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Sheikh Tantawi, Prominent Sunni Muslim Voice, Dead At 81

Sheikh Muhammad Sayed Tantawi in 2008 during a visit to Lebanon

Sheikh Muhammad Sayed Tantawi in 2008 during a visit to Lebanon

(RFE/RL) -- One of the most prominent and respected moderate voices in the Sunni Muslim world, Sheikh Muhammad Sayed Tantawi, died today during a visit to Saudi Arabia. He was 81.

For 14 years, Tantawi used his position as grand sheikh of Al-Azhar University in Cairo to defend traditional interpretations of Sunni Islam against challenges from radical Islamist groups such as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

He repeatedly condemned the use of terrorist attacks against civilian targets and labeled extremism in general as against Islam.

"It is not appropriate to link Islam to terrorism and destruction," he said in an interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service in October. "Terrorism means destroying lives of peaceful people, and all religions and humanity condemn it."

As the head of Sunni Islam's most prominent theological institute, Tantawi's opinions and fatwas carried tremendous moral and legal weight. Al-Azhar's teachers are traditionally respected throughout the Sunni Muslim world, and its grand sheikh's views are given particular consideration.

In 2003, Tantawi notably called suicide bombers "enemies of Islam." He also spoke out against the misuse of the word "jihad" by extremist groups, saying the difference between the meaning of jihad in Islam as a religion of peace and its meaning for extremist groups is "like the earth and the sky."

In The Headlines

Tantawi often found himself in the headlines as he was asked to give his opinions on the most topical issues in the news. He not only spoke out against suicide bombings but also weighed in on controversies ranging from face veils to abortion to female circumcision.

Asked to give his judgment on whether Muslim women in France should wear head scarves in public classrooms, he ruled that Muslim girls could take off their head scarves while attending school. That ruling reflected his opinion that removing the head scarves was the lesser of evils compared to the girls not receiving an education.

In the heated politics surrounding many of the issues Tantawi considered, his lengthy and complicated legal opinions were often only partly quoted by the news media.

He at times complained that he was misunderstood, including in a famous ruling last year banning students from wearing full-face veils, or niqab, in Al-Azhar's girls' schools across Egypt. Islamist political groups in Egypt accused him of seeking to ban face veils in public. But speaking to RFE/RL's Tajik Service in October, Tantawi said his fatwa had no such intent.

"We have never issued a fatwa that a Muslim woman cannot wear a niqab in public places. We have only ordered that female students should not wear a niqab in classrooms, where all other students and teachers are women. There is no need to wear a niqab in such all-women classrooms," he said.

"It doesn't make any sense when a female student wears a niqab when she is with her fellow female classmates -- all wearing adequate Islamic clothes. And besides, there is no man in the classroom. Our fatwa was about this particular issue, only."

Regarding abortion, Tantawi said it should be allowed in cases of rape. At the same time, he opposed female circumcision, saying the practice had "nothing to do with religion."

However, while Tantawi's views on many issues angered those with more severe interpretations of the faith, his views could equally anger progressives.

Not Influenced By Politics

He took an orthodox stance on the place of women in Islam, opposing women as imams in mixed congregations. He said that when a woman "leads men in is not proper for them to look at the woman whose body is in front of them."

Islamist political movements in Egypt often accused Tantawi of promoting a moderate view of Islam to serve the interests of the Egyptian government. Cairo, which appoints the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, has sought to suppress political Islam as a rallying point for opposition movements.

But Tantawi, who was the state-appointed grand mufti of Egypt for 10 years before heading the entirely state-funded Al-Azhar, maintained his views were not influenced by politics.

In addition to heading Al-Azhar University, Tantawi was grand imam of Al-Azhar mosque.

A member of Tantawi's office, Ashraf Hassan, told Reuters that Tantawi's deputy, Muhammad Wasel, is expected to temporarily lead the university and mosque complex until the Egyptian president appoints a new head.