Sheik Mohammed Tantawi, Egypt's Highest Cleric, Dies

Tantawi, Egypt's top Sunni cleric, was not afraid to attack conservatives.

ByABC News
March 10, 2010, 11:46 AM

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.

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.