Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, 1928-2010
Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, supreme sheikh of the internationally-known Islamic religious university of al-Azhar in Cairo, died this week in Saudi Arabia, aged 81. His remains have been interred in Jannat al-Baqi, the blessed cemetery of the relatives and companions of the Prophet Muhammad, in Medina.
There is a disturbing cause for irony in the trivial fact of Tantawi's burial. Jannat al-Baqi is today a vast, empty space, from which the fanatical Wahhabis, who took over Mecca and Medina in 1924, removed the tombs and markers honoring the distinguished early Muslims whose graves were there. Wahhabism, which became and remains the state religion of Saudi Arabia, condemns monuments for the dead, and even intercessory prayers for the deceased, as forms of idolatry. In reality, erection of tombs and visits to them have been Muslim customs for more than 1,400 years.
In addition, foreigners are not typically granted space in Jannat al-Baqi. Westerners might imagine Tantawi earned this honour because of his piety, but he was not a defender of traditional Islamic spirituality. Rather, he was a religious functionary, who served the Egyptian state no less than the ideological interests of the Saudis and other fundamentalists. In 2002, Tantawi changed his position on terrorism against civilians, by endorsing suicide attacks, and two years later he delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Yasir Arafat, a Marxist who was never identified with religious study.
Tantawi became known last year as a symbol of change in the Islamic lands, when he banned female students at al-Azhar from wearing the niqab, the face-veil. Tantawi condemned niqab as a folk custom without a basis in Islam – and as Muslims around the world know, only Saudi Arabia maintains a widespread imposition of the face-veil on women when they leave their homes. In recent times, the niqab has been universal in the Saudi kingdom, but since the accession to the throne of King Abdullah in 2005, and the beginning of a slow and less than effectual programme of social reforms, women in the western coastal region of Hejaz, including Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina, have sought to revert to their pre-Wahhabi freedom from face covering. Women travelling in the hajj pilgrimage to the holy cities do not wear niqab, and women in the old, Ottoman-ruled Hejaz had never accepted the practice.
Tantawi was a moderate in the same way King Abdullah is a moderate; compared with the radicalism of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the hard-line Wahhabi clerics, both appear to be in the vanguard of an Islamic renaissance. Prior to his order prohibiting niqab at al-Azhar, Tantawi condemned female genital mutilation (FGM), which he also described as unconnected to Islam. But both niqab and FGM have been supported by radicals among Muslims.
Opposition to the un-Islamic niqab and FGM is to be applauded, but much more is needed from the head of al-Azhar, and from Muslim faith leaders in general, than these minimal actions. Although the niqab ban at the university provoked demonstrations by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and caused even more controversy when it was extended by the Egyptian government to public universities, such progressive opinions are diluted when they are viewed as politically dictated by rulers who do not otherwise restrain corruption in their countries.
Rather than a cleric who will fulfil the orders of Egypt's secular president, Hosni Mubarak, without question, al-Azhar needs educators who will revive the spirit of inquiry, debate, and analysis among Islamic scholars. The Muslim imagination has been stifled by the influence of excessive oil wealth, the arrogance of leaders who govern without accountability, and the ignorance of fanatics who believe that knowing a few verses of Qur'an or hadiths – the oral commentaries of the Prophet Muhammad – makes them outstanding religious leaders. In the third Islamic century – corresponding to the ninth century, CE – the African Muslim scholar al-Jahiz noted critically, "every Muslim thinks he is a theologian, and that nobody else is better" at defending the religion. Sadly, this situation remains a constant in Muslim life.
The revitalisation of Islamic thought will begin when al-Azhar is no longer a battleground between the Mubarak government and the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, but, rather, a humanistic centre of learning independent of political and ideological demands. Wavering, along with Mubarak, between suppression and appeasement of fundamentalism, Tantawi failed to reinforce the Islamic principle that, as Muhammad himself is believed to have said, "the differences among scholars of religion are a blessing and a mercy". The prophet of Islam also declared, according to a well-established hadith, "My Companions are like the stars in the night sky – following any one of them you will be rightly-guided."
Muhammad Sayed Tantawi lived during a time of great challenge for Islam: the challenge to reaffirm faith while adapting to a new order of society. While he sometimes appeared as a source of enlightenment, he was finally too fond of access to power. Perhaps for him, King Abdullah was a more comforting protector than President Mubarak. But the road to Islamic fulfilment will be followed, as it was in the past, by those unafraid to separate themselves from political castes and official institutions, who search their own hearts as well as the precedents of the Muslim intellect, for a reaffirming courage and determination. At al-Azhar, in the country of Egypt, and in the Muslim lands as a whole, personalities have yet to appear who can be justifiably compared with the great minds of the Islamic past, especially the wise Sufis. Tantawi has come and gone, and left scant traces of his passage in the sands of the Middle Eastern deserts.