Ali Gomaa giving a sermon (khuṭba) at al-Azhar

Ali Gomaa was the Grand Mufti of Egypt from 2003-2013.  Prior to that he taught at al-Azhar University, one of the most prestigious centers of Islamic learning and authority among Sunni Muslims, and one of the oldest centers of higher learning in the world.  It is at al-Azhar that he gave this televised sermon in 2011.  The sermon is, above all, an assertion of the exclusive authority of al-Azhar and those scholars who have trained there.  He characterizes al-Azhar as a “moderate” (wasaṭī) institution having nothing to do with “extremism” (ghulū).  He rejects others claiming religious authority as ignorant and unqualified.

Ali Gomaa’s claim to authority is partially institutional.  As Grand Mufti of Egypt, he was  the highest religious official in his country.  Delivering a Friday sermon at al-Azhar, wearing the traditional red tarboush (“fez”) wrapped in white cloth of Azhari clerics, with other Azhari clerics sitting in attendance is a powerful statement of authority.  But his authority also stems from his use of language.  Everyday Arabic is spoken in dialects that vary greatly from Morocco in the west to Iraq and the Gulf in the east.  But it is written and read in a shared literary language that few can speak comfortably.  Here, Ali Gomaa speaks it fluently, eloquently, and very correctly, using optional grammatical features (such as case endings) to show his mastery (though even he catches himself in a conjugation error at 21:58).

Scriptural quotation is to be expected in a Friday sermon, but his scriptural citation is extensive even for this format.  He begins with a long list of quotes from the Qurʾān and ḥadīth extolling the excellence of knowledge, especially religious knowledge, and the superiority those who possess it.  Al-Azhar is, of course, not mentioned in the Qurʾān, and the assertion that it is faculty of that institution who can best claim to possess this knowledge is Ali Gomaa’s and not the Qurʾān’s. Rhetorically, though, the scriptural preamble gives his substantial claims the air of scriptural authority.

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