Scholars of Islam: Egyptian Reformer Mahmoud Shaltut

Mahmud Shaltut
Mahmoud Shaltut | Public Domain

Sheikh Mahmoud Shaltut (1893-1963) was one of the most famous modern theologians of the Sunni school, reformer of Islamic theology, rector of Al-Azhar University during the rule of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (from 1958 until his death in 1963). He supported the ideas of the reformers of the beginning of the last century, al-Afghani and Abduh, was a staunch supporter of the famous reformer and former rector of al-Azhari Mustafa al-Maraghi. He expressed bold ideas for reforming the Islamic world.

Mahmoud Shaltut graduated from the branch of Al-Azhari University in Alexandria and in 1918 remained in the teaching job. In 1927, at the age of 34, he was invited to teach in Cairo and was transferred to the main department of the University. In Al-Azhari, Mahmoud Shaltut met Mustafa al-Maraghi, who was appointed rector of the University in 1928. Both scholars felt a spiritual connection. The new rector proposed the sweeping reforms of Al-Azhar, which, as it turned out, Mahmoud Shaltut had himself nurtured while still in Alexandria. In particular, he proposed reviving the practice of ijtihad (making decisions on legal issues that are recorded in the fatwas of a particular madhhab, but may need modern interpretations, while such interpretations were considered impossible). Unfortunately, the reformist ideas did not find support from the Egyptian king Faud. Al-Marangрi was fired from his post as rector, and then, in the ensuing purge, Muhammad Shaltut himself was fired. Five years later, under pressure from public opinion, Mustafa al-Maraghi was reinstated, and with him Professor Shaltut returned to Al-Azhar. He was appointed Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Islamic Law and in 1937 presented a brilliant presentation on civil and criminal liability in the Sharia system at the 12th I International Congress on Comparative Law in The Hague. His fame as a scholar and expert on Sharia and Fiqh received international recognition.

In 1958, Mahmoud Shaltut was elected by the Al-Azhari Council of Imams to the post of rector of the University, and in 1961 the Nasser government which sought to subordinate religious institutions to state control passed a law according to which the rector of Al-Azhari was henceforth to be appointed by the President of the country. Mahmoud Schaltut supported the move hoping with its help to accelerate reforms in the education system which had been opposed by conservative imams, in particular, to expand teaching of secular subjects at the University.

As an expert on Sharia, Mahmud Shaltut, as rector, began to implement the idea of harmonizing Sharia laws with the norms of modern life, believing that Sharia serves as a beacon for the development of all modern norms. The popularity of Sheikh Shaltut was so great that regular programs began to appear on the radio with his answers to listeners’ questions, which were later published as a separate book. Sheikh Shaltut, using simple and understandable examples, showed the modernity and accessibility of the texts of the Holy Quran, disseminated their modern interpretation and encouraged listeners to turn to them more often to resolve pressing issues. There were countless people who wanted to call the sheikh and hear a simple answer to the question that caused their dire concern. Mahmoud Shaltut tried to help everyone who contacted him.

Mahmoud Shaltut tried to show the world a new image of Islam as a religion of unity, flexibility and tolerance. He called on all Muslims to leave their differences aside and be tolerant of each other and to the representatives of other religions. Peace and the Word of Allah were the weapon of dawah for him. Unfortunately, not everyone in the Muslim world was able to accept the ideas of Mahmoud Shaltut, but the legacy which he left in the history of Islam and the whole world continues to play an important social and ideological role.