When Muhammed Sayyd Tantawi, the Grand Mufti of Al Ahzar Univeristy in Cairo, died of a heart attack on March 10, 2010, the eulogies came pouring in for the most prominent and influential cleric in the Sunni Muslim world.
Speaking on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Tarsiscio Bertoni, secretary of state for the Vatican, issued a statement that declared Tantawi a valued partner in the dialogue between Muslims and Catholics. Cardinal Bertoni himself recalled with gratitude the impulse which the late sheik gave the meetings between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Permanentt Committee of Al-Ahzar for Dialogue.
Rev. Dr. Olavy Fykse Tveit, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, also offered his condolences, stating Sheikh Tantawi will be remembered with great respect and appreciation for his remarkable contribution to Islamic scholarship, for his prominent role and genuine commitment to intercultural and inter-religious dialogue. May God rest his soul in eternal peace. (A delegation from the World Council of Churches met with Tantawi in 2008. For more information, go here.)
Speaking on behalf of U.S. President Barack Obama, White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tantawi was a voice for faith and tolerance who was widely respected in Muslim communities in Egypt and around the globe, and by many who seek to build a world grounded in mutual respect.
In her statement, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described
Tantawi as an opponent to terrorism and as an important voice for dialogue among religions and communities.
The notion that Tantawi was a proponent of tolerance and intercultural and interfaith dialogue is tenable only if one regards Jews as outside the pale of humanity.
The late sheikh, simply put, was a notorious and inveterate anti-Semite who mined the Koran and the life of Muhammad for passages and teachings that justified Islamic Jew-hatred.
Tantawi's Anti-Semitic Statements
He did this in a 700-page text The Children of Israel in the Qur'an and the Sunna, originally published in Cairo in the 1960s and republished in 1986. In this text, which has been excerpted in The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: from Sacred Texts to Solemn History edited by Andrew G. Bostom (Prometheus Press, 2008), Tantawi uses passages from the Koran to depict Jews as enemies of God, his prophets and of Islam itself. In one particularly troubling passage Tantawi writes:
Qur'an describes people of the Book in general terms, with negative attributes like their fanaticism in religion, following a false path. It describes the Jews with their own particular degenerate characteristics, i.e., killing the prophets of God, corrupting his words by putting them in the wrong places, consuming the people's wealth frivolously, refusal to distance themselves from the evil they do, and other ugly characteristics caused by their [
] deep rooted lasciviousness.
Later, after quoting some from the Koran, Tantawi writes This means that not all Jews are not the same. The good ones become Muslims; the bad ones do not. (Legacy, page 394). Elsewhere, Tantawi writes that the Jews initiated hostilities against the Islamic call in Medina. He continues: They took every measure they could to extinguish its fire and vitiate its power. Later he writes, we are not exaggerating when we say that the Jews left no stone unturned in the attempt to snuff out the Islamic call, nor was any means considered out of bounds in order to denigrate Islam and its Prophetthey tried everything they could. (Legacy, 399)
Matthias Küntzel, author of Jihad and Jew Hatred: Islamism and the Roots of 9/11, provides some other detail about Tantawi He writes that Tantawi, the highest Sunni Muslim theologian, quotes Hitlers remark in Mein Kampf that in resisting the Jew, I am doing the work of the Lord. Küntzel continues: He praises The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, noting without the slightest trace of sympathy that after the publication of the Protocols in Russia, some 10,000 Jews were killed.
Tantawi made a number of other troubling statements. For example, in 2002, Tantawi declared that Jews are the enemies of Allah, descendents of apes and pigs. The following year, Tantawi issued an edict declaring that Jews should no longer be described in such a manner, apparently under pressure from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
While Tantawi did condemn the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 he later affirmed terrorism against Israelis. In 2002, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), reported that Tantawi declared that martyrdom (suicide) operations and the killing of civilians are permitted acts and that more such attacks should be carried out. Tantawi's positions were posted on http://www.lailatalqadr.com/, a website associated with AlAzhar. This is MEMRI's translation of website:
The great Imam of AlAzhar Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, demanded that the Palestinian people, of all factions, intensify the martyrdom operations [i.e. suicide attacks] against the Zionist enemy, and described the martyrdom operations as the highest form of Jihad operations. He says that the young people executing them have sold Allah the most precious thing of all."
"[Sheikh Tantawi] emphasized that every martyrdom operation against any Israeli, including children, women, and teenagers, is a legitimate act according to [Islamic] religious law, and an Islamic commandment, until the people of Palestine regain their land and cause the cruel Israeli aggression to retreat
This same MEMRI report adds that It should be noted that a March 18, 2002 demonstration at Al Azhar University featured eight students who had been trained to carry out suicide attacks against Israelis. In other words, terrorist recruiting took place at the university where Tantawi served as Grand Mufti.
Tantawi's notorious hostility toward Jews did not disqualify him from receiving an honorary degree in peacemaking from Westminster College in Pennsylvania in 1995 along with Rev. Samuel Habib, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in 1995 that Tantawi came to the U.S. at the invitation of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
During his visit to the U.S., Rev. Mark Gruber, a Catholic anthropologist stated The Grand Mufti does not have a lot of sway over the fundamentalist types. His sway is over the much more peace-loving moderate and even Sufi Muslim types. Bob Stoddard, who served as the coordinator for Tantawi's visit, declared otherwise: I think it is fair to say that the mufti is highly respected by all Muslims and is seen as a great teacher and leader. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan. 1, 1995)
Tantawi's inveterate anti-Semitism did not prevent him from being lionized by Rev. Dr. Peter Makari, area executive for the Middle East and Europe for the Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ.
Makari reports that Tantawi wrote books on various topics, including Israel in the Holy Qur'an and Sunna. Makari, however, makes no reference to the book's anti-Semitic nature. Instead, he describes Tantawi as a moderate Islamic voice who has spoken of equality in rights and responsibilities for Muslims and non-Muslims in Egypt, despite the fact that he supported the imperative that Copts pay the jizya, a kind of tax paid by non-Muslims in the Muslim community to retain their protect status as ahl adh-dhimma. (Makari, 2007, pages 98-99).
On page 100 of his text, Makari writes, Tantawi has remained steadfast in his call for good relations between Egypt's Muslims and Christians, and among all people generally.
Apparently, all people does not include Jews.