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Sheikh Mohamed Sayyid Tantawi: Controversial Imam who preached tolerance

Grand Imam Sheikh Mohamed Sayyid Tantawi, Rector of Al Azhar University in Cairo and the leading cleric in Sunni Islam worldwide, often courted controversy. His most notable characteristics in office were his liberal reforming pronouncements, compared to many Sunni clerics, his great Islamic scholarship and his loyalty to the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who appointed him Grand Mufti of Egypt in 1986 and then Head of Al Azhar in 1996. This loyalty was seen in Tantawi's backing for some highly controversial stances of the President: his building a security fence to prevent smuggling of weapons into Gaza, his condemnations of the 9/11 attack and of al-Qaeda, and of his maintaining Sadat's Peace with Israel.

From an Islamic standpoint Tantawi was considered a liberal reformer. He denounced female circumcision, once common in Egypt, and allowed abortion after rape. He banned the niqab (full face veil) in all Al Azhar's institutions and supported the French stance. He supported the legality of interest payments on monetary deposits, although Islam prohibits usury, and favoured judicial and administrative posts being open to women. He backed organ transplants. He argued that apostates from Islam should be left alone, rather than put to death, provided they did not belittle Islam or pose a threat to it. These were at a time when extremism fought him for the hearts of the Faithful. After the murder of 62 tourists and Egyptians by Islamist extremists in Luxor in 1997, he said "Fanaticism is the result of ignorance of Islam ... The role of Al Azhar is to bring back the lost ones to the truth ... We are against all fanaticism, all discrimination, all violence."

His views on Israel were unpredictable. At times he supported Palestinian suicide bombers, at others condemned them. He called for Jihad against Israel, when archaeological excavations took place on Temple Mount, Jerusalem. When he shook hands with the Israeli President Shimon Peres at a Saudi-sponsored UN conference in November 2008 in New York, the independent Egyptian newspaper al-Dustour commented, "The hand that shook Peres' hand is tainted with the blood of Palestinians and reeks of the smell of their corpses" and called for Tantawi "to purify his hands" by resigning. The newspaper's view was typical of the Arab Street, and the incident represented the nadir of his image in the Muslim world. Did the Sheikh know whose hand he was shaking? He originally denied it, but later added, "And suppose I knew him? So what... Isn't he from a country that we recognise?" There were parliamentary calls for his impeachment when he shared a platform with Peres at an inter-faith meeting in Kazakhstan in July 2009, the two of them separated only by President Nazarbayev.

He often shared platforms with leading clerics from other religions and had cordial relations with Christian leaders. Given the volatility of Muslim-Coptic relations in Egypt, this was important for the country's unity. "I do not subscribe to the idea of a clash of civilisations," he said at a conference in Kuala Lumpur in 2003. "People of different beliefs should co-operate and not get into senseless conflicts and animosity." Tantawi condemned religious radicalism and terrorism as "evil" and in 2006 reiterated that Islam espouses tolerance and moderation.

Tantawi is reported, however, to have called Jews "the enemies of Allah, descendants of apes and pigs" in a 2002 sermon, and in an age when Catholic Popes combated such stereotypes, Tantawi reinforced them. In his book Banu Isra'il fil Quran wa as-Sunnah [The Children of Israel in the Quran and the Traditions of The Prophet Mohamed] he wrote, "The Quran ascribes to Jews particularly degenerate characteristics, viz. slaying Allah's prophets, corrupting His words ... consuming the people's wealth inappropriately ... Not all Jews are the same. The good ones become Muslims. The bad do not."

His temper and colourful language attracted much publicity. When a journalist questioned him about his receiving the Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau in Al Azhar in 1997, he chased the journalist out of his office, shoe in hand. When he ordered a 13 year-old schoolgirl to remove her niqab, it was reported that he commented she was not pretty enough for her face to be hidden. Another report claimed that he had himself ripped off the niqab. On Egyptian television, he accused Maariv's editorial staff of being "liars and sons of 60 dogs," for reporting that he himself had taken the initiative in approaching Peres.

He was born in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Sohag, and kept the distinctive Sa'idi accent from this area. His official biography states that by the age of 13 he had learnt the Quran by heart and that he began delivering sermons while still at school. He studied at Al Azhar, gained his doctorate there in 1966, and became a Professor at its Theology Faculty in 1968, before moving to other universities, in Iraq, Libya and Saudi Arabia. In his youth, he was a Muslim Brother, and knew the Brotherhood's founder Hassan al-Banaa, a graduate of Al Azhar who was murdered in 1949, shortly after the Premier Mahmoud an-Nukrashi Pasha had been assassinated by a Brotherhood member.

Sheikh Tantawi's great scholarship will endure in his notable 7,000-page page commentary on the Quran which was praised by many. But his liberalism and loyalty to Hosni Mubarak alienated many in the Muslim world. President Obama, however, said, "he was a voice for faith and tolerance."

Tantawi died in Saudi Arabia from a heart attack and was buried in Medina, Islam's second holiest city and the burial site of its Prophet Mohamed, after whom the Sheikh was named.

Andrew M. Rosemarine

Grand Imam Sheikh Mohamed Sayyid Tantawi, cleric: born Sohag governorate, Egypt 28 October 1928; married (wife deceased; two sons, one daughter); died Riyadh, Saudi Arabia 10 March 2010