EGYPT: Top Sunni Muslim cleric dies of heart attack at 81

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Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the grand sheik of the Islamic world’s top Sunni Muslim institution, Al Azhar, died after a heart attack Wednesday during a brief visit to Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s state-owned news agency announced.

Tantawi arrived in Riyadh on Tuesday, according to the news agency, MENA, and a day later felt severe chest pains while he was at King Khaled International Airport waiting for his flight back to Cairo. He was transferred to a hospital, where he died shortly afterward.

Mohamed Abdel Aziz Wasel, the deputy dead of Al Azhar who will carry out Tantawi’s tasks until a new cleric is appointed, said that the 81-year-old cleric will be buried in Medina, Saudi Arabia.

Tantawi has been Al Azhar’s grand sheik since 1996 and was known for adopting a somewhat moderate ideological approach that rankled religious hard-liners and conservatives.


In 2003, he fired one of his aides who issued a fatwa -- a religious ruling-- undermining the legitimacy of the Iraqi transitional government and banning any dealings with it. Tantawi said that such a fatwa didn’t represent Al Azhar’s religious opinion, as the institution doesn’t explicitly weigh in on politics.

Unlike many Muslim clergy, Tantawi denounced suicide bombing and their use against Israelis, calling suicide bombers ‘extremists and enemies of Islam.

He stirred further controversy when he said that France had the right to ban the wearing of Islamic headscarves in its schools. He even issued a fatwa allowing female students to get rid of their scarves while attending French schools.

Tantawi was firmly against female circumcision, and once contradicted Egypt’s grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, by saying that victims of rape have the right to an abortion.

He was blasted in the Egyptian and Arab media for shaking hands with Israeli President Shimon Peres at an international religious dialogue conference in November 2008.

Tantawi’s latest and final row enraged both conservatives and secularists. He banned female students from wearing the niqab, or face veil, within Al Azhar University.

Although some conservatives regard the veil as an integral part of being a devout Muslim, many civil rights and women’s rights activists argued that wearing the niqab should be the free choice of every woman.

-- Amro Hassan in Cairo