Egypt's al-Azhar leader dies in Saudi Arabia

Wed Mar 10, 2010 10:55am GMT

By Dina Zayed and Yasmine Saleh

CAIRO (Reuters) - Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, the head of Egypt's most prestigious seat of Islamic learning al-Azhar, died of a heart attack on Wednesday on a visit to Saudi Arabia, religious officials at al-Azhar said. He was 81.

Mohamed Wasel, Tantawi's deputy, will temporarily take charge of the Sunni Muslim institution until Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak appoints a new head. Wasel has been heading al-Azhar's committee for inter-faith dialogue.

Al-Azhar, which runs schools, universities and other educational institutions across Egypt and sends scholars to teach in countries across the Muslim world, receives most of its funding from the state.

"The government usually chooses a moderate sheikh and all we can ask of them is that their coming choice will be a sheikh who will work for the best interest of the people and will be biased not for the government but for truth," Sheikh Mahmoud Hamdy Mugahed, former Azhar scholar and now parliament member, said.

When he was appointed in 1996, Tantawi was viewed as having relatively liberal views on issues such as women's rights but had been criticised by some for toeing the government's line.

In office, he opposed female circumcision as unislamic, a practice widely criticised 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.

APOSTASY CASE   Continued...

<p>Sunni Islam's top authority and Grand Chief of Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque, Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, pauses during a news conference in Cairo September 16, 2006. REUTERS/Nasser Nuri</p>
Powered by Reuters AlertNet. AlertNet provides news, images and insight from the world's disasters and conflicts and is brought to you by Reuters Foundation.