Gottfried Hutter
Member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts

Why did the Imam of Al Azhar visit the Pope?

How principles of religion can contribute to peace in the Middle East

There is turmoil throughout much of the Middle East, with the danger posed by the so-called “Islamic State” severely aggravating the effects of the old rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

While some Arab States are trying to improve their relations with Israel in order to strengthen their power against Iran, the degree of hatred between at least part of the population of Palestine and part of the population of Israel is visibly on the increase. The Two State Solution, which seemed so close twenty years ago, now appears to be almost unattainable.

Meanwhile, outside the Muslim world Islam is being increasingly identified with terrorism.

This may be one of the reasons why the Imam of the Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo, who is considered to be the most highly respected authority in the world of Sunni Islam, recently visited the Pope. Pope Francis I is known to be a man of peace. The Imam may perhaps have had in mind a very significant incident involving the Catholic Church: over fifty years ago, at the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church admitted its historic guilt in regard to anti-Semitism and relations with the Jews.

After that admission of guilt, the relationship between Judaism and the Catholic Church improved substantially, it even normalized.

But how to normalize relations between Judaism and Islam?

As long as Muslims refuse to recognize Israel as the homeland for the Jews, this seems impossible. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) may have to take a step similar to that which the Catholic Church took in 1965 – but what could motivate them to do so?

Why did the Catholic Church admit its guilt towards the Jews? The Second Vatican Council was an occasion for the Catholic Church to meditate on what is means to be Christian. This enabled them to get back to the essence of Christianity – which is love.

What would happen if Muslims got back to the very essence of Islam?

They would then realize that the essence of Islam is mercy, and that the hatred that is tearing the Muslim world apart is essentially un-Islamic.

In my view, much of that hatred originated in the Israeli Palestinian conflict. I see it as due to the fact that, back in 1947, when the UN was about to create a homeland for the Jews, the Muslim world refused to show mercy for a people who had arrived in their midst after being persecuted and killed by the million just for being Jews. Instead of having mercy on them, the Muslim neighbors strove with all their might to prevent the establishment of a new home for the Jews in a land, which is so fraught with meaning for both Jews and Muslims.

It is highly understandable that the implantation of Israel in the midst of traditionally Muslim territory should have aroused hatred among Muslims. The founding of the State of Israel meant a unilateral cancellation of the old contract whereby the Muslim Umma extended its protection to Jews. That contract had provided inter-religious peace for thirteen hundred years, ever since the Muslims integrated Palestine into the realm of Islam. But now Jews had acted like an alien entity; they had suddenly annulled Islamic law, even in an area most holy to the Muslims. That was very hard to accept for the entire Muslim world. It aroused hatred. – Yet Muslims know full well that hatred is the opposite of mercy. In their everyday life Muslims keep repeating the formula Bismillâhirrahmânirrahîm”, “in the name of the Most Merciful, the Most Benevolent.” They act in the name of the Most Merciful. How, then, could they keep failing to act in accordance with a very clear requirement for mercy?

Since Muslims want to find peace, I am convinced that they will, even in this sensitive matter, remember the essence of Islam and abide by it. They will do that, because they owe it to their honor as Muslims. But presently, what is still dominating is their anger at the lack of respect shown by the United Nation when they forced the partition of the land of Palestine upon them. Now, however, the visit of the Imam of al Azhar seems to signify that the Muslim Umma is beginning to realize that it owes mercy to the Jews, because the essence of Islam is mercy. The insight is about to spread that today’s Middle East problem began when Muslims refused the Jews mercy, forgetting that their prophet Mohammed is the last prophet in a long succession of Jewish prophets, whom he met in person when he was invited by the Archangel Gabriel to visit Paradise, a journey that set out, significantly, from the very site of the former Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Since Muslims by their very nature long for peace, they will remember their Jewish heritage and they will look mercifully on the Jews.

Instead of trying to get rid of the Jews’ new home, they will welcome the Jews to that land, which is the Jews’ former homeland, the land where their Temple once stood.

Once Muslims are able to welcome the Jews in that land, they will have recovered the essence of Islam, which is mercy, and in so doing they will regain their ability to live in peace. By magnanimously permitting a new homeland for the Jews, they will also find tolerance for the different expressions of the religion of Islam. Thus, Muslims will also find peace among themselves.

As long as the Muslims remain unable to welcome the Jews in their ancient homeland, they will also remain unable to find peace among themselves. For Muslims, peace will be possible only once their actions are guided by the essence of Islam, which is mercy.

There is a view, very widespread today, which diverts the Muslim’s and the world’s attention from the essence of Islam. Many regard the Palestinians as victims of the “colonizing” power of Israel. This implies that the State of Israel should have never been established and peace will be possible only after Israel has been dissolved or, in a milder form, after Israel has returned within its 1967 borders. In this view, the 1967 war made victims of the Palestinians and the onus is entirely upon Israel to make peace. As long as Israel continues to occupy territories gained by conquest it is victimizing the Palestinians. Victims are not bound by ethical rules. They are not only allowed, they are obliged to use whatever means they can to get rid of the occupying power – even if this results in decades of severe hardship and disadvantages for themselves.

In this view it is entirely up to the Israelis to liberate the victims.

But what if the Israelis have a matching view, seeing themselves too as victims? What if they are able to focus solely on their need for safety, while being unable to feel empathy for their “enemy”?

That apparently leaves no way out either for Palestinians or for Israelis.

That being the case, both can only strive to garner sympathy for their cause in order to motivate the politicians of the major powers to support them.

This, it seems, is what we are experiencing now. There is much sympathy, even in Israel, for the technically and militarily weaker Palestinians, who are perceived as innocent victims.

But would Israel, even if it wanted to, really be able to make peace?

There have been attempts when Rabin was Prime Minister, when Barak was Prime Minister, and when Olmert was Prime Minister. But none of these attempts brought about peace, because the Palestinians at no point felt able to acknowledge Israel as the homeland for the Jews even though both the League of Nations and the United Nations had clearly aimed at precisely that. In part that aim has become a reality, Israel exists, but how could Jews really live in peace as long as they cannot not be sure of control over their homeland?

On the other hand, Israel too has humane obligations. Following the essence of its covenant with God it must also, for instance, show empathy for the feelings of Muslims and their fears regarding their “Noble Sanctuary”, al Haram ash Sharif.

Empathy will even enable Israel to acknowledge that its very existence means a breach of an essential Islamic law, one which had provided inter-religious peace for nearly fourteen centuries. That law demanded of Jews living inside the huge realm of Islam that they accept the status of “dhimmis”, protégés of the Muslims – a status that was cancelled by the Jews when the State of Israel was founded. Empathy calls for thankfulness for so many centuries of protection and peace and even entails some kind of apology for discontinuing recourse to the protective service of the Muslims.

Above that, the Biblical narration of the origin of the name “Israel” not only suggests that Jews should show the highest respect for their Muslim brothers and sisters, it also suggests rich repayments for the land taken by the Jews.

These expressions of empathy will be necessary if true peace is to be attained. True peace means full reconciliation.

But reconciliation also demands that one decisive step to be taken by the Palestinians. Reconciliation will not be possible as long as the Palestinians continue to claim victim status. It will be possible only if they choose to see themselves as free to enter into the “competition in virtue” with the Jews which the Qur’an demands in Sura 5,48.

Peace will be possible only if not only Palestinians but the entire Muslim Umma sees itself as free to abide by the essence of Islam, which is mercy.  Peace will be possible only once the Muslim Umma has welcomed the Jews in Israel, the new homeland of the Jews.

Since true reconciliation calls for changes in the self-perception of both sides, both sides will have to get back to the essence of their respective religious traditions, as the Catholic Church did in 1965. This means both will have to reach out to the other and respect and welcome the best of that other in true reconciliation. It will then become easy to negotiate peace terms acceptable to all parties involved, including the Palestinians.

(July 4, 2016)

This is part of a brochure entitled “Insights and Steps on the Way to Peace in the Holy Land.” To see the brochure please go to

About the Author
Gottfried Hutter is a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, studied Catholic theology, history and political science in Salzburg, Austria. For five years he lived in the US. Insights there enabled him to meet a highly respected Sufi Master. One year with him in Egypt confirmed his understanding of the basic unity of all religions. He became a psychotherapist. Today he mentors severely traumatized Muslim refugees from the Middle East. 9/11 provided the idea and impetus to write this book: 100 Years of Middle East Conflict. HONORABLE PEACE. How Can Lasting Peace be Secured between the Muslim World and Israel?
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