CAIRO: Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mohamed Sayed Tantawi died in Saudi Arabia Wednesday after suffering a heart attack in the King Khaled airport in Riyadh. He was 81.
Tantawi was in Riyadh to attend this year’s prize-giving ceremony of the King Faisal World Awards for the service of Islam. He is to be buried in the Baqee cemetery in Medina according to his wishes.
Tantawi had held the position of Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar since 1996. Al-Azhar is the highest institute of Sunni Islam in the world, and is over 1,000 years old.
Prior to that, he was Egypt’s Mufti, a position he held from 1986 until his appointment to Al-Azhar a decade later. He was a professor of religious studies at Al-Azhar University since receiving a doctorate in the science of Hadith and Interpretation in 1966.
“He was a scholar and he dedicated himself to Al-Azhar. He passed away while on official business for Al-Azhar, and he strove for 14 years for the institution. We ask God that heaven be his destination, Mahmoud Ashour, former deputy of Al-Azhar, told Daily News Egypt on Wednesday.
Noted for his sudden bursts of temper, Tantawi often triggered controversy as Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, with a series of incidents during his tenure that led to criticism of his close ties with the ruling regime.
“Al-Azhar has seen a lot of sheikhs that were debatable regarding their relationship with the state, before the 1952 revolution and after it. Sheikh Tantawi was one of those figures, especially regarding his relationship with the regime. His positions were aligned to those of the state, Diaa Rashwan, Islamic expert at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Daily News Egypt.
In 2008 he came under severe criticism for shaking hands with Israeli President Shimon Peres during an interfaith dialogue conference in the UN in New York, which angered many due to the fact that the incident took place right before the Israeli offensive on Gaza in late 2008, which Tantawi refrained from condemning publicly.
Tantawi had said at the time that he had not recognized Peres, and shook hands with him because the Israeli President had extended his hand in greeting. Asked on a television program about the greeting in the wake of the attack on Gaza he responded, “I know nothing of Gaza, what business is it of mine?
He was also criticized for suggesting a ban on niqab (face-veil) in all-girl classes of Al-Azhar last year, after allegedly forcing a young female student to take it off during a visit to her classroom and then proceeding to tell her that she didn’t need to cover her face because she was unattractive.
Tantawi also successfully won a libel suit against a local newspaper that had published a photoshopped image of him dressed in the robes of the Pope of the Catholic Church.
However, there were some who considered him a moderate Islamic voice in a sea of fundamentalism, due to his stances against female circumcision and for a woman’s right to divorce her husband, supporting organ transplants and bank interest, which many Muslim scholars consider usury, which is prohibited by Islam.
Rashwan said, “He was temperamental and a bit stubborn, which might have caused some differences over him, with people attacking him and he attacking them. He is not much different from other Sheikhs who came before him, but we must understand there are always big differences of opinion within Al-Azhar, so there will never be a consensus within the institution.