CAIRO: The death of Mohamed Sayed Tantwai, Sunni Islam’s top cleric and Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, has sparked an outpouring of condolences from foreign leaders and the foreign press.
Prior to his appointment as sheikh of Al-Azhar in 1996, Tantawi served as Egypt’s Grand Mufti for 10 years. While known for his sudden bursts of temper and sometimes coarse language, foreign leaders nonetheless praised Tantawi’s views of tolerance and inter-religious dialogue.
“The world has lost a premiere figure in the effort to foster inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue, French president Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement. “A man of peace and of tolerance, he embodied an Islam of dialogue and openness.
Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Roman Catholic Church, commended Tantawi in a statement from the Vatican.
“[His Holiness] has asked me to convey to your community and to the family of Sheikh Tantawi his heartfelt and prayerful condolences, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said. “He recalls the distinguished figure of this religious leader, who for long years was a valued partner in the dialogue between Muslims and Catholics.
Marc Fracno, head of the European Union’s Delegation to Egypt, also mourned Tantawi, “with great sadness and pain.
“[Tantawi] enriched the Islamic world with his sound views of dialogue among religions and rapprochement among civilizations, Fracno said. “[He] was regarded as one of the most important Azhar scientists, especially in the field of interpretation of Quran.
United States president Barack Obama, who was hosted by Tantawi on his visit to Cairo last year, also offered his condolences.
“He was 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, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement.
Condolences also came from many other world leaders as well, including Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan; Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates; and Lee Hsien Loong, prime minister of Singapore, who said he was “deeply impressed by His Eminence’s wisdom and balanced views on Islam and inter-faith dialogue.
Foreign media also gave coverage to Tantawi’s passing. In the foreign press, Tantawi was best known as an opponent of female genital mutilation, suicide bombings, repression of women, and for his stance against allowing the niqab, a full-face covering, to be worn by women in university.
Tantawi was criticized for shaking hands with Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2008. He later claimed he had not recognized who Peres was when he met him at a conference in New York.
“For more than a quarter century Mr. Tantawi was at the nexus of government and religion in Egypt, the New York Times said in an obituary. “[Tantawi worked] with President Hosni Mubarak’s government to try to enforce a moderate interpretation of Islam.
“Tantawi angered radicals by supporting organ transplants, denouncing female circumcision and ruling that women should be appointed to senior judicial and administrative positions in government, the Associated Press said. “At the same time, he shocked many Muslims in 2004 by siding with France in its steps to ban the hijab head covering from state schools.
“[Tantawi] provoked a fierce backlash from Islamic hardliners, not least for his condemnation of the niqab .a position he broadcast widely last year during the debate over its prohibition in France, the Guardian said. “In 2009, he banned women wearing the full veil from entering Al-Azhar s campus.
Tantawi also described the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks against the United States as “acts of terror against innocent people.
“Extremism is the enemy of Islam, he told a conference in 2003.
Fox News, an American media outlet known for its conservative views, called Tantawi “a courageous voice silenced in the Middle East.
“[Tantawi] was a wily pragmatist, a man of his time whose fatwas, or religious rulings, separated him from his predecessor, Fox News said. “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.