by Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi | Translated, with slight modifications, by Jinan Yousef
Recently, Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi published an article on the passing of Shaykh Muhammad Tantawi. It is a beautiful example of love and respect between two scholars who disagreed with each other, and something we can all learn from, insha’Allah (God willing).
“Blessed is He in whose hand is the dominion, and He is over all things competent; Who created death and life to test you [as to] which of you is best in deed; and He is Exalted in Might, the Forgiving -” [Qur’an, 67:1-2]
We pray that our beloved brother and dear friend, the Grand Imam Shaykh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, Shaykh al-Azhar, who passed away in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday morning, March 10th, 2010, is with Allah.
I have known Shaykh al-Azhar since he was a student at the college of Usūl al-Dīn1 which he joined after my graduation in 1953. He had mentioned that he knew me before I knew him. I’d once visited the religious Institute in Alexandria, where he was a secondary school student. At the time, I was the head of the Students Union at the college of Usūl al-Dīn and gave a speech that the students at the institute, including Tantawi, liked.
After he graduated, he began to give the Friday sermon at one of the mosques in Shubra. He’d visit me from time to time when I lived on the city’s outskirts and would consult with me on various matters of the religion. After he got married, he would visit with his family, and our wives had the opportunity to build their acquaintance.
I remember when I was arrested in 1962 in a case that had nothing to do with me, he’d come to visit me and was surprised to learn of my arrest. His family offered to support my wife and take care of anything she needed.
When he was preparing his doctoral dissertation, entitled “The Children of Israel in the Qur’an and Sunnah,” he would consult with me often, discussing issues related to his topic. He continued this even after he was posted to Iraq for a few years to give the Friday sermon at a mosque in Basra. I had asked for him to be a visiting professor at the Shari’ah college in Qatar University when I was the dean there, but shortly thereafter, he was appointed as a Mufti2 at Dar al-Ifta’ in Egypt.
Our relationship remained as it was, until the Shaykh began taking a new approach in issuing edicts that neither I nor most Muslim scholars in Egypt or elsewhere, agreed with. This was particularly in the context of banks and interest, and it compelled me to refute his views forcefully – especially in my book: Bank Interest is the Forbidden Interest. I did so because truth is stronger than friendship, and knowledge takes precedence over brotherly love.
We parted ways for a while, and during that time, conflict arose between him and our dear brother and beloved friend, Dr. Ali As-Salūs, a teacher at the Shari’ah college in Qatar University. Dr. Ali had attacked him aggressively in articles and letters, provoking Shaykh Tantawi to take the matter to court on the grounds that Dr. Ali had crossed the line in his attacks. On the day of the hearing, Shaykh Tantawi brought his witnesses and Dr. Ali brought his (and I was one of them). We all went to court – two groups of Azhar scholars, one with the Shaykh and the other against him. However, the wise ones amongst our brothers, which included Dr. Ahmad Abu Kamal Al-Majd, realized the gravity of the situation and convinced the Shaykh to drop the case. He agreed (may Allah have mercy on his soul) in order to protect the reputation and unity of the scholars. Everyone was pleased with this decision.
After Shaykh Tantawi was appointed as Shaykh al-Azhar, we met at a conference in Kuwait, and the Shaykh began with greeting me and shaking my hand. He overlooked the antagonism that had transpired between us, and even refused to walk in front of me when entering and exiting places; this was his conduct with me until he passed away, out of his refinement and humility. Once, when he allowed me to precede him, I said, “The Shaykh [Tantawi] respects elders, for I am four years older.” Shaykh Tantawi corrected, “Actually, two years older.” I said, “You entered college four years after me” – to which he replied, “Yes, but I began Azhar when I was 16.”
On another occasion, I had said “You are Shaykh al-Azhar, the most eminent and recognized religious authority in the Islamic world; we have a duty to respect this position, and place it above all else.” He had responded, “I would be embarrassed to walk in front of you when you have always been our teacher!” No doubt, this is an embodiment of courtesy, humility and good character.
Shaykh Tantawi was well-mannered, with a gentle disposition, but he was also a true son of the Sa’īd (Southern Egypt). He did not decorate his speech, and his tongue spoke of everything in his heart. He was kind-hearted and amicable. However, if he was provoked in matters of right and wrong, he would lose his temper.
He was a distinguished professor of Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir), dedicating his life to its study and even publishing a book on the subject (al-Wasīt). I nominated him to take my place giving tafsir in a program with the famous radio host Muhammad at-Tookhi. A group of senior scholars were involved in this effort: Shaykh al-Ghazali, Shaykh Abdel-Mu’izz Abdu’l-Sattar, Dr. al-Ahmadi Abu Nour, Dr. Abdullah Shahata, Dr. Eesa Abdu’l-Dhahir, Dr. Muhammad al-Mahdi, and [myself] the one in need of the All-Mighty. I had helped with the tafsir of the first quarter of the Quran, but circumstances prevented me from continuing with the second and third quarters. I nominated Dr. Tantawi to take my place, and he took up the task. Unfortunately, the Shaykh found himself in – or was pushed into – the vast seas of jurisprudence, which he had not prepared himself for—neither by studying it, putting it into practice, or writing about it. He had not trained to swim its depths. Thus, he betrayed agreed-upon positions with his own audacious opinions. This is the crux of our disagreement with him – despite our friendship. This situation is similar to that of Imam Ibn al-Qayyim and his disagreement with Shaykh al-Islam Isma’īl al-Hurawi al-Hanbali, author of Manāzil As-Sā’irīn ila Maqāmāt Iyyaka Na’budu wa iyyaka Nasta’īn. Imam Ibn al-Qayyim explained this text in his sufi compendium, Madārij al-Sālikīn, but he often differed with Imam al-Hurawi in his commentary on the text, where he responds to his views and clarifies his mistakes. When asked about this, he said, “Shaykh al-Islam is beloved to us, but the truth is more beloved to us.”
This is how the relationships of scholars should be – friendship and enmity should not affect their scholarly opinions. Allah says, “And when you testify, be just, even if [it concerns] a near relative” (Qur’an, 6:152). He also says, “Do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just” (Qur’an, 5:8).
I disagreed with Shaykh Tantawi on many different issues, particularly those concerning the Ummah’s relationship with the world. For example, I disagreed with him receiving the most senior Rabbis of Israel in his office, and his absolving France of any blame for preventing Muslim schoolgirls from wearing the headscarf at school. His opinion stemmed from his belief that every country was free to create its own laws, but he forgot that no country has the right to enact laws that negate freedom of expression and freedom of religion, which are two of the most sacred human rights. There were also other positions on which I disagreed with him, and which roused up controversy in Egypt, and other Muslim and Arab countries.
Today, death separates us, just as it separates brothers, children and their parents, friends and contenders. Allah will bring us together on a Day about which there is no doubt—a day in which secrets will be revealed and Allah will judge between us with truth, for He is the best of Judges. Allah has willed that his time would come in Riyādh, and that he would be buried in Baqī’, near the graves of the companions (may Allah be pleased with them) and the righteous; and this is a good sign.
We offer condolences to ourselves; condolences to al-Azhar and its institutes, university and research centers; condolences to the Egyptian people; and condolences to the Muslim Ummah on the passing of the great Imam of al-Azhar, and we ask Allah to reward us for this affliction, and compensate us with something better.
We also hope that Egypt will take this opportunity to comply with the requests of scholars, thinkers and reformers of Egypt and the Islamic world in appointing the new Imam by election, or at least by a nomination of three scholars, from among whom the President of the Republic would choose.
We do not harbor anything for our brother and friend, Shaykh Dr. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, except prayers for Allah to forgive him and have mercy on him; to excuse him and pardon him; to encompass him with His kindness and goodness; to purify him of sin as a white robe is purified of filth, and to enter him into Paradise, for He is the Forgiving, the Merciful, the Appreciative, the Forbearing.
“Our Lord, forgive us and our brothers who preceded us in faith and leave not in our hearts [any] resentment toward those who have believed. Our Lord, You are indeed full of Kindness, Most Merciful.” [Qur’an, 59:10]