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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.
When France was criticised 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.
Western states have long viewed Egypt as an ally and have looked to Cairo, which receives hefty aid from the European Union and the United States, as a force for moderation.
Al-Azhar under Tantawi has angered some Egyptian liberals in the past for recommending books be banned for content deemed against Islam, a move they said violated free speech.
In 1996, Tantawi said an Egyptian court was right to order the divorce of a university professor, Nasr Abu Zeid, on grounds of apostasy because of his writings. Abu Zeid and his wife moved to the Netherlands to seek refuge.
Wasel told Egyptian television "Sheikh Tantawi's son has agreed he be buried in al-Baqi" in the Saudi holy city of Medina where relatives and companions of Prophet Mohammad are buried.
Abdullah el-Naggar, advisor to the sheikh, told Egypt's Nile News television the death was a surprise, saying that before leaving to Saudi Arabia the sheikh had seemed in "excellent shape and health."
A Saudi source familiar with the situation said Tantawi died of a heart attack in the Saudi capital on Wednesday. Egypt's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Mahmoud Auf, confirmed to Reuters that the sheikh had died of a heart attack.