|Biographical detail : ||Grand Imam of al-Azhar who championed the rights of women and advocated dialogue between civilisations.
One of Islam’s leading spirituals authorities to champion moderation worldwide Sheikh Tantawani was Grand Imam of the al-Azhar mosque and head of the al-Azhar University, pre-eminent centre of learning, from 1996 until his death.
Al-Azhar had been founded as a Fatimid seat of learning in 970. Salah-al-Din Yusuf Ibn Ayyub (Saladin) expelled the Fatimid in 1171. Later under President Nasser who was in constant conflict with the hardliner Muslim Brotherhood, all al-Azhar appointments were made by the government and continue to be so.
For more than a quarter century Sheikh Tantawani was at the nexus of government and religion in Egypt working with President Hosni Mubarak’s government to try to enforce a moderate interpretation of Islam.
In Egypt, the government is effectively required to obey Al Azhar’s rulings over what books and films must be banned. It runs a university system with more than 300,000 students and an elementary-through-high school system that serves 1.5 million students. It sends hundreds of religious scholars into Africa and Asia to promote the faith, and there are more than 30,000 foreign students studying in its schools at any one time.
As Grand Mufti of Egypt from 1986 to 1996, Sheikh Tantawani outraged many Muslims by ruling that fixed interest rates on bank deposits are halal (allowed), in the face of traditional Islamic consensus that all interest rate are haram (forbidden).
Sheikh Tantawani shared platforms with the Prince of Wales and, in 2008, spoke at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies on the value of dialogue between civilisations.
“Extremism is the enemy of Islam”, declared Sheikh Tantawani in a conference in Kuala Lumpur, in 2003. He provoked a fierce backlash from Muslim hardliners when, in 2009, he banned women wearing the full veil from entering al-Azhar’s campus.
Born in Sohag, Upper Egypt, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawani joined a religious institution in Alexandria. After graduating from al-Azhar, in the faculty of religious studies in 1958, he went on to teach. He was awarded a PhD in Hadith and Tafsir in 1966. By 1980, he was the head of the Tafsir department of the University of Madinah, in Saudi Arabia, a position he held until 1984.
In 1986, when Sheikh Tantawani had been dean of the faculty of Arab and religious studies for a year, he became Grand Mufti of Egypt, a position he held for a decade until his appointment as Grand Imam.
Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawani died of heart attack as he was boarding an aircraft in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. He was buried in the city of Madinah.