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Egypt's top Muslim cleric dies of heart attack

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SALAH NASRAWI and HADEEL AL-SHALCHI | March 10, 2010 10:24 AM EST | AP

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CAIRO — 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.

Tantawi angered radicals by supporting organ transplants, denouncing female circumcision and ruling that women should be appointed to senior judicial and administrative positions in government. At the same time, he shocked many Muslims in 2004 by siding with France in its steps to ban the hijab head covering from state schools.

The sheik was known for a quick temper and a sharp tongue. He would raise his voice at reporters who asked challenging questions, once throwing his shoe at a journalist who accused him of supporting the strengthening of ties with Israel, something most Egyptians reject.

He infuriated conservatives and human rights advocates alike late last year by barring women from wearing the full face veil known as the niqab at Al-Azhar University.

That stance was in support of efforts by Egypt's government to limit the influence of more radical religious views even as the populace turns to a stricter version of the faith.

A cleric on a TV talk show accused him of "participating in a crusade against Islam," and there were demands for his resignation.

Conservative and secular Egyptians were further outraged when local papers circulated a photograph of the sheik violently snatching the veil off the face of a student during a school visit in Cairo. He was also reported to have said to the young girl that she was not attractive enough to need to cover her face.

He also came under pressure to resign in 2008 from politicians and newspapers outraged that he shook the hand of Israeli President Shimon Peres at U.N. headquarters during an interfaith conference. Tantawi said he found himself in an awkward situation when Peres approached to greet him, forcing him to shake his hand.

Tantawi has supported the peace process with Israel, although he also has condoned attacks by Islamic radicals against the Jewish state. In March 1997, he called for a holy war to take back Jerusalem.

Egypt's grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, seems to be most likely to replace Tantawi, as past muftis, the nation's top expert in religious law, have gone on to head of Al-Azhar.

Tantawi received a doctorate in interpretation of the Quran and Sunna, Prophet Muhammad's teachings, from Al-Azhar University in 1966. He was a religious teacher until 1986, when he was appointed Egypt's official mufti.

He is survived by two sons and a daughter.