CAIRO // Sheikh Ali Gomaa, Egypt's Grand Mufti, has established a reputation in the Islamic world as an independent thinker who uses a deep knowledge of religious texts to take liberal and sometimes unexpected stances.
His trip to Jerusalem on Wednesday to help inaugurate a new research centre was an example of what Abdallah Schleifer, an emeritus professor at the American University of Cairo, described as his "logical, clear way of thinking about modern issues".
Mr Schleifer said Sheikh Ali's decision "flies in the face of the standard position in the region since 1967 about not going to Jerusalem" because Israel controls the city. It exhibited a belief that "it is a form of moral, psychological and financial assistance for Muslims and Christians to start going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem", he said. "How else are they supposed to keep east Jerusalem Arab if the city is boycotted?"
"He doesn't have knee-jerk reactions to things," said Mr Schleifer, who attended Sheikh Ali's Friday sermons in Sultan Hassan mosque in the late 1990s. "What's interesting about him is that he arrives at his independent positions not by simply looking around and following the trend of others. He is so schooled in traditional Islamic literature that he is able to take different perspectives, based on the conditions we live in now."
Since former president Hosni Mubarak appointed him in 2003 as Egypt's highest religious official, Sheikh Ali, 60, has exhibited a willingness to challenge conservative ideas about Islam in the modern world using historic texts. He issued a fatwa that men and women have equal political rights under Islam, and that a woman has the right to be president. Such views have earned him criticism from Salafists, who adhere to a rigid form of Islam.
Born in the Upper Egyptian city of Beni Sueif, Sheikh Ali obtained a degree in commerce from Ain Shams University and later a doctorate in juristic methodology from the Sunni Islamic university Al Azhar.
During last year's uprising that eventually forced Mubarak to resign, he took a stance against the government and threatened to step down if attacks on protesters continued.
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