Tributes for Sunni Muslim cleric who challenged religious violence

By Ecumenical News International
March 16, 2010

Sunni Muslim cleric, Sheikh Mohammed Sayyid Tantawi, whom religious leaders have hailed for his involvement in inter-faith dialogue, as well as for challenging those who kill innocent people in the name or religion, has died - writes Anli Serfontein. reported that he was boarding an early morning flight when he suffered severe pain and fell on the stairs. He was 81 when he died on 10 March 2010.

Tantawi, Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque in Egypt, and the spiritual leader of around one billion Sunni Muslims, died of a heart attack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on 10 March. He was on his way back to Cairo, and was buried according to Muslim tradition before sunset on the same day, near the holy city of Medina.

World religious and political leaders, including the office of the US president, have paid tribute to Tantawi.

Tantawi "will be remembered with great respect and appreciation for his remarkable contribution to Islamic scholarship, for his prominent role and genuine commitment to intercultural and inter-religious dialogue," the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev Olav Fykse Tveit wrote in a condolence letter to the Ulama' of al-Azhar al-Sharif on 11 March.

The Secretary General of the Lutheran World Federation, the Rev Ishmael Noko, who had met the sheikh on several occasions, told Ecumenical News International, "He was a respected leader in inter-religious gatherings, and his opinion was highly respected by all."

As Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque, Tantawi headed one of the most influential and important Sunni Muslim institutions. As Grand Sheikh of the Al-Azhar University, he also led one of the principal centres of Sunni theology.

Commentators have said Tantawi used his powerful positions to defend traditional interpretations of Islam against challenges from such groups as the Taleban and Al-Qaeda.

After the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Tantawi said that targeting innocent people was stupid, and would be punished on the day of judgement.

"It is not courageous in any way to kill an innocent person, or to kill thousands of people, including men and women and children," the Sheikh said at the time.

In July 2003 at an international conference of Muslim leaders in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, Tantawi again condemned suicide attacks, and said groups that carried them out were enemies of Islam. His remarks represented a shift in position, and followed a pattern of a growing willingness on the part of Muslim clerics and political leaders to face up to the serious threat of religious extremism in their own midst.

In December 2008, there was uproar in Egypt when Tantawi was pictured shaking hands with the Israeli president, Shimon Peres. Some critics advised the sheikh to decontaminate his hands. Barely six months later in July 2009, Tantawi participated as the most senior Muslim representative in a Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, hosted by the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. At the Astana conference table, only the Kazakh president separated Tantawi and the guest of honour, Israel's Shimon Peres.

In their opening remarks, Peres, Tantawi and the other most senior Islamic cleric present, the Secretary General of the Muslim World League, Abdallah Ben Abdel Mohsen Al-Turki, exchanged reconciliatory words.

"All religions turn to the same God," Tantawi told the 77 delegations from the world's main faith communities, who were attending the event.

When the Iranian delegation walked out while Peres was addressing the congress, the Israeli president pointedly turned to Tantawi and thanked him for his reconciliatory remarks.

After the announcement of Tantawi's death, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who was also present at the 2009 inter-faith gathering, and is president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, told Vatican Radio, "He was a man of peace, of dialogue, and I am convinced this will be the line of his successor as well."

In 2000, Tantawi welcomed Pope John Paul II to the Al-Azhar University, and was crucial in establishing a permanent commission that enabled university leaders and Vatican officials to meet for annual discussions.

While he was quoted criticising the practice of female genital circumcision, which is common in Egypt he also faced criticism from some Muslims for not criticising [this] in his home country and also for not criticising a decision in France to ban women from wearing head scarves in public schools.

Anglican Bishop Nick Baines of Croydon in England, who also attended the inter-religious congress in Kazakhstan, told ENI, "The death of Sheikh Tantawi leaves a gap, which it is to be hoped will be filled by a similar moderate leader."

Anli Serfontein covered the 2009 Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Astana.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]

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