On February 4, 2019, Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb signed a joint declaration of goodwill. The text calls for a commentary from both a Catholic theological and Islamic studies point of view. First, however, some remarks on context are due.
Comparable texts have been signed before. Among them are the final declarations of the four seminars of the Catholic-Muslim Forum. This time, in contrast, delegations were not the signatories, but rather the Pontiff himself and an Islamic leader. This elevates the importance of the text, but also of the Islamic interlocutor.
Who is the Muslim signatory?
Since the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924, there is no universal representative of Islam – at least of Sunni Islam. So that is not al-Tayyeb’s position. Still, he holds one of the most important Islamic offices; he is Shaykh al-Azhar and thus “Grand Imam.” He heads the al-Azhar institution, which is influential in both religion and scholarship; it is a mosque and university in Cairo, and from there, an international educational network. Shaykh al-Azhar is a life-time position appointed by the Egyptian government.