Pope Francis and Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of Egypt's al-Azhar mosque and university, arrive for an interreligious meeting at the Founder's Memorial in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 4, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
What inspired Pope Francis and the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, to write the Document on Human Fraternity, which they presented to the world in Abu Dhabi on Feb. 4, 2019? How did they co-write this document given that one lives in the Vatican and the other in Cairo? What is the background story to this first-ever text written by the leader of the Catholic Church and the head of the most prestigious and influential Islamic institute in the world?
The answers to these questions are found in the captivating new book The Pope and the Grand Imam: A Thorny Path
, written by Judge Mohamed Abdel Salam. The book, published in Arabic and English, was written with the permission of both religious leaders, each of whom has written a preface for it. The Egyptian-born judge, former counselor and legal advisor to Sheikh Al-Tayyeb and the first Muslim ever to present a papal encyclical
), was not only a witness to but also a key actor in the events surrounding the writing and publication of the text.
“I felt it was important to tell the story of the birth of the human fraternity document not only as a historical record but also as an inspiration for the younger generations,” the judge told America
in an interview in Rome on April 9, the day after he had presented a copy to Pope Francis.
This fascinating 280-page book will be required reading for anyone interested in Muslim-Christian relations in the 21st century. It reveals the background to the extraordinary fraternal relationship between Pope Francis and Sheikh Al-Tayyeb, a relationship that is without precedent in the history of the world’s two largest religions.
The author is a married man, a father to three young children and a deeply religious Muslim. He begins the book by presenting himself, his education in Islam and law, and how he was chosen to be the trusted counselor and legal advisor to the grand imam. He summarizes the history of Al-Azhar and of Muslim-Christian relations from the time of the Prophet Mohammed’s first encounter with Christians to the present day.
Judge Abdel Salam provides brief portraits of both leaders that highlight how much they have in common: a simple lifestyle; concern for the poor and young people; the desire to break down barriers between people and nations; the rejection of rigidity, fundamentalism and the use of religion to support violence or terrorism; and the rejection of war and the arms race. Moreover, they deeply respect each other’s faith and view religion as a force for peace in the world.
Judge Mohamed Abdel Salal presents ‘The Pope and the Grand Imam: A Thorny Path’ to Pope Francis at the Vatican on April 8. (Photo provided by Judge Mohamed Abdel Salam)
The judge also recalls that since Sheik Ahmad Al-Tayyeb assumed office as grand imam, he has been thinking about “how to promote truth, justice and the moderation of Islam and how to disseminate the culture of dialogue and tolerance in Egypt and among our brothers across the Arab region and our Muslim world, according to the approach of Al-Azhar.” He notes that Francis, too, has promoted a culture of encounter and dialogue.
From Benedict to Francis
The First Meeting
A Historic Embrace
The book tells how before starting lunch, the pope asked the grand imam to pray to God for humanity and peace, and how Sheikh al-Tayyeb, in his turn, asked Francis to pray for the poor, the vulnerable and marginalized. Next, Judge Abdel Salam writes, “the Pope picked up a piece of bread and cut it in two halves. He took one half and gave the other half to the Grand Imam, so each of them ate his share, in a symbolic act of coexistence and human fraternity.”
During that two-and-a-half-hour lunch, the judge proposed that the pope and the grand imam build on the success of the peace conference by writing together a document on human fraternity to provide guidance to all people, especially the younger generations, and to point the path toward tolerance and peace. He proposed they both write and sign it and then together present it to the world. Both leaders liked the idea and gave it their blessing. They entrusted the task of coordinating the project to the judge together with Monsignor Yoannis and insisted that the whole venture be kept confidential until it was completed and ready to be made public.
Drafting the Document
The grand imam started working on a draft text, but he insisted that the judge should not tell the pope that he had written it so that he would feel totally free to change whatever he wished. Judge Abdel Salam gave the draft text to Monsignor Yoannis, who handed it to Francis. The pope revised and amended the text, and the judge took the revised draft to the grand imam, who was truly pleased with the pope’s input. Sheikh al-Tayyeb worked on the second draft, and Francis again gave his input, and so on until the text was finalized. No one outside these four persons knew about the text until it was completed.
While the drafting process was underway, Judge Abdel Salam met Pope Francis again on April 17, 2018, and proposed something that he had already discussed with the grand imam, namely that Francis should visit the Gulf region, starting with the United Arab Emirates, “a country that has chosen the path of tolerance since it was founded” and “has established houses of worship for all the followers of different religions living in the land and supported them without discrimination.”
He explained, moreover, that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi had provided much support for Al-Azhar and the reform and intellectual efforts of the grand imam. He suggested that the pope and the grand imam travel to Abu Dhabi to present to the world the human fraternity document. Francis welcomed the idea but said he needed to consult Vatican officials.
The grand imam came to Italy again in October 2018 to receive an academic award from the University of Bologna and, accompanied by the judge, visited Pope Francis. It was their fourth meeting. They discussed the human fraternity document, which they called “our joint project,” and the possibility of launching it in the U.A.E. in February. Francis told Sheikh al-Tayyeb, “I strongly believe in this project and in its importance for the service of humanity.” He and the grand imam agreed on the importance of maintaining the confidentiality of the entire project “to avoid anyone hindering it in any way.”
The Pope in Abu Dhabi
As was widely reported at the time, and as the book tells in detail, Pope Francis and the grand imam made history when they presented the Document on Human Fraternity in Abu Dhabi.
Significantly, in their speeches, they both explicitly thanked Judge Abdel Salam, who played a crucial role in bringing that document to birth but had to watch from afar as the two religious leaders signed it. After the ceremony, as they drove back to the palace where they were staying, and before going to dinner with the crown prince, the pope asked Monsignor Yoannis to phone the judge. Francis and Sheikh al-Tayyeb then spoke to him and thanked the judge for all he had done to make this dream come true. It was their way of standing by him.
The book goes on to recount many things that have happened since the Abu Dhabi ceremony, including the establishment of the Abrahamic Family House, a religious complex in Abu Dhabi that includes a mosque, a church and a synagogue; the creation of The Higher Committee for Human Fraternity
of which the judge is the secretary general; and the sixth meeting between the pope and the grand imam
at the Vatican in November 2019.