CAIRO, March 10, 2010 -- Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, Egypt's top cleric whose moderate views attracted both praise and scorn throughout the Muslim world, died of a heart attack Wednesday while visiting Saudi Arabia.
Tantawi, who was 81, was the grand sheik of Cairo's Al-Azhar University, a theological institute dedicated to the study of Sunni Islam. Egypt's Middle East News Agency reported that Tantawi fell while boarding a plane and suffered a massive heart attack. He was pronounced dead a short time later at a hospital in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
Tantawi was known for his liberal views and his great theological understanding. He wrote a number of books, including a 15-volume, 7,000-page encyclopedia on the interpretation of Quran.
Respected Around the World by Sunni Muslims
Sheik Mahmoud Ashour, former deputy at Al-Azhar, worked with Tantawi for three years.
"He was a polite and humane man, always trying to move the Al-Azhar University forward. He was an intellectual who wrote many books about Islam,'' he said.
''He was the Sheikh of Islam, the leader of all Sunni Muslims around the world, he was the man responsible for all things to do with Islam," Ashour added.
Because of his knowledge and great understanding of Islam, many Muslims around the world considered his views and edicts, although not backed by law, as a reference that was valued by many Muslims.
Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi Dead at 81
Late last year, Tantawi stoked the debate about whether women should wear the full veil -- known as the hijab -- in public. Tantawi said he wanted to ban the hijab in religious institutions, schools and universities. He said that it was a tradition and had nothing to do with the Islamic faith. Some Islamic scholars agreed, arguing that the Quran tells women to dress modestly, leaving the definition open to interpretation.
Tantawi also supported the decision made by France years ago to ban the hijab in French state schools.
But today, even some of Tantawi's harshest critics were moved by word of his death.
Islamic scholar Mohamed Emara told ABC News that ''our condolences have already been issued on our Web site.'' Emara's Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest political opposition group, expressed their condolences, saying it was a ''great loss not only for the Al-Azhar institute but for great scholars and Muslim sheiks around the world.'' The Brotherhood, which is banned in Egypt, has been at odds with Tantawi in the past, most recently over his views on the hijab.
The sheik was also vocal in his opposition to Muslims using religion as a way of justifying violence. Condemning suicide bombings, he was quoted at a conference in Malaysia in 2003 as saying "extremism is the enemy of Islam. Whereas, jihad is allowed in Islam to defend one's land, to help the oppressed. The difference between jihad in Islam and extremism is like the earth and the sky."
Tantawi's Critics Often Got an Earful
Tantawi was also an opponent of female circumcision, a practice that is still widely carried out in Egypt, saying it was ''un Islamic.''
Because he was appointed to Al-Azhar by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 1996, his critics claim that he often towed the regime's line. He reportedly hit back with his fiery temper by yelling at his critics and reporters who questioned his views.
Until Mubarak chooses a successor, the sheikh's deputy, Mohammad Wasel, will step in and temporarily act as Egypt's top cleric.