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'At War With ISIS' - Sunni Islam's Spiritual Leader El-Tayeb Speaks Out

La Stampa takes on big questions in Muslim world with Sunni Islam's highest authority, who was at a conference in Italy, his first trip to Europe since taking his post in Cairo.

El-Tayeb earlier this year
El-Tayeb earlier this year
Francesca Paci

FLORENCE — Ahmed el-Tayeb is the Grand Imam of Cairo's Al Azhar University, which is sometimes called the Vatican of the Sunni World. He is considered by many to be the highest authority in Sunni Islam. While he was in Italy for an inter-religious dialogue hosted by the Catholic Community of Sant'Egidio, La Stampa spoke to el-Tayeb about the Sunni-Shia conflict, ISIS, and the decline of political Islam.

"In the West," he said, "You don't know what we're going through in the Middle East. It's a phase of backwardness that could set us back more than a century."

LA STAMPA: What are your views on the Turkish election and the loss of votes for the AKP, a party unpopular in Cairo for its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood?

AHMED EL-TAYEB: I'm not a politician and I will stay silent on Turkey, but I think you should look at the bigger picture. We're living a period of great tension between the West and the Islamic world.

In the Koran, politics and religion overlap. Regarding President el-Sisi"s call for a "religious revolution", do you think a reform of Islam should include a separation of religion and state?

Politics and religion use different methods. Politics generally has vested interests because it manages public life and must make concessions. Religion is involved in the ethical sphere, and on ethics you cannot make concessions. Religion is a bastion, and if politics follows the wrong path then religion has a duty to bring it back to order.

Is the way the ISIS caliphate uses religion a challenge to Al Azhar's authority?

Al Azhar is not a religious institution, it is an educational institution under Islamic teaching and principles. These armed movements are outside Islam and challenge Islamic thought and teaching. Al Azhar is at war with ISIS. We do not have military, political, or diplomatic tools, but we do have scientific tools at our disposal, and we want to arm young people with the correct interpretation of Islam. The West must understand the difference between armed groups and true Islam. Much blood has been shed by other religions too.

So ISIS is taking Islam hostage, but Saudi Arabia is the official face of Islam. Can you talk of reform without questioning the 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison doled out by Riyadh to the condemned "apostate" blogger Raif Badawi?

I don't know enough about it. But I'm in Italy and I respect Italian laws, so you should do the same when you are in other countries. In the Saudi case a tribunal decided on a sentence for a crime; it's the law that must be followed and it's not a case of violence outside of the political realm. Even in Italy there are those who deem some judicial decisions cruel and unjust.

After the barbaric execution of the Jordanian pilot at the hands of ISIS, you said you deemed it a crime worthy of crucifixion. As the public face for an official Islam that renounces violence, shouldn't you abstain from such violent language?

There was a misunderstanding. Al Azhar has never issued any death sentences. But under Sharia law, anyone who kills, rapes women, or harms the innocent must be treated as a criminal. Then it is the government that decides the punishment. All legal systems around the world seek to reprimand those who violate the law, even the Torah provides repressive measures for criminals.

Many, including the Muslim Brotherhood, refuse to recognize the authority of Al Azhar because they see it as a wing of the Egyptian government.

Al Azhar is an independent institution, as is written in the Egyptian constitution. I am an autonomous individual and no one can remove me from office. When you hear accusations of this nature against us you can be sure that they come from groups like the Brotherhood.

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A Refuge From China's Rat Race: The Young People Flocking To Buddhist Monasteries

Unemployment, stress in the workplace, economic difficulties: more and more young Chinese graduates are flocking to monasteries to find "another school of life."

Photograph of a girl praying at a temple during Chinese Lunar New Year. She is burning incense.

Feb 20, 2015 - Huaibei, China - Chinese worshippers pray at a temple during the Lunar New Yeat

Frédéric Schaeffer

JIAXING — It's already dawn at Xianghai Temple when Lin, 26, goes to the Hall of 10,000 Buddhas for the 5:30 a.m. prayer.

Still half-asleep, the young woman joins the monks in chanting mantras and reciting sacred texts for an hour. Kneeling, she bows three times to Vairocana, also known as the Great Sun Buddha, who dominates the 42-meter-high hall representing the cosmos.

Before grabbing a vegetarian breakfast in the adjacent refectory, monks and devotees chant around the hall to the sound of drums and gongs.

"I resigned last October from the e-commerce company where I had been working for the past two years in Nanjing, and joined the temple in January, where I am now a volunteer in residence," explains the young woman, soberly dressed in black pants and a cream linen jacket.

Located in the city of Jiaxing, over a hundred kilometers from Shanghai, in eastern China, the Xianghai temple is home to some 20 permanent volunteers.

Unlike Lin, most of them only stay for a couple days or a few weeks. But for Lin, who spends most of her free time studying Buddhist texts in the temple library, the change in her life has been radical. "I used to do the same job every day, sometimes until very late at night, writing all kinds of reports for my boss. I was exhausted physically and mentally. I felt my life had no meaning," she says.

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