As the Grand Imam of the illustrious Al Azhar mosque and head of its university in Cairo, Egypt's foremost Muslim cleric, Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, exercised great influence, if not actual authority, within the faith. For the West, he was an eloquent proponent of moderate Islam, eager to engage in dialogue on interfaith tolerance. Closer to home, he was a more controversial figure, whose rulings on a number of topical issues confronting the Muslim faith frequently aroused the anger of its more conservative and puritanical followers.
In his role as Imam, Tantawi issued pronouncements on a number of topical and complex issues, ranging from female circumcision to the behaviour of radical elements engaged in the long-standing Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the role played by suicide bombers following the US-led invasion of Iraq. An advocate of multi-faith understanding, he appeared with a host of prominent figures, including rabbis and Britain's Prince Charles, and maintained a Permanent Committee for Dialogue with the Monotheistic Religions. He was careful to maintain good relations with the Coptic Pope Shenouda III in Egypt, repeatedly stating his belief that Christians and Muslims must, and did, enjoy equal citizenship in the Egyptian state.
However, when he shook hands with the Israeli president Shimon Peres at the UN's headquarters during an interfaith conference in 2008, Tantawi came under pressure from politicians and journalists to resign. The event marked a change in attitude: a decade earlier, he had been calling for a holy war to take back Jerusalem. "Extremism is the enemy of Islam," Tantawi said. Yet he vacillated on the subject of suicide bombers in Iraq and Israel - and whether the Muslim faith condoned their actions. He veered between condemning and condoning Palestinian attacks against Israelis, arguing that a different moral quality informed such attacks, in contrast to those directed by al Qa'eda against US targets.
Following the events of September 11, he spoke about the nature of jihad, claiming that the taking of innocent lives could never be justified and condemning Osama bin Laden publicly and unequivocally. In 2006, he issued a further statement clarifying the nature and meaning of jihad as justifying the defensive use of force only. That same year, he offered to travel to Iraq to mediate between Sunni and Shia factions and called for Iraqis to participate peacefully in democratic elections.
Born in 1928 in Selim al-Sharqi in Egypt's Sohâg province, Tantawi spent much of his youth studying the Quran and Hadith. In 1958, he graduated from the Faculty of Religious Studies at Al Azhar University and completed a PhD in Hadith and Tasfir (exegesis of the Quran) in 1966: the study of fundamental juridical sources was his speciality. He lived outside Egypt for 20 years, in both Libya and Saudi Arabia, and remained a committed religious scholar.
By 1980, he was the head of the Tafsir department of the University of Madina, Saudi Arabia, a position he held for four years. In 1986, after serving as dean of Faculty of Arab and Religious Studies for barely a year, he was appointed Grand Mufti of Egypt, a post he occupied for a decade. During his tenure, Tantawi ruled that fixed interests on bank deposits were halal and by so doing, gave the impression of approving what was widely regarded as an unwelcome influence from western business practices that were contrary to the authentic principles of Islamic finance and economics. The move hardened opposition against Tantawi among Islamic hardliners.
In 1996, the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, appointed him Grand Imam. The accusation levelled frequently against Tantawi by his detractors was that he was merely the puppet of a secular, authoritarian regime and that consequently his rulings should be not understood as definitive for followers of Islam. As such, as a government appointee obliged to negotiate a careful path between religious imperatives and his government position, Tantawi was often called a "master of compromise", a not entirely complimentary title. Although his rulings may not have carried the force of law, they were greatly influential, even if it often seemed that he exacerbated tensions within the faith rather than healing them: among other issues, his support for organ transplants, his ruling that women should be appointed to top government judicial and administrative positions, and his claim that nothing in Islam prevented a woman from obtaining an easy divorce from her husband, all alienated many Muslims.
In 2003, when Tantawi argued that French Muslims should obey any law that France might enact with regard to banning the wearing of the veil, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was swift to accuse him of "harming the interests of Islam". More recently in 2009, to the fury of conservative Muslims, he told female students at the Al-Azhar University that they should refrain from wearing the niqab, as it was a matter of tradition, not a requirement of Islam.
Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi was born on October 28, 1928, and died on March 10. He is survived by two sons and a daughter. * The National