Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
The coffin of Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi at King Khalid airport in Riyadh.
FAHAD SHADEED
The coffin of Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi at King Khalid airport in Riyadh.

Sunni leader Sheikh Tantawi dies at 81

Grand Imam of Al Azhar mosque in Egypt suffers a heart attack at Riyadh Airport

CAIRO // Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the head of Egypt's most prestigious seat of Sunni Islamic learning, Al Azhar, died of a heart attack yesterday during a visit to Saudi Arabia. He was 81. Sheikh Tantawi, who was the Grand Imam of the Al Azhar mosque and head of the Al Azhar University, collapsed at Riyadh Airport yesterday morning, en route to Cairo. He was taken to the military hospital in the Saudi capital, where he was pronounced dead. He had arrived in Saudi Arabia to attend the King Faisal awards ceremony on Tuesday.

Egypt's official news agency, Mena, said he would be buried in Baqi', in the Saudi holy city of Medina near where the Prophet Mohammed and his companions are buried. "The Islamic and Arabic world has lost a scholar and a jurisprudent" who was "dedicated to his work and to everything that served the good of Islam and Muslims", Al Azhar said in a statement. His son Amr Tantawi told Egyptian television that the news of his death was "an indescribable shock".

Mohammed Abdel Aziz Wassel, the deputy of Al Azhar, was quoted by Mena as saying Sheikh Tantawi's family were going to Saudi Arabia to bury him there and prayers will take place at Cairo's Omar Makram Mosque tomorrow evening. Sheikh Tantawi was appointed head of Al Azhar, the 10th-century university that has trained the majority of Sunni Muslim clerics from Africa and Asia, by the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, in 1996.

The state and his supporters praised him for being enlightened and moderate, though for his detractors, he was too close to the Egyptian government and used religion to support its position. The soft-spoken cleric with a trim white beard, who was always seen wearing a traditional Azharite white turban, has long been a controversial figure in Egypt. The latest controversy came in October last year, when he forced a 12-year-old student to take off her niqab in an Azhar school. He reportedly told her when she resisted removing her face-veil, that, "I know religion better than you and your family". He then issued a religious edict barring the niqab in all-girl schools run by Al Azhar.

He also outraged many in Egypt when he shook hands with the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, in late 2008 at the UN headquarters in New York during an interfaith conference. He later claimed he had not recognised Mr Peres. "I ask God for his mercy and forgiveness of the Sheikh," said Sheikh Abdel Moati Bayoumi, a member of the Islamic Research Centre, the highest legal branch of Al Azhar. "We differed and argued about so many things that I don't want to talk about now, since the man is between God's hands now. The impact of these differences is deep."

Sheikh Tantawi was regarded as being very close to the government in his religious opinions and many accused him of being an employee of the state who moved Al Azhar in line with government policy. Hamdi Rizq, the editor of Al Mussawar, a state-owned weekly newspaper, who has known Sheikh Tantawi for more than two decades, said: "Serving as a senior Azhar official first as a mufti and then sheikh of Al Azhar for almost a quarter of a century gave rise to an almost complete association and identification between the religious institution and political administration in Egypt.

"Sometimes he used to voluntarily issue fatwas or take stances in support of the state, without them asking or pressuring him. "In return, the state was very generous with him and met all his financial demands and expenses of Al Azhar and all its branches." Mr Rizq said that under Sheikh Tantawi, Al Azhar witnessed little progress in regaining its position in the Islamic world. "His disputes with his critics, inside and outside Al Azhar, were at the expense of bridging the growing gap with Shiites and in Islamic-Christian dialogue, despite his interest in the latter," Mr Rizq said.

"In all fairness, the man was a scholar. He was an Azharite by the book, with no tolerance for difference, and a short temper that became worse with old age and by illness," he said. Sheikh Tantawi was born in upper Egypt in October 1928. He received a doctorate in interpretation of the Quran and Sunna, Prophet Mohammed's teachings, from Al Azhar University in 1966 and went on to be a religious teacher. Before being named to Al Azhar, Sheikh Tantawi had served as Egypt's official mufti since 1986, a position also appointed by Mr Mubarak.

Islamic opponents, mainly from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest and strongest opposition group, and Al Gamaa Al Islamiyya, the main militant group that waged a bloody campaign against the Egyptian regime in the early 1990s before renouncing violence in 1997, paid their condolences to Sheikh Tantawi. Brotherhood politicians had asked for his sacking more than once, while Al Gamaa Al Islamiyya had killed one previous sheikh of Al Azhar in 1977.

It is not clear who will succeed Sheikh Tantawi, who had a heart condition and was suffering from diabetes, and how long it would take to fill his post. In 1961 the law regarding the head of Al Azhar was changed, giving the president the right to appoint the sheikh, without having the power to sack him. It meant sheikhs of Azhar would remain in office until they died. Critics said that since the position concerned more than one billion Sunni Muslims around the globe, it should be selected by election and not appointed by the Egyptian president.

Despite his apparently calm appearance, Sheikh Tantawi was known for his temper in dealing with his critics, whether inside or outside Al Azhar. He sometimes yelled at reporters for questioning him about his controversial ideas and on occasion threatened them. He once reportedly took off his shoes to beat some of them, after they revealed a secretive visit by Israel's chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau to Al Azhar in 1997, which led to charges that he wanted to normalise ties with Israel. Ten years later, he caused another controversy by demanding that journalists who speculated about Mr Mubarak's health in 2007 be lashed.

Sheikh Tantawi is survived by a daughter, Sanaa, and a son, Omar. He has several grandchildren. His wife died several years ago. @Email:nmagd@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Reuters and the Associated Press

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets supporters after his arrival in Zahedan, the regional capital of Sistan and Baluchestan province on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. During Mr Rouhani's two-day visit, he will tour several other cities and hold meetings with local scholars and entrepreneurs. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

On the road with Hassan Rouhani

Iran's president is touring some of Iran's most underdeveloped provinces. Foreign correspondent Yeganeh Salehi is traveling with him.

 The Doha-based Youssef Al Qaradawi speaks to the crowd as he leads Friday prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt in February, 2011. The outspoken pro-Muslim Brotherhood imam has been critical of the UAE’s policies toward Islamist groups, adding to friction between Qatar and other GCC states. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo

Brotherhood imam skips Doha sermon, but more needed for GCC to reconcile

That Youssef Al Qaradawi did not speak raises hopes that the spat involving Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might be slowly moving towards a resolution.

 Twitter photo of  Abdel Fattah El Sisi on the campaign trail on March 30. Photo courtesy-Twitter/@SisiCampaign

El Sisi rides a bicycle, kicks off social media storm

The photos and video created a huge buzz across social media networks, possibly a marker of a new era for Egypt.

 An Afghan election commission worker carries a ballot box at a vote counting centre in Jalalabad on April 6. A roadside bomb hit a truck carrying full ballot boxes in northern Afghanistan, killing three people a day after the country voted for a successor to President Hamid Karzai. Eight boxes of votes were destroyed in the blast, which came as the three leading candidates voiced concerns about possible fraud. Noorullah Shirzada / AFP Photo

Two pressing questions for Afghanistan’s future president

Once in office, the next Afghan president must move fast to address important questions that will decide the immediate future of the country.

 Friday is UN Mine Awareness Day and Omer Hassan, who does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan, is doing all he can to teach people about the dangers posed by landmines. Louise Redvers for The National

A landmine nearly ended Omer’s life but he now works to end the threat of mines in Iraq

Omer Hassan does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan and only has to show people his mangled leg to underscore the danger of mines. With the world marking UN Mine Awareness Day on Friday, his work is as important as ever as Iraq is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world.

 Supporters of Turkey's ruling AKP cheer as they follow the election's results in front of the party's headquarters in Ankara on March 30. Adem Altan/ AFP Photo

Erdogan critic fears retaliation if he returns to Turkey

Emre Uslu is a staunch critic of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now, with a mass crackdown on opposition expected, he is unsure when he can return home.

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National