Page last updated at 10:34 GMT, Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Sheikh Tantawi, Egypt's top cleric dies aged 81

Sheikh Mohammad Sayed Tantawi
Sheikh Tantawi has died suddenly of a suspected heart attack

Egypt's foremost Muslim cleric, Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, has died, aged 81, while on a trip to Saudi Arabia.

Sheikh Tantawi was the Grand Imam of the al-Azhar mosque and head of the al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam's centre of learning and scholarship.

He died of a heart attack in the Saudi capital Riyadh, where he was attending a prize-giving ceremony.

Sheikh Tantawi had infuriated radical Islamists with his moderate views on women wearing the veil.

His body will be taken to the Saudi city of Medina, the burial place of the Prophet Muhammad, for burial, Egyptian authorities said.

An adviser to the Sheikh told Egyptian television Sheikh Tantawi's death was a shock, as before leaving for Saudi Arabia he had seemed in "excellent shape and health".

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He leaves behind an unreformed al-Azhar - an institution that includes a university and a school system as well as a theological center - whose credibility has hit rock-bottom. This may be because Tantawi was too pliant towards the regime, or because of the growth of various trends in contemporary Islam that reject al-Azhar's centrality.

A member of Sheikh Tantawi's office, Ashraf Hassan, told news agency Reuters that Mohamed Wasel, Sheikh Tantawi's deputy, was expected to temporarily take over leading the institution until the Egyptian president appointed a new head for the body.

Sheikh Tantawi was appointed to his position by Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak in 1996.

But as a government appointee, he was always forced to negotiate a careful path between his religious imperatives and his government position, the BBC's Christian Fraser in Cairo says.

He was vocal in his opposition to female circumcision, which is common in Egypt, calling it "un-Islamic".

Last year, Sheikh Tantawi barred female students at the university from wearing the full-face covering niqab veil.

He also caused upset other Muslim scholars by saying that French Muslims should obey any law that France might enact banning the veil.

His views on the veil prompted Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to accuse him of "harming the interests of Islam".

He has also condemned suicide attacks, saying extremists had hijacked Islamic principles for their own ends.

"I do not subscribe to the idea of a clash among civilizations. People of different beliefs should co-operate and not get into senseless conflicts and animosity," he told a conference in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur in 2003.

"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," Sheikh Tantawi said.

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FROM OTHER NEWS SITES Egypt's al-Azhar leader dies in Saudi Arabia - 1 hr ago
NewsMax.comFirebrand Egyptian Cleric Dies on Saudi Trip - 7 hrs ago
Miami Herald Controversial Egyptian cleric leaves mixed legacy - 14 hrs ago Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi obituary - 16 hrs ago
Jerusalem Post Top Sunni cleric dies of heart attack - 24 hrs ago
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