CAIRO (AP) – Top Egyptian cleric Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, whose moderate views angered conservative Muslims, died of a heart attack Wednesday during a visit to Saudi Arabia, the state-owned news agency reported. He was 81.
Tantawi was the grand sheik of Cairo’s Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s pre-eminent theological institute. Sunni Islam is the faith’s mainstream sect, to which the majority of Egypt’s 80 million people adhere.
Tantawi was a moderate scholar and supporter of women’s rights whose views made him a frequent target of criticism from fundamentalist Muslims.
Most recently, he infuriated conservatives late last year by barring women from wearing the full face veil known as the niqab at Al-Azhar University. That step was part of the intensifying struggle between the moderate Islam championed by the state and a populace that is turning to a stricter version of the faith.
The Middle East News Agency said Tantawi died Wednesday 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.
The sheik, who was appointed 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. His teachings and rulings won him wide acclaim among moderates in the Muslim world, but they were also controversial. Fundamentalist Muslims considered them against Islamic teachings. He angered radicals by supporting organ transplants, denouncing female circumcision and by ruling that women should be appointed to top government judicial and administrative positions. He also supported interest in commercial banking, unlike many Islamic scholars who condemn the paying of interest on bank deposits.
In January 2000, amid growing public debate on legislation easing divorce procedures for women in Egypt, Tantawi ruled that there is nothing in Islam that bars women from getting a divorce easily. He told Egypt’s male-dominated parliament: “Men are not made of gold and women from silver.”
Tantawi, whose moderate views have always rankled hard-liners, has been blasted by critics several times. His meeting in 1997 with Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau led to charges he wanted to normalize ties with Israel, something many Egyptians oppose despite their government’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
In 2008 he came under pressure to resign from politicians and newspapers for shaking the hand of Israeli President Shimon Peres at U.N. headquarters during an interfaith conference.
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.
The sheik also promoted Christian-Muslim dialogue. He had a controversial side, in particular his bad temper in dealing with his critics. He sometimes yelled at reporters for questioning him about his controversial ideas.
At one religious gathering, he attacked what he called the “mob mentality” among Arabs and Muslims. Before being named to the post at Al-Azhar, Tantawi had served as Egypt’s official mufti. He is considered close to the government in his religious opinions.
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 mufti. He is survived by two sons and a daughter.