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Sheikh Tantawi, Head of Al-Azhar, dies aged 81

Sheikh Sayyid Tantawi, one of the highest authorities in Sunni Islam, died from a heart attack Wednesday in the Saudi city of Riyadh, writes Tom Trewinnard.

As Grand Sheikh of Egypt's Al-Azhar for the last ten years, Tantawi was a highly important figure in the religious lives of Muslims around the world.

In the few hours following the news of his death, which came as a shock to many, people from around the Arab world paid their respects, with over 600 people commenting on the news on Qatari news channel Al Jazeera's website, and similar numbers adding thir condolences to the news on Saudi-owned Al Arabiyya. One Egyptian reader of Al Jazeera praised Tantawi:

Al-Azhar, the Arab nations and the whole Islamic world have lost an eminent scholar who presented a great model for Muslims with his knowledge and work. Sheikh Tantawi was a very tolerant person who lived and died quietly. He spent all his life serving Islam and Muslims. May God have mercy for the Imam, forgive him and grant him heavens.

قد خسر الأزهر بل و الأمة العربية بل و العالم الاسلامى باجمعه عالم جليل كان خير مثال لنا فى علمه و عمله كان شيخ وديع و متسامح جدا عاش فى هدوء ورحل عنا أيضا فى هدوء قضى عمره فى خدمة الاسلام و المسلمين رحم الله الامام و غفر له و اسكنه فسيح جناته

Shortly after the news was announced, the media was quick to begin speculation a to who might replace Tantawi as the head of Al Azhar. IslamOnline explains more:

It is likely that Dr. Tantawi will be succeeded by either Dr. Ali Jum'ah, Egypt's Grand Mufti, or Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, Rector of Al-Azhar University. However, these are only speculations until the formal decision is taken, as the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar is appointed by a presidential decree.

ويرجح أن يخلف د.طنطاوي في منصب شيخ الأزهر إما د.علي جمعة مفتي مصر، أو د.أحمد الطيب رئيس جامعة الأزهر، لكنها تبقى في نطاق التكهنات بانتظار القرار الرسمي؛ حيث يتم تعيين شيخ الأزهر بقرار من الدولة

One commenter expressed concern over who Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak may choose as a replacement:

"May God have mercy on him and forgive him for his sins. What I fear now is that President Mubarak appoints a new Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar who would be more committed to the president than Sheikh Tantawi was. The new Sheikh might accept the Judaization of Al-Quds (Jerusalem) and even justify it. They are all loyal to the rulers, they act and issue their fatwas to please their sultans and not for the sake of God".

رحمة الله عليه وغفر له, ولكن الذى أخشاه هو بأن يتم تعيين شيخ جديد للأزهر أكثر التزاما بما يؤمر به من قبل الرئيس مبارك يقبل حتى بتهويد القدس ويبرره لأنهم شيوخ سلاطين يفعلون ويفتون ما يرضى السلطان وليس الله عز وجل

Tantawi was, however, not loved by everyone. As Egypt-based blogger The Arabist pointed out Tantawi was "was too liberal for conservatives, too conservative for liberals". In many respects, he cut a divisive figure amongst the Muslim community, and his death was not met with great sympathy in some quarters. In a blog post entitled "Tantawi is dead, thank God!" Egyptian blogger Hassan al-Kabani describes one incident which caused great controversy over Tantawi's position in Egypt:

"On 12 November 2008, he came under severe criticism because of his handshake with Israeli President Shimon Peres during an inter-faith conference organized by the United Nations and Saudi Arabia that was held in New York."

وفي 12 نوفمبر 2008 تعرض لنقد شديد بسبب مصافحته للرئيس الإسرائيلي شمعون بيريز قي مؤتمر حوار الأديـان الذي نظمته الأمم المتحدة والسعودية بنيويورك

More recently, Tantawi was slammed for removing the face veil of a female student in one of Al-Azhar's schools, going on to say that the veil had no place in academic insitutions like Al-Azhar and that French Muslims should abide by any potential ban of the veil. Such stances, along with his support for women occupying high positions in government and his criticism of female genital mutilation, drew much criticism from his detractors and led some to question his authority (from Al Jazeera):

"Sheikh Tantawi, Now what will you say before God? You will say that you were a prominent figure for the Islamic Ummah, and that you issued fatwas to satisfy the West? You issued a fatwa to permit building the wall and tighten the siege on the people of Gaza, and another to ban the Islamic veil, what did you get out of all this? Other scholars should be careful not to end up like him".

الان ماذا ستقول لرب العباد لقد كنت خير علامة لهذه الامة اصدرت فتاوي ارضاء للغرب اصدرت فتوى بخنق اهالي غزة اصدرت فتوى بمنع الحجاب و... العبرة "لغيره من العلماء، ماذا استفاد من كل هذا

It is expected that Tantawi's successor will have a tough job balancing the Al-Azhar's close relationship with the government and wider efforts to reform the institution for the decades ahead.

Thanks to Wessam, Hiba and Yaser for their translations. The views in this post are taken from diverse sources and should not be taken as the views of Meedan.

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