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:firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Reuters and the Associated Press