21 March 2016
A visit of the sheikh of Al-Azhar, Muhamad al-Tayeb, has elicited polarised responses in the German media and among German Muslims. Al-Tayeb visited the German parliament (Bundestag), speaking in front of parliamentarians about the necessity for religious dialogue and stressing the nature of the Islamic message as a message of peace and tolerance: Al-Tayeb asserted that “whoever does not understand the teachings of the Prophet in the context of compassion and world peace internalises not only a wrong knowledge of Islam but beyond that also knowingly tarnishes its teachings.” Al-Tayeb subsequently visited the Faculty for Islamic Theology at the University of Münster.
However, while some media outlets lauded Al-Tayeb as a proponent of a ‘liberal’ Islam, the sheikh’s visit was not free from controversy. Asked in the Bundestag about his understanding of the relationship between men and women, Al-Tayeb asserted that women were to serve men not out of a sense of duty but out of love. In return, men had to provide the necessities of life for women: Al-Tayeb argued that “the husband is also under an obligation […] to give the wife enough money for her to be able to buy make-up. This is a duty from the sharia. If he does not do this, he will be punished in the Hereafter.” These comments were widely perceived as misogynistic and sparked extensive criticism. Hamed Abdel-Samad, self-styled reformed Islamist and author of a range of popular or populist books on what he terms ‘Islamic fascism’, went so far as accusing Al-Tayeb and Al-Azhar of propagating the same ideological version of Islam as the so-called ‘Islamic State’.
While Abdel-Samad presented Egyptian President al-Sisi as a proponent of religious reform and moderation against Al-Tayeb’s brand of conservatism, others criticised the sheikh’s proximity to the Egyptian regime: in an op-ed for the online magazine IslamiQ, Fagr Eladly pointed out that Al-Tayeb had been a member of the Central Committee of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), and that it had been Mubarak who named him as sheikh of Al-Azhar in 2010. Al-Tayeb had subsequently taken a pro-regime stance during the 2011 Revolution and has continued to enjoy good relations with the current Egyptian regime under Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Against this backdrop, Eladly asserted that it was “simply wrong and ignorant to characterise him as an ambassador for peace and compassion and to see him as a mature and adequate partner for dialogue.”