Sheik Gomaa represents a different approach. He can hardly be called a liberal. "The Egyptian people," he told me, "have chosen Islam to be their general framework for governance. That being the case, the Egyptian people will never accept homosexual marriage, or the use of illegal drugs, or the commission of homicide or joint suicide." Morality and its sources are absolute. "The Quran and the tradition are what we depend on," he insists. "They were true 1,400 years ago, they are true today, they will be true tomorrow."
But traditionalist Islam, in his view, is pragmatic in the way it applies these principles to "current reality." It is the job of Islamic scholars "to bridge the gap between the sources and life today." Some past interpretations "may have been corrupt -- we may find a better way. What we look to in tradition is methodology, not the exact results of 500 years ago." Gomaa focuses on "the intent of sharia to foster dignity and other core values," as well as "a commitment to the public interest."
"The end result is to improve the world, not destroy it," he said. As a result, Gomaa has made a number of rulings recognizing women's rights, restricting corporal punishment and forbidding terrorism.
"Let me give you an example of the approach from freedom," he told me. "The Prophet, in history, peace be upon him, wore clothes like what they wear in Sudan. The fact that the Prophet did that doesn't mean we all must dress that way. There are those who want to hold on to the past, not hold on to religion."
Beneath Gomaa's interpretive approach is a strong assertion of the role of the traditional scholarly class within Islam. The issuing of fatwas by unqualified radicals has often led to religious chaos. Gomaa is a scholar of the first rank, and believes scholars, rooted in a long tradition of learning, should take the leading role in Islamic jurisprudence. His goal is not to liberalize Islam, but to rescue orthodoxy from extremism.
This does not amount to a fully orbed theory of human liberty. But Gomaa stands for an important and encouraging principle: Radicalism is the shallowest view of Islam.