The Islamic world lost a prominent scholar with the death of the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar Mohammed Sayyed al Tantawi. Al Tantawi was confident of his knowledge and concerned with the welfare of the entire Muslim community. Despite the grief felt by everybody in the entire Muslim world at the new of his death, everybody was [also] preoccupied with wondering who would succeed al Tantawi to “the most important Islamic post” in the Islamic world. This is due to al-Azhar’s unique position in the Islamic world and because it has come to symbolize tolerance and openness to the nations of the world. Al-Azhar represents a bright legacy for moderate and balanced Islamic discourse.
It was a pleasant surprise when Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb was announced as the next Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar. Personally speaking, if I were to classify contemporary sheikhs in terms of their rhetoric and the depth of their wisdom, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb would undoubtedly be at the top of the list. I have been following the progress of al-Tayeb’s career for many years, and I find his discourse and rhetoric, as well as his interpretation of the Holy Quran and the fatwas that he has issued, to represent a practical application of the sublime spirit of Islam and its noble objectives. Al-Tayeb lives according to his principles, rather than saying one thing and doing another.
Sheikh al-Tayeb is a quiet man who weighs his words carefully; he has a moderate religious orientation and is an extremely enlightened individual. Al-Tayeb confronted Islamic extremism and issued fatwas against this in a courageous and intelligent manner. He has also adopted an important position with regards to inter-faith dialogue. Al-Tayeb rejects the politicization of religion and therefore has extremely strong reservations towards the orientation of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, and other such movements. Sheikh al-Tayeb recognizes that following the September 11 attacks, Islamic discourse requires serious and urgent revision.
Sheikh al-Tayeb specializes in Islamic doctrine, and he is one of the most prominent figures to discuss the most serious and sensitive situation in line with a moderate Islamic outlook. Disagreements over juristic and ideological issues have continually represented a ready platform for the leveling of accusations of [religious] heresy and dissent, however al-Tayeb is a strong figure and is able to deal with such thorny issues, and he deliberates disagreements over such issues carefully and judiciously. Perhaps his studies in France and his dealings with the West have strengthened his belief in the importance of dialogue and dispelled his fear of this. Al-Tayeb is known for his famous meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury during which he said “the difference between human being’s with regards to their religious beliefs, ideology, language, and emotion is a basis of the Quranic doctrine. God Almighty said that he created people in the form of nations and tribes that they may know each other.” Al-Tayeb made this comment as an attempt to strengthen the public’s faith in the effectiveness of interfaith dialogue.
Al-Tayeb has been aided by his vast knowledge of western culture and philosophy and has been courageous and direct in his arguments, and his positions were given special weight and achieved special achievements as a result of this. Al-Tayeb went on to become the President of al-Azhar University and he carried out crucially important changes to the university’s syllabus and infrastructure, as well as combating the “student militias” who carried out provocative action and who were sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Tayeb continued to provide opinions and fatwas during this time during his regulated and calculated appearances on television and at press conferences.
Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb who is extremely comfortable whether he is wearing al-Azhar’s traditional robe and turban or a western suit, believes that the reality of a situation is more important than appearances. He takes up the post of Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar with a considerable legacy of personal successes, and there are high expectations that he will be one of the most important al-Azhar Grand Sheikhs in history. Al-Tayeb is already being compared to Sheikh Abdel-Halim Mahmoud, the former Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar who passed away in the late 1970s.
Ahmed al-Tayeb is the new Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, and this is a good omen to all Muslims. May God grant him success.