Sheikh Tantawi of al-Azhar mosque was speaking at an international conference of Muslim scholars or ulamas, in Putrajaya just outside the Malaysian capital.
“Extremism is the enemy of Islam,” he said
“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.
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.
But it has become a tainted word today because of its use in violent campaigns waged by self-proclaimed jihadist groups such as Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, blamed for the 11 September 2001 attacks against the US.
He said jihad was compulsory for every Muslim in order to uphold truth.
Tantawi, whose al-Azhar is the highest authority in Sunni Islam, said human bombing attacks by Muslims, including those against Israelis, were unjustified.
“They were wrong,” he said, adding that extremism was not the way to vent frustrations.
He has also condemned the 16 May 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.
“Terrorism in all its forms should be condemned, whether it is committed against Muslims or non-Muslims,” he said.
In other developments:
Earlier at the conference, scholars agreed “serious efforts must be carried out to free Muslims from backwardness, poverty and oppression.”
Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohammed, said false religious teaching had left Muslims backward and easily oppressed.
In a statement after the conference the scholars said an awareness must be created amongst the Muslim community about the dangers of globalisation, which had been "designed by the superpowers which are the new colonialists or neo-imperialists".
They also resolved women must be allowed to play an important role in the Muslim community.
A permanent secretariat based in Kuala Lumpur is to be set up as a think-tank for Islamic scholars and intellectuals worldwide.
About 800 participants from 33 countries attended the conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia's administrative capital near Kuala Lumpur, to discuss issues facing Muslim nations.