The man most widely recognized as the spiritual leader of world Islam arrived in Washington last week, the first stop on a historic North American tour.

"It is for the first time that an incumbent of this high post visits the New World," announced Islamic Center director Dr. Mohammad Rauf, as he presented His Eminence Dr. Abdel-Halim Mahmoud, Shaikh Al Azhar, 67, to a small group of reporters sitting among the calligraphy-covered books in the center's library.

Shaikh Al Azhar designates the head of the more than 1,000-year-old University of Al-Azhar. It is the oldest continuing institution of learning in the world, and is the major seat of Islamic thinking.

Islam does not have a hierarchical structure because the Koran states that all believers are equal. But theological scholarship is so highly regarded by Muslims that the head of their most venerated institution of learning is thought of as the senior expert on Muslim theology. Dr. Mahmoud is also the grand imam of Egypt, and is consulted by President Anwar Sadat regarding the religious propriety of proposed governmental actions.

During the press conference, he said his visit was triggered by a desire to officiate at the dedication of the new Islamic Center in Los Angeles, the largest such institution in the country. But the purpose of his tour has these other aims:

"To consolidate and unify and improve the Islamic-American (and) Islamic-Christian-Jewish relations" and "relations between the Arab world and the United States." Though he is not on an "official visit, but a private one," he said he intends to visit politicians and other leaders here and possibly in Canada. He will return to Washington next week in time for a Tuesday morning appointment with President Carter, an aide said.

"To get acquainted with the problems, the needs . . . and the hopes of all Muslim communities in this country." He promised to improve their lot, "religiously speaking," by providing them with "whatever they need in terms of books, education and other materials."

He expressed his happiness at the increase in the Islamic community on this continent, and said it is time to make contact with "Muslims who are living far away from the mainstream and the fountainheads of Islamic learning, such as Mecca, Cairo and other (predominantly Muslim) places."

When asked if he would meet with Black Muslim leader Wallace D. Muhammad in Chicago, he launched into a discussion of the Muslim tenet that God sees "no distinction whatsoever in regards to color, language or race.

"When Islam sets forth the criteria of human interactions it says in the holy Koran that Muslims are one brotherhood," he said.

Later, a member of the imam's party said there was no forman meeting scheduled with Muhammad.

The imam talked at length about the film "Mohammad, Messenger of God," one of the stated reasons that the Hanafi Muslims took hostages in three Washington buildings last March. Al-Azhar University banned the film, he said, for "many reasons, chief of which is the mistruths or the misrepresentation that could be ascribed unduly to the personality of the holy-prophet Mohammed."

He said the university is the place where "right-thinking" Islamic theology is maintained, and there is a duty to speak out when information differs from learning center views.

He added that the "Church of England wrote to Al-Azhar asking its moral support to ban the film "The Loves of Jesus Christ," in England because our belief in Christ (as a major prophet) is an integral part of our religion of Islam and (not banning the film would) . . . compromise his message to Muslims and Christians alike."

Those at the pinnacle of "towering figures of human history" such as Christ, he continued, are given the role of prophets in Islam, followed by "trustworthy believers such as Mary, the mother of Christ. We believe in her chastity . . . " he said.

Despite recent tension among Muslims and minority religious groups in Egypt over attempts to make some Islamic law the law of the land, the imam assured reporters that the "national unity of Muslims and Copts in Egypt" is intact.

He said relations between himself and Pope Shenouda of the Coptic Church of Alexandria and Egypt, with whom he says he meets frequently, are very good. At their last meeting a few weeks ago, he said, they talked of poets they both admire and what he should do during his visit to the United States.

"There was not even a single question regarding the friction or even concern between Copts and Muslims in Egypt because such concerns are not founded, such fears are not true," he said.

He said also that world Islam was going through a period predicted in the Koran in which every 100 years a "reformer will come through Islam and the Muslim world to . . . revitalize and rekindle the torch of Islam."

He said the reform should not mean the "elimination of the ethical, moral or legislative values or edicts in our nation of Islam, but it is . . . an Islamic rebirth, if you will, (and) should be construed mainly within the framework" of the religious tradition.

It is a reinterpretation of Islamic teachings and writings to "the context of the modern time and the modern needs," he continued. Islamic prinicples "are not man-made values . . . They are the truth and the truth is not subject to change."

The imam is scheduled to visit Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and New York during his three-week tour.