Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Mosque and the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s topmost theological institution, passed away last Wednesday of a heart attack while on a visit to Saudi Arabia. Sheikh Tantawi, who was 82, had been in Saudi Arabia to participate in the awards ceremony of the King Faisal International Prize. He was buried in the holy town of Medina in Saudi Arabia on Thursday.
Tantawi was born in the village of Selim Al-Sharqi in the governorate of Sohag in Upper Egypt in 1928. He joined the Alexandria Religious Institute in 1944, and became a member of the Kulliyat Ausol al-Din (College of the Fundamentals of Religion) in 1968. In 1972 he became a member of the Faculty of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Islamic University of Libya and in 1980 moved to Saudi Arabia, where he supervised postgraduate studies at the Islamic University of Medina. He returned to Egypt in 1985, when he became Dean of the Faculty of Ausol al-Din.
In 1986 Tantawi was appointed Grand Mufti of Egypt, a post which he held for almost ten years, until he was appointed Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque and Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University by President Hosni Mubarak on 27 March 1996.
Tantawi completed a 7000-page exegesis of the Qur'an Al-Tafsir al-Waset (The Moderate Interpretation). He also wrote Banu Israel (The Children of Israel) and Muamalat al-Bank (Bank Dealings).
Sheikh Tantawi was a moderate at a time when hard-line views were swiftly gaining ground. Last year he barred women from wearing the full face veil, the niqab, at al-Azhar University. During the controversy of the French headscarf ban in schools, he issued a fatwa allowing Muslim girls to take off their headscarves while attending school, using the ‘lesser of two evils’ principle. He stood against suicide bombings, branding suicide bombers “enemies of Islam”, and stressing that people of different beliefs should co-operate and not get into senseless conflicts and animosity.