Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt and one of the world's most respected Islamic jurists, has called for greater dialogue and tolerance over the growing challenges created by the explosive growth of social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
He spoke out after calls for the execution of a young Saudi journalist over remarks he made about the Prophet Mohammed on Twitter, with Sheikh Ali saying: "We don't kill our sons, we talk to them."
In a wide-ranging interview about how the Muslim world should help young people to confront both the dangers and benefits of the internet, the Grand Mufti called for caution and understanding, but rejected calls for a ban on social networking. Sheikh Ali made his views clear just days after the journalist, Hamza Kashgari, 23, was deported back to Saudi Arabia, where he faces charges of blasphemy and a potential death sentence.
In an exclusive interview with The National, Sheikh Ali took a softer stance on the Saudi writer, who posted a series of tweets in which he imagined a dialogue with the Prophet on his birthday last month, and for which he has been widely condemned in some quarters of the Muslim world.
The Grand Mufti, seen by many as a revivalist voice in the faith, said that given the opportunity, he would sit down with the young man "as a father would with his son".
"We need to look at three points before we make any judgments," he said. "Are we sure he really said what everyone is repeating? Secondly, we need to categorise the actual statements he made. Are they a form of misconduct, or an expression of doubt, or an actual insult?"
What constitutes an insult and what does not should be subject to investigation by the judiciary, he explained.
"Thirdly, based on the opinions of a majority of scholars, if one repents it should be accepted. But it must be followed with good deeds."
The Grand Mufti said the Prophet Mohammed was perceived as the ultimate subject of emulation by 1.5 billion Muslims all over the globe.
"Muslims throughout the world are required to venerate the Prophet by expressing their love and devotion to him. Insulting the Prophet is something that should not be taken lightly," he said.
Since making the remarks, the Saudi writer has deleted the offending tweets and cancelled his Twitter account. He has also apologised repeatedly and asked for forgiveness.
Sheikh Ali said that based on what he had read, he believed the writer was "confused", and added: "He didn't find someone to share and settle his doubts with."
At the same time, the Grand Mufti cautioned that social-media sites such as Twitter and Facebook presented a bigger challenge for young Muslims and Arabs, who are now "surrounded by a sea of information and misinformation".
He said: "There is a great worry of them getting lost in the midst of all these waves."
Too often, Sheikh Ali said, internet users trusted the information they were given without checking the facts and the authenticity of sources.
However, he said, society had a duty to have "an open dialogue with youth, where we listen and talk to them on an equal footing".
"We need to teach and help them to swim in today's turbulent waters."
Sheikh Ali referred to the difficulties young people face in dealing with what sometimes seems like an overwhelming amount of information, by quoting from an old Arabic poem: "It is like throwing someone all tied up into the waters and demanding of them to remain dry."
"How can we give someone unlimited access to the world and its different opinions, and then when that person gets wet from an opinion we may not agree with, we threaten them with the guillotine?"
The Grand Mufti said he believed that services such as Twitter risked creating "anarchy" by "promoting a break of values and links, like that of language, state, family, and religion".
"We see them putting under religion 'none,' and they are proud of it. Under the excuse of creativity, there is chaos and loss of values and community sense."
But blocking access and censoring any form of social media was not a solution, he said.
"If you close one form of communication, people will find a way around it," said Sheikh Ali, who has a Twitter account and uses the internet to communicate with followers.
"One of the problems we have today is that we are still using an outdated method of dialogue, both among ourselves, the Muslims, and with others," he said. "It is in the form of 'you accept my opinion or it's the sword'."
On his visit to Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Ali gave a lecture to students at Zayed University and met Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The two discussed the role of Islamic scholars in guiding Muslims in their daily lives, as well as correcting misconceptions about Islam and spreading the faith's message of tolerance and mercy.
Sheikh Ali, 60, has been the Grand Mufti of Egypt since 2003 and is one of the world's most recognised Muslim scholars, largely considered a moderate in his stances and an outspoken advocate for gender equality rights.
"There is nothing in Islam preventing a woman from becoming a head of a state or president," he said. "It is more of a cultural issue that still prevents women from reaching powerful positions."
His better known fatwas included one forbidding the practice of female circumcision, which he described as "a deplorable inherited custom".
He also reiterated his position that there is nothing "in the Quran or Sunna" to stop women from driving.
During last year's Egyptian revolt, Sheikh Ali welcomed protesters to his office at the Dar Al Ifta institute in Cairo, engaging them in debate about their problems and demands.
Referring to the continuing conflict in Syria, he called the situation "complicated", and said: "Each side is accusing the other of killing them. I tell all the sides, the ruling and the ruled over, that killing is haram, it is forbidden and needs to stop."
Discussing politics and Islam's role in it, he said: "Politics has two parts. One part involves taking care of a nation and its people. The other involves competing as parties for power. Islam in politics should involve only the first part."
Using the Muslim Brotherhood as an example, he said: "I told them you need to have a political branch if you want to compete for political power. You can't compete as a religious group. So they formed a political branch called Hizb Al-Hurriya wa al-'Adala [Freedom and Justice Party].
"People have voted them in to try them out and to see what changes they will bring," Sheikh Ali said.
He added: "Egyptian rule was always an Islamic state and has always been applying Sharia since the constitution was drawn up since 1923."
Despite the turmoil of the past year, Sheikh Ali dismissed fears of growing extremism in the region, and said "there are always extremist groups in every human period".
"Islam is in a constant flux, where it is important for Muslims to keep an optimistic view of where it is heading by not worrying too much about mistakes done in the past, but rather focus on moving forward by doing good deeds and having boundless hope."
Answers to where the Middle East may be heading "if it stays on this chaotic path", Sheikh Ali said, could be found in Herge's The Adventures of Tintin. The comic is set against the realities of a 20th century of power struggles and colonialism, a reality of the world that appears to repeat itself every 40 years, explained Sheikh Ali.
"If we continue in this chaos, we will go back to the time of masters and slaves," he said. "We don't need to spell out who will be the master and who will be the slaves."