Global media is reporting on the death of Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, he grand sheik of Cairo’s Al-Azhar, during a trip to Saudi Arabia. According to one report:
Egypt’s top cleric, Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, known for promoting the government agenda against female genital mutilation and the face veil, died of a heart attack Wednesday during a visit to Saudi Arabia. He was 81. Tantawi was the grand sheik of Cairo’s Al-Azhar, the pre-eminent theological institute of Sunni Islam, the faith’s mainstream sect. Tantawi left a mixed legacy across the Muslim world, where he was touted as a moderate scholar and supporter of women’s rights but also criticized as an appointed civil servant who merely followed the line of Egypt’s government. The sheik, who was chosen in March 1996 by President Hosni Mubarak, was a revered figure among many of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims. His rulings carried great influence, particularly in Egypt, although they did not carry the force of law. Egypt’s state-owned Middle East News Agency said Tantawi died in Saudi Arabia, where he attended a religious ceremony. Saudi officials said he will be buried in the Baqee cemetery in the Saudi holy city of Medina near the shrine of Prophet Muhammad.
Previous posts had reported on Sheik Tantawi’s conciliatory posture towards Israel which were at odds with other reports about Al-Azhar, considered to be the main center of Islamic and Arabic learning in the world and founded in 970. Al Azhar is a center of Muslim Brotherhood activity and in December 2005, young men from a Brotherhood student group dressed in black and held a military-style parade, complete with martial arts demonstrations, to protest restrictions on student political activities at Al Azhar. Such demonstrations are forbidden in Egypt and the event was the subject of a great deal of local and international media attention. In July 2008 Youssef Qaradawi, a global Muslim Brotherhood leader and harsh critic of Israel, was elected to the Al Azhar Islamic Research Council. Another post discussed an October 2008 fatwa (Islamic ruling) that authorized computer hacking as a form of jihad against Israel and the United States.
Sheikh Tantawi appeared to have represented the less harsh side of Al-Azhar. Unlike Qaradawi who has issued fatwas authorizing suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, Tantawi condemned such operations and he appears to have attended an interfaith conference in Madrid that was sponsored by the Saud Muslim World League and which included Jewish participants. Qaradawi was also invited to the conference but declined the invitation on the grounds that “Zionists” were present. A 2003 article published by Jamestown Foundation details the dominant role that Saudi Arabia had come to play at Al Azhar.