One of Islam's most influential and moderate voices has been silenced with the death of Sheikh Mohamed Sayyed Tantawi.
The 81year-old sheikh who was not only Egypt's leading official religious authority but the head of one of its largest universities, Al Azhar, was visiting Saudi Arabia when he suffered a fatal heart attack on Wednesday.
Appointed by President Hosni Mubarak as "Grand Sheikh" of the state supported Al-Azhar Mosque and University in 1996, Tantawi had been Egypt's chief state sheikh, the so-called mufti, since 1986.
He was a wily pragmatist, a man of his time whose fatwas, or religious rulings, separated him from his predecessor, who had also been appointed by Mubarak. Whereas his predecessor, Gad al-Haqq Ali Gad al-Haq, had defended female circumcision – officially discouraged but still widely practiced in Egypt – Sheikh Tantawi had condemned it. While Al-Haq had ruled that Egypt's education minister could not dissuade girls from wearing headscarves (the hijab) to school by requiring that parental permission, Sheikh Tantawi infuriated religious fundamentalists by banning female students who wore the "niqab," or veils covering virtually all of the face, from entering classrooms and dormitories in Al-Azhar university. And finally, while Al Haq had decided to grant the exalted title of "shahid," or martyr, to an Egyptian member of a violent militant Islamic sect, the so-called Islamic Group, which had joined Palestinian militants from Hamas in a deadly attack in Jerusalem that left 16 Israelis wounded and ten dead in 1994, Sheikh Tantawi condemned suicide bombings and other murders by militant Islamic groups. The gap between Islam and the self-appointed "holy warriors" who thought little of killing innocent civilians in their rage against alleged "traitors" to Islam, he said, was like the gap between the earth and sky.
Such positions took courage, even from Egypt's state-blessed religious authority.
Al-Azhar, the seat of Islamic learning for nearly a thousand years, is among the world's most prominent Sunni Muslim institutions. So each of his fatwas was subjected to intense scrutiny and often heated debate. Detested by militant Islamists, he took the traditional Islamic view that the ruler of a state was to be supported by all believers as long as he upheld the laws of the state and of Islam. This enraged militants, who saw him as Mubarak's religious tool.
He was the first to attend meetings of the Rotary Club, long considered suspect by conservative Muslims, and the first to approve such TV game shows as "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." There was no reason why women, he ruled, could not be a state's president, a stance rejected by most religious fundamentalists.
There were limits to his courage, of course. His decision to shake hands with Shimon Peres in 2008 when the two men were visiting the United Nations caused a fire-storm in Egypt and in much of the Arab world. In the end, Tantawi retreated. He had not known with whom he was shaking hands, the mufti said, obviously a lie, but a politically essential one for his survival.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs paid tribute to Tantawi on Wednesday, calling him "a voice for faith and tolerance who was widely respected in Muslim communities in Egypt and around the globe, and by many who seek to build a world grounded in mutual respect." Amen.