This morning, Muhammad Tantawi, Sheikh of al-Azhar, passed away in Riyadh from a heart attack. He was one of what may be, symbolically at least, the three most important men in Egypt, along with President Hosni Mubarak and Coptic Pope Shenouda III. All three were about the same age, and ill.
Tantawi leaves a mixed legacy behind him: overall, the immediate verdict may be that he was too liberal for conservatives, too conservative for liberals, too compliant with the regime for those who want al-Azhar to be independent, and too independent for those in the regime who needed Azharite support to enact policy changes on issues as varied as Palestine, banking and TV game shows. The overall image is of a man besieged on all sides, but adept at fighting bureaucratic battles in the bloated, clerical civil service that al-Azhar has become.
Tantawi was of the generation of men that have ruled Egypt for at least three decades, and had an incredible influence over twentieth century Egypt. He came of age in the 1940s, and considered himself privileged to have been a young Muslim Brother and benefited from direct contact with the movement's founder, Hassan al-Banna. He shared with al-Banna and many other Brothers at the time a provincial origin, a fierce nationalism and disdain for the cosmopolitanism of Egypt's ruling elite under the monarchy. He would eventually grow into one of the Brotherhood's favorite targets, accused of selling out Sunnism's most hallowed institution of learning to the regime. His record as the state Mufti between 1986 and 1995 was, in the Islamists' eyes, an era of unprecedented politicization of religious institution, and they never forgave him for it (never mind that they were fighting a battle to politicize these institutions against the regime all throughout that time.)
When Tantawi became Sheikh al-Azhar in 1995, replacing the conservative Gad al-Haqq, he immediately began what would amount to an internal purge. Al-Haqq had promoted the al-Azhar Scholar's Front, a conservative group opposed to the co-optation of al-Azhar, since 1992, in part in reaction to the murder of the leading secularist thinker Farag Fouda, whose martyrdom he feared would boost secularists in the regime. The Scholar's Front had been set up in 1946 as a group of anti-secularist scholars and thinkers to counter the ideas of Taha Hussein. Tantawi immediately broke with the front, and instead leaned on the Islamic Research Academy, seen as marginally more reformist, to sanctify his ideas.
The context of Tantawi's rise in al-Azhar is important. Tantawi's career had been from government post to government post, and he had never distinguished himself as an opponent of the regime. Some saw him as too pliant, including the person who is perhaps Egypt's most influential religious figure of the late twentieth century, Sheikh Metwally Shaarawi. Shaarawi, who died in 1997, was a populist TV preacher whose posters still adorn many shops in lower-income neighborhoods. His influence — in my opinion for the worse, as his brand of religion, while accessible, was often crass and small-minded — cannot be under-estimated, and Tantawi had to deal with it. The story is that Tantawi chose to placate Shaarawi by appointing his son at the head of the Academy. With his help, Tantawi eroded the authority of the Scholars' Front, eventually succeeding in getting the government to withdraw its license. He also pursued some of its leaders — his main critics — in the courts, winning libel trials against them. But he would also clash with Shaarawi Jr.
Throughout his tenure at al-Azhar, Tantawi would provoke controversies, and he could not always count on the support of the Academy and his fellow Azharites. His detractors accused him of blindly supporting government policies, no matter what Islamic traditions said. For instance, he decreed that banks could charge interest without this being riba (usury), but rather ribh (profit). Later, he would also sanction the mortgage law, allowing Egyptians to borrow to finance home purchases (a major, and many think necessary, reform to avoid other types of loans or only being able to buy property with cash.) Some reformist thinkers, like the "red Sheikh" Khalil Abdel Karim, backed him tentatively because he agreed (but not all the time) that new ijtihad (re-interpretation of Islamic tenets) was necessary.
Other clashes with conservatives were more esoteric, or mundane. Tantawi was the first Sheikh of al-Azhar to attend conferences hosted by groups such as the Rotary Club, which have long been considered as suspect by many conservatives Muslims who consider them as beachheads for Freemasonry and its deism (and also because of the role Freemason-inspired secret societies played in politics under the monarchy.) He was tut-tutted for approving of TV game shows like "Who wants to be a millionaire?" Most recently, he became controversial for ripping a young girl's niqab of her face and saying no girl should wear the full-face veil. He was also constantly battling influential clerics like Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawy — "Sheikh al-Jazeera" — on women's issues, as for instance when he decreed that women could be eligible for the presidency (an issue the Muslim Brothers still fight over). It was under his tenure that al-Azhar finally, without reservation, condemned Female Genital Mutilation, although his critics say that took longer that it should have.
Perhaps most public was his battle with al-Qaradawy, Islamists, nationalists, and many on the left over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1996, Tantawi became the first major Sunni figure to oppose suicide bombings in reaction to a particularly bloody attack on Israeli civilians that year. But within weeks, he backtracked in the face of a press campaign against him and called the bomber a "martyr." He battled the Mufti at the time, Sheikh Nasr Farid Wassel, over whether suicide bombings were acceptable. His meetings with Israeli figures, such as Israel's head rabbi or Shimon Peres, made many indignant, particularly after the Oslo process collapsed. It made it worse that he constantly waffled on the issue, pretending not to have recognized Peres. In the context of the war in Gaza and Egypt's shift of policy towards the Palestinians, as well as Peres' bloody past, this was seen as outrageous. The irony is that there has long been a rumor that Tantawi's doctoral thesis, titled "The Children of Israel in the Quran and Sunna", is believed to have been removed from al-Azhar's library because of its un-PC views of Jews.
It is likely that Tantawi will be remembered for these controversies and his clashes with journalists — he frequently yelled at them and is said to have hit one — as well as his sometimes coarse language. He leaves behind an unreformed al-Azhar — an institution that includes a university and a school system as well as a theological center — whose credibility has hit rock-bottom. This may be because Tantawi was too pliant towards the regime, or because of the growth of various trends in contemporary Islam that reject al-Azhar's centrality. While the Muslim Brothers dream of restoring al-Azhar to its former (imagined?) glories, Salafists and groups like the Quranists would do away with its mediation of religion altogether. The debate over al-Azhar and the trahison des clercs is far from over. Whoever replaces him — perhaps Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, another tentative modernizer — will have much work to repair al-Azhar's standing and its vitality as a place of learning. It will also have to make difficult political decisions, especially on the issue of presidential succession, at a time when clerics are beginning to voice an opinion on the prospect of a Gamal Mubarak presidency.
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