The world has lost a powerful Islamic voice today. Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the leader of the top Islamic academic center, Al-Azhar University, in the world and the “Imam of Egypt” died today. I recently returned from living in Cairo so of course I checked out the neighborhood surrounding Al-Azhar. It was pretty impressive, the student body wasn’t just Egyptian or Arab Muslims, it was composed of Muslim’s from around the world. Sheikh Tantawi and thus Al-Azhar provided a moderate voice in Islamic education.
I was in Egypt for his latest vocal objection. In October 2009, Sheikh Tantawi was visiting a girls school in Cairo where one student was wearing a niqab. He ordered the girl to remove the veil because it was un-Islamic (Remove thy veil). This was not the first time Sheikh Tantawi expressed his moderate opinions and views of Islam. He has condemned suicide bombings (not jihad) and female circumcision as insults to Islam (no mutilation). Sheikh Tantawi even blamed Saddam Hussein for the violence Iraq experienced after the 2003 invasion (Saddam’s fault?).
The world has lost an important and influential figure who could have helped to reduce many of the conflicts and violence throughout the Middle East and Islamic world. Unfortunately, his death may have a negative impact on the current negotiations to restart dialogue between the PLO and Israel.