Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and Chairman of the Muslim Council of Elders Image Credit: AP

All praise is due to Allah. May Allah’s peace and blessings be upon our Master, Prophet Muhammad, his Companions and his family.

Your Majesty King Hamad bin Isa, King of the Kingdom of Bahrain, may God safeguard you, Dear brother Pope Francis, Head of the Catholic Church,

Ladies and gentlemen,

May Allah’s peace and blessings be upon you all!

I would like to start my remarks by expressing my heartfelt thanks and appreciation to Your Majesty King Hamad and your honourable people, the people of the Kingdom of Bahrain, for inviting me to participate in this big, distinguished forum entitled ‘East and West for Human Coexistence’.

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It is such a historic forum for it brings together highly respected scholars, wise leaders, intellectuals, politicians, and media figures from the East and the West. Therefore, it deserves to go down in history and have its remarks and recommendations proudly recorded in gold letters, because it comes as a timely response to the modern-day challenges that have manifested themselves across the boundaries of time and place.

For place-related considerations, the forum is being hosted in the Kingdom of Bahrain, whose history is proudly defined by its noble people who have always cherished diversity and acceptance of the other, no matter the differences in race, belief, thought or culture. This time-honoured legacy has provided the people of Bahrain with a distinctive ability to accommodate civilisations and cultures in a spirit of dialogue and encounter. They have transformed the best aspects of these civilisations into a source of creative energy that fosters societal stability and constructive social development.

As for the timing that makes this gathering and its likes a necessity and a lifeline, the cruelty of our world against humanity has grown even worse with the violation of man’s most basic rights to the minimum security for his life and the preservation of his innate human nature which God has bestowed upon him.

Indeed, man’s feelings have become utterly confused as result of tampering with his awareness and conscience and distracting him by satisfying his instincts, rather than fulfilling the demands of his soul, feelings and conscience. Indeed, the latter demands are no less important than the demands of the body. Fulfilling such spiritual needs is more crucial and even indispensable for they are the key to achieving inner balance, stability and peace of mind for everyone, no matter how they have been brought up or where and when they live.

Distinguished audience,

I do not think we need to repeat the talk about the conflict that humanity is experiencing today, either in the East or the West, nor to search for the causes of such conflict, its tragedies or its bitter repercussions that plague twenty-first century man. As you all know too well, it is all about wars, bloodshed, destruction, turmoil, orphaned infants, widowhood, poverty, bereavement, immigration, displacement, and the fear of an unknown future where uncertainty and constant worrying prevail.

As such the picture has become too gloomy to think that there is any hope but, once we start to contemplate the reason behind all such tragedies, we soon realise that it is ‘the absence of justice’. It is the law that God has created for ensuring the stability of society and maintaining the balance that is lacking in man’s life, i.e. between his body and soul. When such a Divine law is not observed, the order of the entire world and nature is disturbed.

This is apart from those who have fallen victim to market-based economic policies, such as the greed that generates an excessive desire to own and consume, the trade in heavy and lethal arms, and arms exports to the Third World countries. Let us not forget what it requires to make the arms business flourish, fuelling sectarian and racial strife and provoking sedition and conflict, which results in the instability of once safe and secure nations.

In fact, the accounts of our pains and sufferings are so many that one can easily give in to pessimism, disappointment, and a lack of hope for a world where peace and coexistence should prevail; a world where cooperation and goodwill should be the most prominent features; a world where war should be an exception. How can such a hope be fulfilled on our planet where only one per cent of the population possess half the world’s wealth, with only 100 people possessing more wealth than 4 billion of their fellow human beings?

What makes it even worse is the fact that these tragedies and calamities are supported by philosophical theories that have become a reality in Western society, absorbed by Western consciousness. These theories have controlled the perceptions of politicians and affected their decisions about their relations with developing and poor peoples. Obvious examples of such theories include ‘The Clash of Civilisations’, ‘The End of History’ and ‘Globalisation’.

All these colonialist and imperialist theories are paving the way for a new world system that controls peoples and nations. Just a few days ago, we heard a statement from a top European official, who described Europe as an idyllic ‘garden’ of prosperity and the rest of the world as basically a ‘jungle’. Such irresponsible statements only show a gross ignorance of the civilisations of the East and their history, which goes back more than five thousand years, not just three or four hundred years.

The majority of the fears of Easterners today about the West are equally shared by distinguished, elite Western thinkers, rulers and prominent leaders. Some realise that Western policy has become ineffective in dealing with international crises. This is because displays of military might are a threat to genuine politics. I advocate for replacing politics with culture in the sphere of international relations. The latter has the capacity for human understanding and encompassing its different aspects, whether physical, spiritual, intellectual or emotional. (1)

Ladies and gentlemen,

I must stress that I am not being unduly pessimistic; nor have I given up hope that relations between the West and East may soon be restored, with the establishment of integration and mutual cooperation, as boundaries are dissolved and unity is achieved, where isolation between the West and East over the past century ends, as both rely on the other for a new relationship, based on cooperation, stability and security, with a just peace for all.

Perhaps it might be accurate to say that the West needs the wisdom of the East, its religions and the moral values its people have been reared on, as well as their balanced view on man, the universe and our Creator. It needs the spirituality of the East and its deep meditation on reality, so that it is no longer blinded by putting the ephemeral before the eternal. It is true that ‘all that glitters is not gold’, as the old adage goes. The West needs Eastern markets and its workforce for its factories in Africa, Asia and other places. It also needs the raw materials found deep within these two continents, without which the West cannot produce anything. It is neither fair nor just to reward benevolence with poverty, ignorance and disease.

And the same may be said about the East, as it needs to adopt Western technology and use it for its technological and economic development, as well as importing industrial, medical, defence and other products from Western markets. Easterners need a new outlook on the West, full of fairness and charity. They also need a tolerant understanding of the civil ways of the West and Western customs, interpreting them through the lens of special circumstances, developments and responses for which the West has paid dearly over many centuries.

Muslim scholars should continue highlighting what Islam encapsulates in terms of lofty ideals, human fraternity and cooperation, and other common points both West and East agree on and welcome. Furthermore, they should be diligent in introducing Westerners to the true Islam (5).

It is noteworthy that many Muslims have emigrated and settled in the West, becoming an inseparable component of its social fabric. Many aspects of Western life have been transferred to Easterners, dominating their traditions, customs and modern conduct. It has influenced a significant portion of their thoughts and perspectives — even educational curricula and their way of thinking. And there is much more, paving the way or rather leading to a new relationship with balanced civilisations maintaining their respective cultures, features and differences, without any cultural dominance or conformity through war and the systematic destruction inherent in the clash of civilisations.

This has been echoed by modern thinker Tzvetan Todorov in The Fear of Barbarians. He states in his book: “Western culture should not be depicted as the only civilised society and as the standard for judging other cultures. All interference with other cultures is a misuse of power. Freedom and equality cannot be instituted through force, else we may become indistinguishable from those we call ‘barbarians’.” (2)

Dear attendees,

There exists today an Eastern Islamic theory which replaces the theory of the ‘Clash of Civilisations’, known as ‘Civilisational Acquaintance’, which has attracted the interest of distinguished thinkers and scholars in recent times. It was introduced as a response to the theory of the ‘Clash of Civilisations’, promoting openness towards the other side and Acquaintance of each side with the other under the framework of cooperation and mutual benefit, so that God’s purpose may be achieved, which is populating the Earth, achieving prosperity and the avoidance of corruption in all its forms.

This theory is based on the word “Ta‘aaruf” (Acquaintance) as found in the Qur’an as a clarification for valid global relations between nations and peoples. It is based on three fundamental Qur’anic principles:

First: The Qur’an establishes a concrete fact, known to all, that Allah has made people different in race, colour, language, religion and other characteristics. They shall remain dissimilar in these aspects until the end of time. God Almighty says: “And if your Lord had willed, He could have made humankind one community; but they will not cease to differ.” (The Qur'an, 11:118)

Second: The Qur’an further establishes, based on the first principle, that man was created free and able to choose belief, religion, ideology and doctrine. This fact draws on the foregoing principle because if it is natural for people to differ in belief, it follows that they must be free to choose any faith. God says: “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong.” (The Qur'an, 2:256) God also tells His Prophet: “Then, [O Muhammad], would you compel the people in order that they become believers?” (The Qur'an, 10:99)

Third: Knowing that the Qur’an establishes the previous two principles, that people are different and that they possess freedom of belief, what is the relation between people according to the philosophy of the Qur’an? The only way for this relationship to work is through acquaintance, which is the way Allah has set for interactions and relations between people. This is clearly stated in the Qur’an — “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” (The Qur'an, 49:13)

The third principle, derived logically from the previous two, can be formulated as the rule: The relationship between people stated in the Qur’an is one of peace and acquaintance. Thus, the Qur’anic rules governing human relations are enumerated logically with no room for reinterpretation or distortion. Natural differences necessitate freedom of belief, which in turn entails a peaceful relationship among peoples.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I hope you are not getting bored of the persistent affirmations that Islam is a religion of peace and equality. What is said and promoted every now and then about the institution of war in Islam against infidels is untrue and indeed outright lies about Islam and the life of its Prophet, even if such are purported by some followers of the same religion, a religion which is based on proof and evidence, not ambiguity and lies.

A final note:

I commend and praise the title of this important forum for dialogue between East and West and its significance for human coexistence. However, I recognise the difficult conditions facing our modern world and the threats to human existence and nations stability. Because of my recognition and appreciation, as a human being, due to the severity of these complex crises, I call first on religious scholars and thinkers to put more effort into the education of youth about such indisputable facts about religious commonalities. They should be adapted into modern academic programmes for teaching and convincing young people that there is room in life in the eyes of religious philosophy for those of different faiths, races, colour and languages, and that cultural diversity enriches civilisation and establishes the peace that is lacking.

I furthermore call on my brothers, Muslim scholars, across the world of every doctrine, sect and school of thought to hold an Islamic dialogue, a dialogue around unity, cohesion and reproachment, a dialogue for Islamic fraternity, void of division, discord and, more especially, sectarian strife. There should be a focus on commonalities and meeting points, with an understanding of differences. Let us together chase away any talk of hate, provocation and excommunication and set aside ancient and modern conflict in all its forms and with all its negative offshoots. I address, with a loving heart for all, this special call to our Shia Muslim brothers. I reiterate that the senior scholars at Al Azhar and the Muslim Council of Elders and I are ready to host a similar meeting with open hearts and extended hands, so we can sit down together on one roundtable to put aside our differences and strengthen our Islamic unity on positions which are known to be pragmatic and serve the goals of Islam and its law, which prohibits Muslims from giving in to calls for division and fragmentation.

We must beware of falling into the trap of compromising homelands’ stability and exploiting religion to stoke the fires of nationalistic and ideological sentiments, not to mention interference with countries and their sovereignty or stealing their lands. I have every faith that, if we have goodwill and determination, we can create a civil model showcasing Islam and Muslims in the rightful way this religion deserves, a religion that requires its followers, before others, to treat it fairly.

On this important occasion for hosting dialogue between East and West for the sake of human coexistence, I lend my voice to all those seeking peace and good. I also call for the end of the RussianUkrainian war to spare the lives of innocents who have no hand in this violent tragedy. I call for hoisting

the flag of peace, not of victory, and to sit down for dialogue and negotiation. In fact, I call for an end to all ongoing fighting on Earth or at the least for an extended truce, to rebuild bridges of dialogue, understanding and trust, and to establish peace in a world full of wounds. The alternative is more graver consequences for the people of the East and the West alike.

Thank you for your attention and may God’s peace and blessings be upon you all!