21 March 2010
Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi died on March 10, 2010, aged 81. He was one of the most influential, but also controversial, religious figures in the Islamic world. As Grand Imam of al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, he was head of Sunni Islam’s highest seat of learning. His rulings carried great weight — particularly in Egypt, where most Muslims are Sunnis — and he was a revered figure among many of the world’s estimated 1.4 billion Muslims.
But Sheikh Tantawi was appointed by President Mubarak and considered by some critics to be too close to the government. Certainly his moderation on issues such as women’s rights and his willingness to accept that there were “good Jews” infuriated radical Islamists. His forthright opposition to Islamic suicide bombers earned him the hatred of al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist groups.
Born in 1928, Sheikh Tantawi received a doctorate in Koranic studies from al-Alzar university before becoming a religious teacher in Libya and Saudi Arabia as well as his native Egypt. In 1986 he was named Grand Mufti of Egypt and ten years later was appointed both Grand Imam of al-Azhar Mosque and Grand Sheikh of al-Alzar University, which runs religious colleges and schools and other educational institutions across Egypt and receives much of its funding from the state.
Sheikh Tantawi came to high office with a reputation as a moderate scholar and as a liberal and he consistently, and often bravely, spoke out in support of those principles. He was vocal in his opposition to female circumcision, still common in Egypt, which he denounced as “un-Islamic”. He championed the right of women to be appointed to senior government, judicial and administrative posts and supported the easing of divorce procedures for women in Egypt. Last year he barred female students at al-Azhar University from wearing the full-face veil or niqab, provoking the wrath of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Other Muslim scholars were also upset, when — during the controversy in France over the banning of headscarves in schools — Tantawi issued a fatwa allowing Muslim girls to take off the garment when inside the classroom.
Some of Tantawi’s acts, however, also disappointed Egyptian liberals. Al-Azhar University, under Tantawi, has on occasions recommended that books be banned for content deemed to be against Islam. In 1996 Tantawi also spoke out in support of a court ruling that ordered the divorce of a university professor, Nasr Abu Zeid, on the ground of apostasy because of his writings. Abu Zeid and his wife moved to the Netherlands to seek refuge.
The vitriol that Sheikh Tantawi attracted from within the Muslim world came mainly over his stance towards Israel and Jews generally. Although he condoned attacks by Islamic groups against the Jewish state, he rejected the argument that all Israelis were legitimate targets and condemned Palestinian suicide bombers. His meeting with Israel’s Chief Rabbi in 1997 provoked a strong reaction, and after he shook hands with the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, at an interfaith conference in New York in 2008 many Egyptian politicians and newspapers called for his resignation.
Sheikh Tantawi was also explicit and consistent in his condemnation of al-Qaeda. Speaking after the September 11 attacks in the United States in 2001, he said it was “not an act of courage in any way to kill innocent people”; Osama bin Laden’s call for a jihad against the West was “invalid”. While criticising the US-led invasion of Iraq, he was also unusually outspoken in blaming Saddam Hussein for not having accepted an Arab initiative under which he would have resigned in order to avoid the conflict. Saddam’s oppression of his own people and his invasions of Iran and Kuwait, Sheikh Tantawi added, had themselves been acts of “terrorism”.
Sheikh Tantawi died from a suspected heart attack as he was boarding an aircraft in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, where he had been attending a prize-giving ceremony. He was buried in the Muslim holy city of Medina.
Sheikh Tantawi was born on October 28, 1928.
The Times, London