Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy

Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy
محمد سيد طنطاوي
Grand Imam of Al-Azhar
In office
27 March 1996 – 10 March 2010
Preceded by Gad al-Haq Ali Gad al-Haq
Succeeded by Mohamed Ahmed el-Tayeb
Grand Mufti of Egypt
In office
28 October 1986 – 27 March 1996
Preceded by Abd al-Latif Abd al-Ghani Hamzah
Succeeded by Nasr Farid Wasil
Personal details
Born (1928-10-28)28 October 1928
Sohag, Egypt
Died 10 March 2010(2010-03-10) (aged 81)
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Alma mater Al-Azhar University
Religion Sunni Islam

Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy (Arabic: محمد سيد طنطاوي‎‎; 28 October 1928 – 10 March 2010), also referred to as Tantawi, was an influential Islamic scholar in Egypt. From 1986 to 1996, he was the grand Mufti of Egypt. In 1996, president Hosni Mubarak appointed him as the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, a position he retained until his death in 2010.


  • Early life 1
  • Education 2
  • Work 3
  • Views and fatwas 4
    • Charging interest on loans 4.1
    • Abortion 4.2
    • Female circumcision 4.3
    • Suicide bombings 4.4
    • Female imams 4.5
    • Pope Benedict XVI Islam controversy 4.6
    • Reaction to 9/11 attacks 4.7
    • Egyptian niqab controversy 4.8
    • Jews 4.9
  • Death 5
    • Condolences 5.1
  • Public image 6
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10

Early life

Tantawy born on 28 October 1928 in the village of Selim ash-Sharqiyah in the municipality of Tama, Sohag in Egypt. He joined the Alexandria Religious Institute in 1944. He graduated from Al-Azhar's faculty of religious studies in 1958 and went on to teach. In 1966, he was awarded a Ph.D. in Hadith and Tafsir, exegesis of the Qur'an.[1] He became a member of the faculty of Ausol Aldeen in 1968 and a member of the faculty of Arabic & Islamic Studies at the Islamic University of Libya in 1972. In 1980 he moved to Saudi Arabia, where he became chief of the Tafsir branch of the Postgraduate studies branch at the Islamic University of Madinah. He returned to Egypt in 1985, when he became Dean of the Faculty of Ausol Aldeen at the prestigious Alexandria Religious Institute.[2]


He obtained his first degree with honours, his Masters in Education in 1959 and his Ph.D in 1966. His doctoral thesis was on the children of Israel in the al-Quran and al-Sunnah.[3][4] [5]


In 1986, Tantawy was appointed as Grand Mufti of Egypt on his 58th birthday, 28 October 1986. He held this position for almost ten years, until he was appointed Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque and Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University by the President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, on 27 March 1996.[2][6] The Al-Azhar Mosque is one of the most influential and important Sunni Muslim institutions.[2]

Tantawy completed a seven thousand page exegesis of the Qur'an (Al-tafser al-waset). This Tafsir took over ten years to complete.[7] He has also written Bano Israel (The Children of Israel) and Muamlat Al-bank (Bank's Dealings).[2]

Tantawy led the funeral prayers at the funeral of Yasser Arafat in 2004, during which he said that "Arafat has done his duty as a defender of the Palestinian cause, with courage and honesty".[8]

Views and fatwas

Charging interest on loans

In 1989 the Egyptian government's support for Western-style, interest-based banks (long considered anathema by Muslim scholars as usury, or riba) was under siege by the expanding Islamic finance movement. In response to a government request for a ruling, Tantawy (then Grand Mufti of Egypt) issued a fatwa that described some forms of financial interest as tolerable- among them, those paid by government bonds and those on ordinary savings accounts. He declared that charging interest on such bank loans was in fact ribh, or just gaining profit, which was allowable. This eventually allowed the development of a mortgage industry. However, his ruling did not issue as an effectual decree. Tantawy’s rationale was based on an interpretation of the Islamic sources as banning usury (an extreme and manipulative form of interest-taking) but not any and all comparable forms of gain.[9][10][11]

His views on this issue have been very controversial among his fellow Muslim scholars. Despite years of friendship with Tantawy, well-known Egyptian scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi has sharply criticized his position on interest.[12]


He issued a fatwa which allowed abortion in cases where a woman had become pregnant as a result of rape,[13] though this created controversy and Mufti Ali Gomaa said Tantawy was wrong, and that irrespective of how the life was created, after 120 days an abortion becomes impermissible,[note 1] forbidden.[15]

Female circumcision

Tantawy opposed female circumcision calling it un-Islamic, especially in 1997, when he said "The ulema (theologians) of Islam are unanimous in agreeing that female circumcision has nothing to do with religion" and revealed his own daughter had not been circumcised.[16]

Suicide bombings

Tantawy initially took a line against suicide bombings, and unlike his compatriot Yusuf al-Qaradawi, he condemned the use of suicide bombings against Israelis, rejecting the argument that all Israelis were legitimate targets, because at some stage they would all carry a gun.[17] In 2003 he called suicide bombers "enemies of Islam", adding "people of different beliefs should co-operate and not get into senseless conflicts and animosity. Extremism is the enemy of Islam, whereas, jihad is allowed in Islam to defend one's land and to help the oppressed. The difference between jihad in Islam and extremism is like the earth and the sky"[18] Tantawy, however, later the same year changed his position and said anybody blowing himself up in the face of the occupiers of his land is a martyr, in response to a question about the Islamic shari'ah stance over the Palestinians who blow up their bodies against the Israelis. He stressed, however, that Islam did not allow the killing of innocent civilians and children but only invaders and aggressors.[19]

Female imams

Tantawy opposed women as Imams in mixed congregations during Friday prayers (Jumu'ah), saying when "A woman's body is private. When she leads men in prayer, in this case, it is not proper for them to look at the woman whose body is in front of them. Even if they see it in their daily life, it should not be in situations of worship, where the main point is humility and modesty."[20][21] He also called Haidar Haidar's book, Feast for Seaweed, blasphemous.[22] In 2001 he issued a fatwa banning women from acting as surrogate mothers or from receiving frozen sperm from dead husbands.[23]

Pope Benedict XVI Islam controversy

In response to the Pope Benedict XVI Islam controversy, he stated "We have no objection if the Pope holds another speech and declares publicly that what the Byzantine emperor had said was wrong. At the same time, the Pope has to apologize frankly and justify what he said".[24]

Reaction to 9/11 attacks

Speaking after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Tantawy said "It's not courage in any way to kill an innocent person, or to kill thousands of people, including men and women and children."[25] He said that Osama bin Laden's call for a Jihad against the west was "invalid and not binding on Muslims", adding "Killing innocent civilians is a horrific, hideous act that no religion can approve". He said the Qur'an "specifically forbids the kinds of things the Taliban and al-Qaida are guilty of".[26]

Egyptian niqab controversy

In October 2009, Tantawy launched a campaign against the niqab (the full-face veil which covers the entire body except for the eyes, increasingly worn by women in Egypt) by personally removing the niqab of a teenage girl (after she failed to remove it) at a secondary school affiliated to Al-Azhar University, which he was touring in Cairo's Madinet Nasr suburb, much to the shock of all concerned. He had asked the teenage girl to remove her veil saying: "The niqab is a tradition, it has no connection with religion." He then instructed the girl never to wear the niqab again and promised to issue a fatwa against its use in schools, saying he was determined to officially ban any person wearing the niqab from entering schools dependent on Al-Azhar University.[9][27][28]


In the 1960s Tantawy wrote a 700-page treatise on the children of Israel in the Quran and Sunnah (Jews in the Qur'an and the Traditions), in which he summarized: "[The] Qur'an describes the Jews with their own particular degenerate characteristics, i.e. killing the prophets of Allah, corrupting His words by putting them in the wrong places, consuming the people's wealth frivolously, refusal to distance themselves from the evil they do, and other ugly characteristics caused by their deep-rooted lasciviousness ... only a minority of the Jews keep their word. ... [A]ll Jews are not the same. The good ones become Muslims, the bad ones do not."[29]


Tantawy died on the morning of 10 March 2010, at the age of 81, as result of a heart attack during a visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.[30] Tantawy died as he was about to board his return flight to Egypt at Riyadh's King Khaled International Airport.[31] His heart attack came just after he fell whilst boarding the plane.[32] Tantawy had just attended the prize-giving ceremony for the King Faisal International Prize for Service to Islam.[33] He was officially pronounced dead at the Amir Sultan hospital.[34]

Tantawy's death was unexpected and he was described as being in "excellent shape and health" prior to his trip.[35] Egyptian authorities stated that, at his family's request, he would be buried in Medina in Saudi Arabia, which is also the burial place of Muhammad. His burial at the Jannatul Baqee cemetery took place after funeral prayers were held at the Prophet's Mosque.[36] Tantawy's deputy, Mohamed Wasel, was expected to take over his duties until Former President Mubarak appoints a replacement.[35] Later, the Egyptian government appointed Ahmad at-Tayyeb as the new rector of Al Azhar.[37]


Condolences have been sent to the Egyptian government by several national leaders and scholars.[36] These included Pope Benedict XVI,[38] US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; the Islamic Development Department of Malaysia (Jakim); King Mohammed VI of Morocco; King Abdullah II of Jordan, President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen and President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan.[39][40][41][42][43][44][45]

Public image

Tantawy, who died at the age of 81, was a moderate, sometimes progressive voice at the apex of Islamic scholarship during a period when such measured tones tended to be drowned out on the international scene by his more militant rivals.[46] Ebrahim Moosa, an associate professor of Islamic studies at Duke University stated: "Tantawi was not only pro-Western, he was often pro-authority and did his best to satisfy such authority, even if it meant that he had to cut corners with the body of ethical and moral rulings in Islamic teachings"..."His fatwas were not often carefully argued and scripted. They lacked a granular discussion of complex and controversial issues, and often he would cherry-pick from the tradition without proper justification."[10]

See also


  1. ^ 120 days is just over 17 weeks of pregnancy. In the United States 95% of abortions are carried out before the week 16.[14]


  1. ^ Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi obituary
  2. ^ a b c d CV of Dr. Muhammad Sayid Tantawy – Al-Azhar
  3. ^ "The Grand Imams of Al-Azhar (Shuyukhul Azhar)". Retrieved 2011-02-02. 
  4. ^ ": Dar Al-Iftaa | دار الإفتاء المصرية :". Retrieved 2011-02-02. 
  5. ^ "BBC Arabic – الشرق الأوسط – نبذة عن محمد سيد طنطاوي". BBC. Retrieved 2011-02-02. 
  6. ^ "News Section". Islam Online. Retrieved 2011-02-02. 
  7. ^ An invitation he just couldn't resist – Attending the King's Court: Shaykh al-Azhar Dr Mohammed Tantawi outside Number 10 – Q News via Ireland Online, June 1997.
  8. ^ Arafat's coffin flown to Ram Allah – Al Jazeera. 12 November 2004
  9. ^ a b Sheikh Mohammed Sayyid Tantawi,, dated 7:16PM GMT 11 March 2010
  10. ^ a b No Great Sheiks, Newsweek, dated 12 March 2010
  11. ^ Egypt’s Grand Sheikh Tantawi dies of heart attack, BikyaMasr, dated 10 March 2010
  12. ^ Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi on the Passing of Shaykh Muhammad Tantawi
  13. ^ Mail & Guardian Africa: "All Islam's sheikhs are extremists, right? Wrong. Meet the African Imam & mosques that shock even moderate Muslims" by Samantha Spooner 2 January 2015
  14. ^ "Abortion Facts". NO Abortion. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  15. ^ Religion and Ethics – Abortion – Rape, incest and adultery –
  16. ^ Egyptian ban on female circumcision upheld – BBC News 28 December 1997
  17. ^ Grand Sheikh condemns suicide bombings – BBC News 4 December 2001
  18. ^ Cleric condemns suicide attacks – BBC News 11 July 2003
  19. ^ [2]
  20. ^ Woman leads US Muslims to prayer – BBC News 18 March 2005
  21. ^ Woman leads controversial US prayer
  22. ^ Egypt row deepens over 'blasphemous' novel – BBC News 18 May 2000
  23. ^ Egypt clerics ban surrogate mothers – BBC News. 2 April 2001
  24. ^ Egypt's top Muslim leader demands clearer papal apology
  25. ^ Islamic world deplores US losses – BBC News 14 September 2001
  26. ^ Text: Lawmaker Says Grand Shaykh of Al-Azhar in Egypt Condemns bin Laden – US Emabassy in Jakarta October 2001
  27. ^ Egypt purges niqab from schools and colleges,, dated 5:44PM BST 5 October 2009
  28. ^ Lawmaker wants Tantawi to step down over veil ban, arab news, dated Thursday 8 October 2009 (18 Shawwal 1430)
  29. ^ Andrew Bostom, The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2008), p. 33.
  30. ^ Egypt's top Muslim cleric dies of heart attack
  31. ^ El Naggar, Miret (10 March 2010). "Controversial Egyptian cleric leaves mixed legacy". The Miami Herald. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  32. ^ Hasan, Lama (10 March 2010). "Sheik Mohammed Tantawi, Egypt's Highest Cleric, Dies". ABC News. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  33. ^ "Sheikh of Al-Azhar dies of heart attack". Brunei FM. 10 March 2010. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  34. ^ "Al-Azhar head dies in Saudi Arabia". Al Jazeera. 10 March 2010. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  35. ^ a b "Sheikh Tantawi, Egypt's top cleric dies aged 81". BBC News. 10 March 2010. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  36. ^ a b Khan, Ghazanfar Ali (11 March 2010). "Al-Azhar head Tantawi buried in Madinah". Arab News. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  37. ^ Al-Azhar rejects Wahhabi call to denounce recognition of Shia Islam
  38. ^ Pope sends condolences to family of deceased Muslim leader, Spero News, dated Friday, 12 March 2010
  39. ^ "White House marks death of top Sunni cleric". IC Publications. 10 March. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  40. ^ Clinton, Hillary (10 March 2010). "Death of Grand Imam Mohamed Sayyid Tantawi". US Department of State. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  41. ^ "Jakim Conveys Condolences Over Tantawi's Death". Malaysian National News Agency. 10 March 2010. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  42. ^ "HM the King sends condolence message to Egyptian Pres. over death of Al-Azhar head". Agence Maghreb Arabe presse. 10 March 2010. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  43. ^ "President condoles Mubarak on Tantawi death". Saba News. 10 March 2010. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  44. ^ Ilham Aliyev conveys his condolences to Hosni Mubarak, dated 12 March 2010 22:03
  45. ^ Azerbaijan President extends condolences to Egyptian counterpart, dated 12.03.2010 22:08
  46. ^ "Sheikh Mohammed Sayyid Tantawi". The Daily Telegraph. 11 March 2010. Retrieved 2011-02-02. 

External links

  • Al-Azhar Mosque and University (official site)
  • Niqab Debate in Egypt: Divided Scholars
Sunni Islam titles
Preceded by
Abd al-Latif Abd al-Ghani Hamzah
Grand Mufti of Egypt
Succeeded by
Nasr Farid Wasil
Preceded by
Gad al-Haq Ali Gad al-Haq
Grand Imam of al-Azhar Mosque
Succeeded by
Ahmed El-Tayeb
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