OBITUARY:Sheikh Gad al-Haq Ali Gad al-Haq

The most senior religious figure in the Sunni Muslim world, Sheikh Gad al-Haq Ali Gad al-Haq was regarded with huge admiration by ordinary Egyptians, but with caution by both the Egyptian authorities and by his country's growing fundamentalist movements. Appointed to the post of Sheikh al-Azhar in 1982, thereby assuming leadership not only of the world's oldest university with its 160,000 students, but also of a vast network of lesser colleges and religious institutions spread throughout the Muslim world, the Sheikh impressed his distinctive conservatism on the religious life of a fifth of the world's inhabitants.

Sheikh Gad al-Haq's formation followed a traditional course. Having memorised the Koran and mastered the usual theological and legal commentaries at his village school in the Nile Delta, he acquired his Alimiya degree from al-Azhar in 1943. The secularisation of the Egyptian state had generated acute unemployment among the religiously trained, but Gad al-Haq, armed with references from senior clerics, found work as a clerk at the Mufti's office. Pursuing his studies privately with leading scholars in the Egyptian capital, he was promoted to the post of amin al-fatwa, which involved supervising the teams of jurists who drafted fatwas (official religious verdicts) on behalf of the Mufti of Egypt. In 1954, partly to gain experience of the practical application of Islamic law, he accepted a judgeship, and became noted for his scrupulous conduct of the divorce and inheritance cases which by this time formed the staple diet of the religious courts.

His erudition, combined with a reputation for indifference to the political activism of the Muslim Brotherhood, encouraged Nasser to appoint him to a non-Azhari quango, the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, in 1960. Here, working with Western-trained thinkers amid the faded rococo splendour of a 19th-century Cairene villa, Gad al-Haq grappled with the larger problems facing Islamic law in a modern state. While remaining faithful to the Hanafi rite, which as the favoured religious system of Cairo's old Turkish elite continued to be the official basis of Egyptian personal law, he became convinced of the need to borrow verdicts from other schools of Islamic law, a procedure initiated by Mohammed Abduh at the turn of the century but fiercely opposed by many conservatives.

This flexibility made him a candidate for the highest religious offices, and in 1978 President Sadat appointed him Grand Mufti of Egypt. Four years later he became Minister of Religious Affairs, and finally Sheikh al-Azhar in the same year.

Since its foundation in 978, al-Azhar had withstood the violence and suspicion of Egypt's successive political orders, surviving the desecration of its mosque by Napoleon's troops, the hostility of the British following its support for Urabi's revolt in 1881-82, and Nasser's attempt forcibly to modernise its curriculum and structure in 1961. Traditionally it has served as the focus of popular hostility against absolutist rulers, only escaping the fate of similar institutions, such as the Zaytuniya College in Tunisia, by working out a cautious modus vivendi with the secular authorities. This balancing act, on which the stability not only of al-Azhar but of Egypt depends, is the responsibility of the Sheikh al-Azhar.

Al-Azhar's pragmatic attitude to the state brought down upon it the wrath of Egypt's extreme fundamentalist movements, whose credibility had been boosted in 1979 by the government's participation in the Camp David accords. Gad al-Haq, as a traditional Azhari scholar, regarded the fundamentalists as heretics, who had renounced the Asharite orthodoxy in favour of the Wahhabi school, famous for its rigour and its readiness to class dissidents as apostates. He worked tirelessly to ensure the exclusion of Wahhabi doctrines and students from the institutions under his control. Believing strongly that fundamentalism was the result primarily of a theological error, and only secondarily of social frustrations, he acquired a reputation among orthodox Muslims world-wide as the leader of a counter- reformation which would put a stop to the encroaching influence of Wahhabism and the extremist activism which can accompany it.

Such a message was congenial to the Egyptian state, which needed to enlist conservative religious support against the fundamentalists. But unlike some other Azhari leaders, particularly those who have occupied the post of Mufti, Sheikh Gad al-Haq was unwilling to act as a mouthpiece for the government. During the 1994 UN Population Conference in Cairo he embarrassed the state by vigorously promoting his views on abortion. While many classical Islamic legists allow the termination of pregnancies before the 16th week, Gad al-Haq argued that the ready availability of abortion would lead to increased promiscuity and should hence be opposed. Despite his approval of contraception, this stance allowed him to work closely with the Vatican delegation to the conference, opening up a prospect which he had always advocated: cooperation on moral issues between traditionalists of differing faiths.

Gad al-Haq refused to sanction the Oslo accords, holding that long-term peace could only come to the region if the Palestinians were given the right to return to their homes. He explained that, as only Islam acknowledges the prophetic status of the founders of all three Semitic faiths, the Muslims are the most appropriate custodians of Jerusalem.

Gad al-Haq wrote several closely argued books on Islamic law, including his popular Hadha Bayan li'l'Nas (1985), and six volumes of fatwas, of which two are still in the press.

My own recollections of Sheikh Gad al-Haq are of his very Egyptian traits; his sense of humour, his superb memory, his politeness and his strong personality. His outward manner was kindly, but always dignified and reserved. For all his legal researches and official commitments, his true love was private prayer, and few friends were surprised to learn that he died in solitary worship in his house during the small hours of the morning.

Tim Winter

Gad al-Haq Ali Gad al-Haq, religious leader: born Batra, Egypt 5 April 1917; Grand Mufti of Egypt 1978-82; 42nd Sheikh al-Azhar 1982-96; married (three sons); died Cairo 15 March 1996.

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