The Death of Al-Azhar’s Grand Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi: Implications for Domestic and Regional, Islamic, Arab and Egyptian Politics and Theology
Written by Matthew J. Gordner (1)

On 10 March 2010, Sheikh Dr. Mohamed Sayed Tantawi died from a heart attack, at the age of 81, while sojourning in Saudi Arabia. Tantawi was not only Egypt’s chief religious official. He was the leader of al-Azhar, the oldest and most reputed centre of religious education in all of Sunni Islam – the first ever degree-granting institution in the world, established in the mid-tenth century, at the height of Islamic societies’ technological achievements and theological and philosophical advances.

Tantawi’s twofold religious and political obligations that accompany this position required him to be a sort of middleman between the institutions of religion and the Egyptian regime. His death leaves a hodgepodge of social and religious commentators and analysts, political scientists, pundits and politicians hoping for and predicting what may be for Egyptian, Arab, and Sunni Islamic politics and theology.

Impact on Domestic and Regional Politics

As a result of the influence that the position wields as customary representative of Sunni Islam, Tantawi’s death has created a small - albeit opportunity laden - power vacuum in Egyptian politics. Successive Middle Eastern and North African regimes have long repressed the institutions of religion, mostly through cooptation, following independence from French or British mandates and the coming to power of secular national dictators. In Egypt, this co-optation has persisted at least since Nasser’s accession to power by coup in 1954, in one form or another, under successive Sadat and Mubarak regimes. The symbolism of Tantawi’s position nonetheless carries considerable import and a degree of public exposure that poses an opportunity for a successor’s potential political sway to create meaningful and lasting change in both politics and religion.

This vacuum comes at an interesting juncture in the lives of many Egyptians, religious scholars, and coreligionists across the Arab and Muslim worlds. The Mubarak regime has shown an increasingly oppressive hand over the last few years, silencing perceived threats with little international rebuke, frequently arresting, jailing and torturing pro-democracy activists and even young bloggers keen to speak their piece. Though Western Islamic theologians and philosophers support progressive and democratic movements and politics, few in the Arab world rally around such causes wholeheartedly and escape unscathed.

Small and marginal yet dangerously radical communities and cells of terrorists perpetrate hate and violence in the name of Islam throughout the Muslim world, and strong and thoughtful religious leaders who stand against such radical ideologies go a long way to deter and stand as a corrective to heinous and egregious abuses of human dignity and Islamic law of these kinds.

On account of authoritarian control over civil society and political culture among Arab societies (helped no less by the complicity and sometimes direct support of Western patronage), the region displays a disproportionate democratic deficit and appalling breaches of human rights compared to the rest of the world – Muslim or otherwise. Again, religious scholars and clerics of the region have made scant contributions to the cause of political freedom and equality so desired by the denizens of Egyptian, Middle Eastern and North African states and societies.

Egypt receives the second largest sum of aid from any a single country in the world, second only to Israel. The United States is the prime benefactor and beneficiary of this arrangement, which secures a formative peace between Egypt, the epicentre of the Arab street and the most populous Arab nation, and Israel, that invites the resentment and animus of significant proportions of the region as a calculated cost. Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), based in Algiers but operative across North Africa, Somalia’s al-Shabaab, now in control over significant proportions of Mogadishu, and numerous other terrorist factions no doubt have in mind the United States when excoriating “the West” as the Great Satan. What the region and the religion needs is a well respected moderate who can speak sense to the masses while addressing the concerns of the radical, marginalised and disenfranchised few who take to violence and hatred.

The appointment of Tantawi’s replacement, depending on whether and to what degree he is co-opted by the Egyptian state (or the United States by possible extension); what orientation of religious leader he is (whether vociferous or self-effacing); and what path his philosophy/theology takes will have significant consequence for Islamic as well as democratic legitimacies in the region – “moderate” or “radical” alike. For now, the response from Egypt’s Islamists alone indicates the gravity of the situation and the significance of the next Sheikh’s appointment.

Tantawi’s Successor: State Selected or Al-Azhar Approved?

Following Sheikh Tantawi’s death, Islamic groups in Egypt, including most notably the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya, are stirring controversy over the appointment of Tantawi’s replacement. Both groups are calling for Tantawi’s successor to be determined by a vote among Al-Azhar clerics rather than what is expected to occur, given the consistently oppressive nature of the Mubarak regime: a replacement chosen by the state, one that is likely to be much more sympathetic to Mubarak’s dictates, as Tantawi was suspected to be.

Tantawi’s passing and the selection of his successor are momentous for domestic politics on the part of The Muslim Brotherhood’s activism and politics in particular. Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya, the likely culprit behind the 1981 assassination of then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, has repeatedly renounced violence of late and has made a number or nonviolence pacts with the state that have led to thousands of members being released over recent years. Though they garner a small membership they are still held in suspicion by the Mubarak regime as a physical threat to the state. Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya proper poses only a lightweight challenge to regime stability in comparison to the Muslim Brotherhood, whose ballots present a greater challenge on the whole.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has long renounced violence (since the 1970s), but in continuing to portend that “Islam is the Solution” its popularity and representation persist in the face of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) at the polls. The Muslim Brotherhood is a legitimate force in Egyptian and Arab politics with a considerable and deeply internalised ideology with a broad strokes, community-based political following. Thus, while Mubarak won the 1990 election with 94%, and with 88.6% in 2005, the Muslim brotherhood took 20% of the seats in the latter elections. Though his son is most likely being groomed to take over in the future, Mubarak still has cause for concern if the Muslim Brotherhood’s popular legitimacy is unduly provoked and stirred into action.

The 2005 elections were contested; the regime was observed committing election fraud, preventing many Muslim Brotherhood members from casting their votes in the first round elections voting and jailing others shortly before the second. Despite all this, and although the Brotherhood has had to run as nominal independents, they are officially banned as a political party, some, especially those of the young guard, hope that the Brotherhood can muster enough Egyptian support overall to make notable change from within the political system.

The Brotherhood’s former impetus towards democratic politics were overcastted recently by the selection of a new Supreme Leader, the ultra-conservative Mohammed Badie, who publicly declared a preference for improving local and community-based religious practices over an overt public presence in domestic politics. The split between the old and new guard was gaping. Thus, the issue of Tantawi’s successor might not only reunify the Brotherhood towards a common cause in demanding an Al-Azhar election, but in debating who that successor may be, the Muslim Brotherhood could become a centrepiece in campaigns for and against this or that candidate. On the other hand, following Badie’s undemocratic appointment, and if an unpopular decision for Grand Sheikh follows, the young guard could turn vanguard as a seminal opposition to Mubarak’s regime altogether in the near future.

Tantawi’s Mixed Legacy

In opposition to the demands of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups, member of Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Academy Dr. Abd Al-M'uti Bayoumi has spoken out against clerics selecting who fills the open position. The clerics are, as he indicated, not adept at making political decisions of these kinds and are ill equipped for voting and elections.

This decision from within Al-Azhar comes as no surprise, however, as Sheikh Tantawi, at the crossroads of Government and religion in Egypt, worked closely with President Hosni Mubarak's Government to enforce a moderate version or interpretation of Islam, as was expected of him. He was elected Sheikh of Al-Azhar in 1996 and ever since his pro-Government decisions and public willingness to acknowledge peace with Israel have made him a controversial figure.

In fact, he was the target of censure from all sides. While leftists accused him of being in the regime’s pocket, he also came under fire by Islamists for such decrees as banning the veil at Egyptian universities. He condemned the attacks on the US of 11 September 2001 among others, and was criticised for not being supportive enough in defending the Muslim world, especially when loath to call out France’s decision to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves. He condoned some acts of terrorism and violence against Israel in particular and was also noteworthy for being disapproving of the ongoing practice of female genital mutilation common to Egypt and other cultures of the African continent, and for accepting organ transplants as a necessary medical practice.

As Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Tantawi’s legacy is met with mixed feelings. Perhaps the enigmatic nature of what he supported or censured on par with the regime’s requests versus what he condoned or condemned as a religious decision-cum-political act of his own only perpetuates the hopes and predictions of what is to come in the form of the next Grand Sheikh. But what is certain is that the next Grand Sheikh will likewise have the opportunity to forge some sort of legacy for himself. Whether it will be as a henchman of the Mubarak regime, a hard line cleric, an independent and progressive theologian-philosopher, or a mixed bag of all of the above, the next appointee will find himself caught in the middle of a nexus between state, society and religion in Egypt, and under pressure from all sides and all corners to represent the “true” Sunni Islam or fight the “real” fight against the regime’s continued oppression.

In these conditions that any Grand Sheikh can make it out with an overall positive legacy is doubtful given the interlocutors and players in question. But the importance and significance of the position requires that someone fill this void. One can only hope that in treading the path of the middleman, the next Sheikh can mediate between democracy and naught in Egypt while demonstrating what “true” Sunni Islam means as a progressive and pluralistic-proponing force in Islam to those hateful, violent and terroristic factions in greatest need of a corrective.


(1) Matthew Gordner is an External Consultant with Consultancy Africa Intelligence ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).

Written on Tuesday, 16 March 2010 07:42 by Consultancy Africa Intelligence

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