam quipped.
Muslim scholars should "be diligent in letting Westerners know about true Islam," and "continue to highlight what Islam encompasses in terms of lofty ideals, human brotherhood and cooperation, and other commonalities that the West and East agree on and welcome," al-Tayyeb stressed.
"Western culture should not be represented as the only civilized society and as the standard for judging other cultures. Any interference with other cultures is an abuse of power," he maintained, quoting words from Tzvetan Todorov's The Fear of the Barbarians.
"The West needs the wisdom of the East, its religious and moral values upon which its people were raised, as well as its balanced view of man, the universe and our Creator," in order "not to be blinded by putting the ephemeral before the eternal," the sheikh noted.
While Pope Francis did not make any explicit reference to the Triune God or the Holy Bible, the highest-ranking cleric in the Sunni-Muslim world introduced and ended his address with an Islamic blessing and unapologetically quoted the Quran several times in his text.
"If Allah had willed, he could have made humanity one people" (Quran 2:256), al-Tayyeb preached, noting that God created man "free and capable of choosing belief, religion, ideology and doctrine."
"If it is natural for people to differ in beliefs, it follows that they must be free to choose any faith," for "Allah says that 'there is no compulsion in religion' (Quran 2:256), the grand imam argued. Allah also tells his prophet, "So, [O Mohammed], would you like to force people to become believers?" (Quran 10:99)
"What is the relationship between people according to the philosophy of the Quran?" al-Tayyeb asked. "The only way to make this relationship work is knowledge, which is how Allah has established the interactions and relationships between people."
"The Koran says it clearly: 'O humanity! Indeed, we created you from a male and a female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may get to know one another. Surely, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous among you. Allah is truly All-Knowing, All-Aware," (Quran 49:13) the grand imam stated.
In comments to Church Militant, renowned Islamic historian and author of 22 books on Islam and the Middle East Robert Spencer explained how "al-Tayyeb's exposition of Islam is highly inaccurate and misleading."
Spencer, author of the recent bestseller The Critical Quran: Explained from Key Islamic Commentaries and Contemporary Historical Research, elaborated:
Among the many salient Quran passages al-Tayyeb does not quote is "Fight them until there is no more persecution and religion is all for Allah" (8:39), which is an open-ended declaration of war against unbelievers, and "Muhammad is the apostle of Allah. Those who follow him are ruthless to unbelievers, merciful to one another" (48:29), which belies his claims about peace and knowledge guiding relationships between people.
Spencer lamented the futility of Catholic–Islamic dialogue, observing how "al-Tayyeb's statement demonstrates yet again that for all too many Islamic leaders, if not all, interreligious dialogue is a vehicle for dawah, Islamic proselytizing, not genuine give-and-take."
The scholar of Islam also compared the grand imam's open apologia for Islam to Pope Francis' reluctance to mention Jesus or the Bible:
He quotes copiously from the Quran, while Francis fastidiously refrains from quoting the Bible, showing once again how one-sided this "dialogue" really is: The self-abnegation and deference is all on the Christian side, while the Muslim side retains a resolute self-awareness and doesn't move toward the other side even an inch.
"Even if he knows how deceptive al-Tayyeb is being, which he almost certainly does not, Francis wouldn't dream of contradicting him publicly or asking him any pointed questions. He willingly and happily plays the useful idiot and dhimmi," Spencer lamented.
Meanwhile, in his response to the grand imam, Francis went beyond his usual reticence to make demands on Muslims, stressing that "it is not enough to proclaim that a religion is peaceful; we need to condemn and isolate the perpetrators of violence who abuse its name."
"Any form of religious coercion is unworthy of the Almighty, since he has not handed the world over to slaves, but to free creatures, whom he fully respects," Francis said, hinting at the lack of religious freedom pervading the Islamic world.
"It is not enough to grant permits and recognize freedom of worship; it is necessary to achieve true freedom of religion," the pontiff urged. "Not only every society, but also every creed is called to self-examination in this regard."
While Francis called for the recognition of women in the public sphere, namely, their right "to education, to employment [and] their freedom to exercise their social and political rights," observers noted that the audience was almost entirely comprised of Arab males.
The sprinkling of women in the audience were spouses of foreign diplomats or members of the journalistic corps.
Earlier, in an address to the king of Bahrain and members of the government and diplomatic corps, Francis called for an end to the death penalty in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
"I think in the first place of the right to life, of the need to guarantee that right always, including for those being punished, whose lives should not be taken," the pope said.
Al-Tayyeb upholds the death penalty for Muslim converts to other religions, arguing, "The four schools of law all concur that apostasy is a crime, an apostate should be asked to repent, and that if he does not, he should be killed."
"[Contemporary] jurisprudents concur — and so does ancient jurisprudence — that apostasy is a crime," al-Tayyeb asserts in a 2016 Arabic interview, translated into English by the Middle East Media Research Institute.
The world's best-known Muslim leader has also called homosexuality a disease, dismissed the idea of human rights as "ticking time bombs" and has endorsed suicide attacks against Jewish men, women and children, Church Militant earlier reported.
In 2020, al-Tayyeb demanded an international law banning criticism or insults towards Islam — a day before three Catholics were slaughtered in Nice's Notre-Dame Basilica.