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Egyptian cleric, head of Sunni Islam's key learning center, dies

FILE - in this Monday, July 28, 2008 file photo Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, grand sheik of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's pre-eminent theological institute, waves to Palestinian authority President Mahmoud Abbas, not in picture, at the Azhar headquarters, in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt's top Muslim cleric has died of a heart attack during a visit to Saudi Arabia, the state-owned news agency reported Wednesday. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, file)
FILE - in this Monday, July 28, 2008 file photo Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, grand sheik of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's pre-eminent theological institute, waves to Palestinian authority President Mahmoud Abbas, not in picture, at the Azhar headquarters, in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt's top Muslim cleric has died of a heart attack during a visit to Saudi Arabia, the state-owned news agency reported Wednesday. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, file) Associated Press

CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt's top cleric, Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, a controversial figure throughout the Islamic world, died of a heart attack Wednesday while on a visit to Saudi Arabia. He was 81.

Tantawi was the "grand sheik" of al Azhar, Sunni Islam's principal center of scholarship and faith, a millennium-old institution that President Barack Obama described as a "beacon of Islamic learning" during his trip to Cairo in June.

Critics, however, say the prestige of Azhar fell into decline under Tantawi, who was perceived by many Muslims to be a mouthpiece for U.S.-allied Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak appointed Tantawi to his position in 1996 to cap a long career as a scholar whose reputation as a relative moderate extended well beyond Egypt.

Tantawi was a vocal critic of female circumcision, a pre-Islamic custom that's still widely practiced in Egypt and North Africa. He condemned suicide attacks, spoke against the notion of a clash of civilizations and was conspicuously silent on the U.S.-led war on Iraq after early remarks that were interpreted as giving the green light for Egyptians to join the insurgency in Iraq.

Detractors say the cleric merely gave religious cover to state decisions.

"He did not act as the sheik of al Azhar, but as a government employee. The result was the shrinking of al Azhar's role in the Muslim world," said Fahmy Howeidy, a prominent Islamist thinker and columnist in Cairo.

Howeidy said Tantawi's mixed legacy in the Islamic world was secured with a handshake. During an interfaith dialogue organized by the United Nations in 2008, Tantawi shook hands with Israeli President Shimon Peres — a major offense to many Muslims who identify with the Palestinian cause.

Tantawi raised even more anger by then claiming he didn't know who Peres was or that the Gaza Strip was under Israeli blockade, prompting some members of the Egyptian parliament to demand his dismissal.

The last controversy came late last year, when he issued a decree banning female students at schools and universities affiliated with al Azhar from wearing the niqab, or full facial veil. His ruling, however, was not interpreted as championing women's rights, but rather as aiding Mubarak's authoritarian regime in its war against a tide of religious fundamentalism.

A statement from his Cairo office said that Tantawi died as he was about to board a return flight to Egypt from the King Khaled International Airport in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, where he'd attended a prize-giving ceremony. At his family's request, Tantawi will be buried in the Saudi holy city of Medina, near the shrine of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, Egyptian state media reported.

The director of Tantawi's office, Abdelmoneim Kamal, said the late cleric's deputy, Mohamed Wasel, would temporarily lead al Azhar until a new grand sheik is appointed.

(El Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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