Egypt's most senior Islamic cleric, Sheikh Tantawi of al-Azhar mosque, said yesterday extremism has no place in Islam and acts of terror in the name of jihad by Muslims were unjustified.
The grand imam of the prestigious mosque said the difference between extremism and jihad was like the earth and the sky.
"Extremism is the enemy of Islam," he said at an international gathering of Muslim scholars or ulamas in Putrajaya just outside the Malaysian capital.
"Whereas, jihad is allowed in Islam to defend one's land, to help the oppressed. The difference between jihad in Islam and extremism is like the earth and the sky," Tantawi said.
Jihad is commonly used to mean "holy war," a term coined in Europe during the Crusades, although Islamic scholars say that is not an accurate translation.
In Arabic, the word jihad means striving and is not a declaration of war against people of other religions, including Christians and Jews, scholars say.
Today, it has become a tainted word because of its use in violent campaigns waged by self-proclaimed jihadist groups such as Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks against the US.
Tantawi, whose al-Azhar is the highest authority in Sunni Islam, said suicide attacks by Muslims, including those against Israelis, were unjustified.
"They were wrong," he said, adding that extremism was not the way to vent frustrations.
Tantawi has condemned the May 16 Casablanca blasts targeting foreigners and the Jewish community that killed 43 people, and a triple suicide bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 34 people a few days earlier. He said jihad was compulsory for every Muslim in order to uphold truth.