Australia

Explainer: What is the role of the Grand Mufti?

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The death of Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel Aziem Al-Afifi, after just four months in the role, has renewed discussion on the office in Australia.

The Grand Mufti is Australia’s most senior Muslim cleric and considered the highest official authority of religious law for Sunni Muslims. 

It is unusual for non-Muslim majority countries to have a Grand Mufti, although there have been calls in the UK for such a role to be created.

In Australia, the position can only be held for a maximum of two three-year terms, under the current constitutional by-laws of the Australian National Imams Council.

Sheikh Abdel Aziem Al-Afifi with his predecessor as Grand Mufti, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed.
Sheikh Abdel Aziem Al-Afifi with his predecessor as Grand Mufti, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed.
SBS News

The position is chosen by a committee of 18 members from the ANIC, which is made up of over 200 male imams from across Australia.

What does the Grand Mufti do? 

The role of the Grand Mufti varies in different Muslim cultures. One of the core tasks is to provide religious leadership, including non-binding opinions on novel legal issues, drawing on an expert understanding of the sacred law.

The role, as defined by a mission statement of the ANIC, also involves significant outreach within the Muslim community through the support of local Islamic organisations. Promoting harmony and co-operation with the broader community in Australia is also a key goal.

Aside from the ANIC, there are other representative groups for Muslims in Australia, including bodies that represent Islamic scholars, such as the Darul-Fatwa (High Islamic Council of Australia).

Muslims make up 2.6 per cent of the Australian population, or more than 604,000 people, according to the 2016 census. It is the most popular non-Christian religion in Australia, surpassing the number of Buddhist adherents.

A 2015 report by the University of South Australia professor Riaz Hassan said Muslim population in Australia is "one of the most ethnically and nationally heterogeneous religious communities".

While around 40 per cent of Muslim Australians are Australian-born, the remaining proportion come from 183 countries.

Who was the late Sheikh Abdel Aziem?

Sheikh Abdel Aziem Al-Afifi was a founding member of the ANIC, serving the Muslim community for over 20 years, including serving two terms as president of the ANIC, before he was elected to the role of Grand Mufti in March.

He had been battling cancer for some time before succumbing to the illness on 11 July.

The Egyptian-born academic studied directly under classically trained scholars, graduating with the equivalent of three Honours degrees (known as ijaza, which translates as ‘authorisation to teach’). He worked for Jordan’s Ministry of Religious Affairs for six years until 2000.

It was in that same year that he first visited Australia to lead a Ramadan sermon. He fell in love with the country and eventually settled in Melbourne to teach at Islamic schools.

Speaking to SBS News not long after his appointment as Grand Mufti, Sheikh Al-Afifi said he had always been motivated by a desire to impart his learnings to the wider Australian community.

"It's a big responsibility, and I will do my best,” Sheikh Al-Afifi said.

He said that mission was done with the aim of mending any fractions between the Muslim and non-Muslim community in Australia.

A Mufti for all Australians was a catch cry he tried to live by,

"It is our duty to work hard and to stop any harm and to keep Australia safe and secure,” he told SBS News.

“Because we're all one family and we all have to help each other and work together.”

Much of his outreach work involved engaging with young people. 

"I'll be very happy if I can do something to save our kids, and to keep them away from any bad idea, and to teach them how to be good Australians and to represent their country, and to serve our nation,” he said.

Who will be the next Grand Mufti?

The executive committee of the ANIC will meet within 15 days to elect a new leader.

In the interim, the executive committee will perform the duties of the Grand Mufti.

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