RIYADH/CAIRO – Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the head of Egypt’s most prestigious seat of Islamic learning Al-Azhar, died of a heart attack Wednesday on a visit to Saudi Arabia. He was 81.
King Abdullah, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and Crown Prince Sultan sent their condolences to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on the death of Sheikh Tantawi. Sheikh Abdullah Aal Al-Sheikh, Grand Mufti of the Kingdom and President of the Board of Senior Ulema and other senior scholars also expressed deep condolences on the Tantawi.
Sheikh Tantawi died in the Kingdom, where he attended a ceremony. Saudi officials said he will be buried in the Baqi cemetery in Madina.
The sheikh, who was appointed in March 1996 by President Hosni Mubarak, was a revered figure among many of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims. His rulings carried great influence, particularly in Egypt, although they did not carry the force of law. In office, he opposed female circumcision as against Shariah, a practice widely criticized by rights groups. He also took a stand against the full veil, or ‘Niqab’, that completely covers the face, issuing a religious edict last year barring the niqab in all-girl schools run by Al-Azhar.
When France was criticized across the Arab and Muslim World for banning the veil in French state schools, Tantawi said in 2003 it was a religious duty of Muslim women to wear a headscarf but said non-Muslim states had a right to issue any law.
Mohammed Wasel, Tantawi’s deputy, will temporarily take charge of Al-Azhar. – Agencies