Middle East: Mourning the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque

The Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo - by Hossam all line on Flickr

The Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo – by Hossam all line on Flickr

Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, Egypt has died at age 81. Reactions to his death in Middle East blogs have varied from mourning to critical recollections of his many controversial fatwas.

Tantawi, who was regarded as one of the most important Sunni Muslim scholars, died of a heart attack during a visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where he was attending a prize-giving ceremony. His son has requested for him to be buried in Saudi Arabia at ِAl-Baqi’ – a holy cemetery for Muslims.

Issandr El Amrani, an American journalist living in Cairo, who blogs at The Arabist wrote a comprehensive article saying:

Tantawi leaves a mixed legacy behind him: overall, the immediate verdict may be that he was too liberal for conservatives, too conservative for liberals, too compliant with the regime for those who want al-Azhar to be independent, and too independent for those in the regime who needed Azharite support to enact policy changes on issues as varied as Palestine, banking and TV game shows. The overall image is of a man besieged on all sides, but adept at fighting bureaucratic battles in the bloated, clerical civil service that al-Azhar has become.

Issandr also recalls some of the moments of outrage surrounding Tantawi, like when he shook hands with Israeli president, Shimon Peres at a UN-sponsored interfaith conference in New York, and another time when he lashed out at a girl who was wearing a niqab in a school classroom.

In conclusion, Issandr writes:

It is likely that Tantawi will be remembered for these controversies and his clashes with journalists — he frequently yelled at them and is said to have hit one — as well as his sometimes coarse language. He leaves behind an unreformed al-Azhar — an institution that includes a university and a school system as well as a theological center — whose credibility has hit rock-bottom. This may be because Tantawi was too pliant towards the regime, or because of the growth of various trends in contemporary Islam that reject al-Azhar's centrality. […] Whoever replaces him — perhaps Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, another tentative modernizer — will have much work to repair al-Azhar's standing and its vitality as a place of learning. It will also have to make difficult political decisions, especially on the issue of presidential succession, at a time when clerics are beginning to voice an opinion on the prospect of a Gamal Mubarak presidency.

Egyptian Zeinobia was among the first to mention the news on her blog :

We have disagreed a lot with the late Sheikh yet we can't deny that from the theological point of view he made a great work.
There is no doubt that politics harmed the late Sheikh still it does not matter because he is in the hands of God right now…

Maysaloon, a Muslim Syrian expat studying in UK, also wrote his opinion while mourning Tantawi‘s death:

I've just heard that the Sheikh of al Azhar, Mohamad Sayid al Tantawi, has passed away. I think he was a frail old man in a difficult position, and that was what made him say some of the ridiculous things he did regarding Palestine, or shaking the hand of Peres. I think that whilst the sensationalism of these mistakes has gotten a lot of attention, he should also be remembered for his work as the head of the second oldest university in the world. The oldest being al Qaraween in Fez, Morroco. The duty and responsibility of a man in his position was never going to be lightly accepted and in a time when the Arab and Islamic world's lights have never been so dim, even that such institutions exist is an achievement and defiance.

Many other bloggers from the Middle East and North Africa region commented on the news like Banat Zayed from UAE [Ar], Al Dorah from Kuwait [Ar], Mohamed Siruhan a Muslim living in Maldives, Amal Akefy from Yemen, Abdulsalam from Syria and Mayada and Loqmet Eash [Ar] from Egypt.

On Twitter, the news was also at the top of topics discussed in  morning.

@Tafatefo :

ما تركه المفسر العالم الجليل د. محمد سيد طنطاوي من علم نافع أسأل الله أن يجزيه عنه خير الجزاء وأن يغفر له
I hope God may reward Dr. Mohammed Tantawi for all the useful Science he left behind.


الشعب المصري شعب بيحترم الموت جدا ، أنا بحترم الشعب المصري .. صفحة على فيس بوك .. وداعا يا شيخ الأزهر http://bit.ly/bNDDJq
The Egyptians really respect death. I respect the Egyptian people. Here is a facebook page: Goodbye Tantawi. http://bit.ly/bNDDJq


محدش واخد باله انه لحاد دلوقت الريس منعاش الفقيد ؟ غريبة رغم ان الحاجات ده المفروض جاهزة وبتنزل علي طول
Did anyone notice that till now the President didn't mourn him? Really weird! These kind of announcements are always ready to be published.


أبوي زعلان على طنطاوي، الأزهر ده عامل زي المافيا يا جدعان. بينهم و بين بعض بيكرهوا طنطاوي لكن قدام الناس بيحبوه و دلوقتي زعلانين
My father is really sad for Tantawi's death. Seems like AlAzhar is like the Mafia, they hate Tantawi secretly but love him in public, and now they are sad.

I would like to conclude by two lines blogger Hamada, from Egypt, wrote:

كان الدكتور طنطاوي، واحدًا من أجل علماء الأزهر وأغزرهم علمًا، لا سيما في علم التفسير.
لكن هناك من اعتبر بعض مواقفه السياسة ليست موفقة، وأنها طغت أكثر على الجانب العملي والعلمي في حياته.
Dr. Tantawi was one of the most important and most knowledgeable Azhar clerics, especially in interpretation of the Qur'an. But some considered his political stances were not right, and that they overwhelmed his practical and scientific sides of his life.
Mohamed ElGohary contributed English translations to this post.


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