The Grand Imam of Cairo's prestigious al-Azhar University has condemned the ideology of Islamic extremists as a "perversion of the Islamic religion".
In a move that could have world-wide significance in the struggle against extremism, Ahmed al-Tayeb issued a blanket condemnation of the actions of jihadis who base their actions on fundamentalist readings of the Qur'an.
Speaking at a major conference at the University – regarded as the most important centre of Sunni Muslim theology – he said in an opening speech that jihadist factions commit "barbaric crimes with the clothing of this sacred religion, assuming names such as 'Islamic State' with the intention of exporting their false Islam".
The conference was convened to reflect on the relations between the Muslim world and Islamist extremism. Al-Tayeb's target was the Takfiri movement, which considers Islamic society as undermined by liberalism and sees all Muslims who fail to accept this view as heretics whose murder is justified.
According to the Fides news service, participants included 700 scholars and representatives of political, social and religious institutions from 120 different countries. Leaders of eastern Christian communities were also present.
Grand Imam al Tayeb said that any terroristic ideology justified with references to Islam was based on distorted and manipulated understanding of the writings of the Koran. He announced that the University planned to promote studies aimed at tackling the manipulation of Koranic writings and by launching Courses of Formation to provide Imams with arguments to counter aberrant jihadist theories and attempts to infiltrate mosques.
After al-Tayeb's introduction, the conference was addressed by Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who said that the violence and terrorism practised by some Islamic factions was incompatible with the teaching of the Qur'an. He said that Islam was a religion of tolerance.
Coptic Catholic Bishop Anba Antonios Aziz Mina of Guizeh told Fides that the conference was "an event of historic importance". "However, I am not sure whether or not it was noticed by anyone in western societies," he said.
"This is the first time that such an influential Islamic institution openly declares that theories used by terrorists and extremists to justify with the Koran violent activity, are a perversion of genuine Islam. Until now Islamic institutions and academies have almost always been timid in condemning such tendencies. Condemnation came only in the face of major terroristic acts and usually referred to one specific act of violence.
"Now the target is the entire rotten ideology which lies behind strategies of Islamist extremism. This is an important step and let us hope it may produce concrete fruits."