Muhammad Tantawi was born in 1928 in the village of Salim, some 300 kilometres south of Cairo. He trained at the famous Alexandria Religious Institute and at al-Azhar University before teaching at universities in Egypt, Libya and Saudi Arabia. In 1986, he was appointed Grand Mufti of Egypt and in 1996 became the Grand Sheikh at the university’s mosque in the Egyptian capital.
His “moderate” views on a number of issues, including the Islamic veil, abortion, suicide attacks, female imams, and female circumcision fuelled many a bitter controversy within and without the Islamic world.
In all these cases, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi proved himself a man of moderation, a thinker well rooted in the Islamic tradition, but one also open to finding new solutions to new problems, yet always keen on keeping traditions alive. Even so, his views generated a strong opposition in some quarters, from Muslim extremists to proponents of political Islam, including people like media star Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
His successor, Ahmed el-Tayeb, appears to be a man poised to follow in his footsteps. President of al-Azhar University, el-Tayeb is a very cultured man, open to dialogue, a scholar trained both at home and abroad, an eager participant in a number of meetings organised by Catholic institutions.
A number of possible reasons can explain why Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak chose him. Political considerations probably played an important role, but so did his great reputation, his cultural and scientific accomplishments as well as the connections he has established with universities around the world.
I personally met him and developed a very positive relationship with him, on the basis, among other things, of our common interest in the great Sufi poet, Umar Ibn al-Farid. Indeed, El-Tayeb himself comes from a Sufi family and was education in that tradition.
I think that his appointment as the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar Mosque and his role as head of al-Azhar University represent an important step towards greater understanding between the Muslim and Christian worlds, and more generally between different religions and cultures.