Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 October 2005
Issue No. 763
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mohamed Sayed Tantawi

Mohamed Sayed Tantawi: An abstract contention

He shocked the pious by supporting France's decision to ban hijab in state schools. More provocatively -- and this was a position he did not maintain for long -- he condemned suicide bombings in Palestine, describing them as downright haram . His Eminence Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar since 1996, is in many respects the voice of Sunni Muslim moderation. Yet, in common with the vast majority of Egyptian clerics since the 1950s, he is often accused of being in the service of the regime. As Grand Mufti of Egypt (1986-96), he ruled that fixed interests on bank deposits are halal , for example -- a verdict with which many puritanical elements took issue. More recently, having assumed a hard-line position in support of the Iraqi resistance, Sheikh Tantawi declared to the press that resistance, "if it is against an enemy, is welcome, but if it involves one Iraqi against another, or against women, children and old men, then it is not resistance but infidelity". Whatever his final say on the issue, the fact remains that, notwithstanding the depth of his theological knowledge and his clarity of vision, Sheikh Tantawi will tend to abstract political questions to the point, almost, of obscuring their significance -- perhaps the only viable strategy for a harbourage of constancy in an age of hectic change.
Interview by Youssef Rakha

Click to view caption
"Who said that Al-Azhar no longer plays a political role? If what is meant by the political is that which relates to the interests of the [Muslim] nation, then that is something about which Al-Azhar speaks."

The traffic on the way to Mashiakhat Al-Azhar, the clerical headquarters of that most staid religious institution, was a nightmare of motionless heat. Past ten -- the point at which this extremely hard-won interview was scheduled to take place -- I felt doomed to tardiness; I had no idea, at this point, that a 15- minute delay would be easily, not to say involuntarily accommodated. But by the time the car was parked in the spacious, vaguely circular area surrounding the neo-Islamic building in Darrasa -- not far from Al-Azhar Mosque, built by the (Ismaili) Fatimid conqueror Al-Mu'zulidinillah's legendary architect Jawhar Al-Saqalli in AD 970 -- a sense of relief overpowered my apprehension. Air- conditioned shelter, at last, and relative, fume- free quiet: such promises were indeed fulfilled in due course, though first we had to find our way through the labyrinthine, surprisingly ultramodern interior, already overcrowded, as it was, with an even more surprising mix of seemingly secular clientele. In time the place was to feel like some surreal cross between Mugamma' Al-Tahrir (Cairo's premiere stronghold of Kafkaesque bureaucracy) and a corporate office building. The design, the infrastructure brought the latter to mind, while the appearance of those who populated it, the pace and tenor of their interactions, was unreservedly more evocative of the former. Be that as it may, and except for a handful of sheikhs in traditional Azharite dress, there was little sense of religiosity at all. For many Muslims of my generation, this would seem to corroborate an increasingly current notion that Al-Azhar no longer caters to the broad base of (disinherited, or else discontented) Muslim people, but rather to the educational, official and institutional sides of Islam. Individuals and communities, where they do not subscribe to extremist Wahhabi sects or leaders -- self appointed and self acknowledged -- find what they are looking for in the ministrations of a younger generation of Egyptian preachers, or else in religious figures from elsewhere in the Muslim world, both easily accessible through satellite TV.

"The position of Al-Azhar on every da'iya (preacher)," Sheikh Tantawi responded somewhat too hurriedly, to an initial question about al-du'aah al-judud (the "new preachers", media savvy figures like Amr Khaled who tend to intensify their activity during Ramadan, and to whom young Muslims are increasingly deferring,), "is that, if he is speaking acceptably, then we thank him for his efforts. If he speaks in ignorance, on the other hand, or comes up with invalid fatawa (plural of fatwa, a religious verdict), then we correct him and explain to him what is right and what is valid..." Like most of what Sheikh Tantawi was to say in the ten minutes he reluctantly granted, I could not help feeling the statement was noncommittal, relating as it did to no real-life examples; the Grand Imam refused to talk about specific figures, forbidding me, as it were, from naming names. Rather, he voiced meticulously pre-formulated statements, pre- empting both the questions and their implications, and dismissing requests to speak about himself -- his youth, for example -- as "irrelevant and procurable at the public relations department", which department would prove even more elusive than his expansive office on the second floor of the Mashiakha. There, seated in an oversized secretarial office while you waited for a mini-lecture "the Sheikh" was giving to end, a portrait of President Mubarak looked over you -- a patent gesture of political affinity. But aside from your own political loyalties, you could only in the end feel grateful for relief from the heat. And the excitement of meeting the very symbol of Sunni Islam was not about to subside -- yet. At least I was not as unforgivably late as I thought I was, after all.

Sheikh Tantawi never performed the role of da'iya, himself. His appearances on television, whether as Imam or Mufti, have always been emotionally restrained and to-the- point. Calmly and in the same dispassionate terms, he will elucidate an obscure point by reference to canonical sources, giving little if any direct counsel and hardly dealing with day- to-day issues at all. Consequently, therefore, though a familiar face and a household name, he is looked up to as a patriarch and a figure of authority -- an image that seems to support his alleged pro-government position -- rather than an approachable community head or an oppositional leader (the two other images of the sheikh in Egypt). After graduating from Al-Azhar University's Faculty of Religious Studies in 1958, indeed, he simply went on studying, and eventually teaching. In 1966 his PhD in both Hadith and Tafsir (the sayings of Prophet Mohamed, and interpretation of the Qur'an, the Muslim equivalent of exegesis, respectively) reflected a broad scope of interests and a capacity for independent judgement -- but also a staunchly orthodox approach to the more controversial questions of ijtihad (literally "exertion", a reference to innovations and independently sought answers to questions not directly provided for in Sharia, that part of Muslim law which forms the basis of discourse and conduct, referring only to Quran and Sunna, i.e. the ways of the Prophet, also known as the traditions). Even now ijtihad remains conditional on its agreement with the canon (hence inevitably self-defeating): " Ijtihad is permitted insofar as it does not contradict, clash with or object to religious and rational facts. Al-Azhar supports every renewal of religious discourse within the limits of that which is beneficial, which is right and which is good." Two years after earning his PhD, Sheikh Tantawi was already teaching at the same faculty, and by 1980 he was the head of the Tafsir department of the University of Madina, Saudi Arabia -- a position he was to hold until 1984. In 1986 -- he had been dean of Faculty of Arab and Religious Studies for hardly a year -- Sheikh Tantawi became Grand Mufti of Egypt, a position he was to hold for a decade before taking on his current, crucial post.

"Listen," Sheikh Tantawi interrupted in an Upper Egyptian accent. (I was to find out he was born in 1944, in the village of Selim Al-Sharqiya, municipality of Tama, Sohag, before joining a religious institute in Alexandria, from whence to Al-Azhar.) "Isn't it a matter of ten minutes or so?" I was hardly given time to protest. "Just read me your questions, one by one, and I will answer them." In his own, similarly oversized office, Sheikh Tantawi was huddled in one corner reviewing some papers when we were ushered in, soon after we arrived. Walking up to him, I didn't know whether to extend my hand or wait for him to do so first -- but he wouldn't look up. "Al-Azhar grants no such permission," he resumed his response to the question about al-du'aah al-judud in the same hurried tone, as I sat on the edge of my chair, reading out questions formulated and pronounced in an Arabic that was no doubt offensive to his ears, and transcribing answers as fast as I could manage to. "Al-Azhar does not supervise speakers. Rather, every speaker is responsible for himself and for what he says." In a recent interview to Al-Ahram's Al-Shabab magazine, he had dismissed a proposal that Al-Azhar should establish a satellite channel of its own, with which to counter the influence of such religiously oriented channels as Iqra', as neither relevant to the institution's designation as a centre of (secular as well as religious) learning nor financially tenable, judging by Al-Azhar's annual budget. Now he seemed to be making the point with even greater vigour: Al-Azhar is there for those who would benefit from it; it undertakes its principally educational mission (the scope of which extends to the four corners of the Muslim world); and it exercises no censorship over those who would presume to offer Islamic knowledge, though it will happily assess what they have to say.

Such undoubting detachment is even more pronounced when it comes to questions of politics: "Who said that Al-Azhar no longer plays a political role? If what is meant by the political is that which relates to the interests of the [Muslim] nation, then that is something about which Al-Azhar speaks. But if what is meant by politics are questions of the relations between one state and another, matters that have to do with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, Al-Azhar leaves speaking about that to the specialists... Since God created people there has been a battle between right and wrong, between virtues and vices. And our job as responsible parties is to defend right and virtues, and to answer whoever deprecates Islam -- in a convincing and wise way, because Islam is a religion that gives every human being what is due to him." It was in the course of this latter sentence that the Grand Imam stood up to greet to Azharites who appeared at the door, offering them drinks and turning his attention to them, noticing our presence again only when I got up. "Is there anything else, now?" We were speedily dismissed. And it was while making our way out through the same labyrinthine interior, rightly anticipating more traffic-laden heat outside, that it finally occurred to me: it would take far more than a ten-minute encounter or a reading of his biography and books, more even than becoming his close associate within the institution of Al-Azhar, to figure out how the person of his Eminence Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi relates to religion and to the world. As it is he leaves an imprint of to-the-point efficiency and detached officiousness. Inaccessible to the vast majority of Muslims as he remains -- and controversial as his statements may be in their agreement with official policy -- perhaps this is all a journalist could ask of someone in his position, in this day and age. A harbourage of constancy he will undoubtedly remain, however hard it proves -- for Muslims of my generation -- to take refuge in it.

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