Sheik Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, possesses a wonderfully exotic title, a scholarly manner and the unique burden of issuing about 5,000 fatwas a week -- the judicial rulings that help guide the lives of the Muslim faithful. On a recent visit to the United States, he explained to me the process of "resolving issues of modern life." And modern life offers Gomaa and his team of subordinate muftis plenty of fodder for resolution, from the permissibility of organ transplants, to sports gambling, to smoking during Ramadan, to female judges, to the use of weapons of mass destruction, to mobile phone transmitters on the top of minarets.
This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of Islam for many non-Muslim Americans, who must look back to puritan Massachusetts for a time when hermeneutics -- the art of interpreting a holy text -- was such a consequential public matter. In the West, theological debates have long been confined to seminaries, causing nothing more serious than denominational splits. In Egypt, Gomaa is a theological celebrity. His office, the Dar al-Iftaa, is part of the Ministry of Justice. And though his rulings are nonbinding unless adopted into Egyptian law, they are widely influential.
Reform in the Arab world is not likely -- at least soon -- to reflect the Western privatization of theological beliefs. All of life is subject to sharia law and most Arab governments gain at least a part of their legitimacy by reflecting it. At its worst -- but rarely -- this involves the classical Islamic punishments of stoning and amputation. At its best, sharia law plays an equivalent role to the rule of law, binding both rulers and ruled by the same objective standard of justice.
So it obviously matters greatly how sharia law is interpreted, and who does the interpreting. But Islam, for better or for worse, has no pope or traditional clergy. Instead, it has several schools of interpretation -- all of which view the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad as normative, but reconcile local customs with Islam in different ways.
Some, on the Saudi Arabian model, view the seventh century as the purest Islamic ideal, which is difficult to reconcile with modernity, pluralism, democracy, women's rights and success in the modern world.
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.