The death of Sunni sheik Mohammad Sayyid Tantawi this week brought on an outpouring of grief—from Western leaders. After a heart attack felled Egypt's most prominent religious official, the sheik (or rector) of the eminent Cairo university Al-Azhar, President Obama called Tantawi a "voice for faith and tolerance who was widely respected in Muslim communities in Egypt and around the globe," while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called him "an important voice for dialogue among religions and communities." French President Nicolas Sarkozy lamented, "The world has lost a premier figure in the effort to foster intercultural and interreligious dialogue." In an obituary, the BBC highlighted Tantawi's liberal fatwas and said approvingly that "Sheik Tantawi had infuriated radical Islamists with his moderate views on women wearing the veil."
So you could be forgiven for thinking that the West had lost a valuable ally in the fight to sway Muslims into moderation and tolerance. That's a nice fantasy, but it's completely false. Tantawi's following was strongest among American and European leaders: within the Muslim community, he was known for controversial, sometimes sloppy jurisprudence and excessive fealty to the government of Egypt's despotic president, Hosni Mubarak. Liberals will miss his fatwas, but ordinary Muslims won't notice the loss.
"Tantawi was not only pro-Western, he was often pro-authority and did his best to satisfy such authority, even if it meant that he had to cut corners with the body of ethical and moral rulings in Islamic teachings," says Ebrahim Moosa, an associate professor of Islamic studies at Duke University. "His fatwas were not often carefully argued and scripted. [They] lacked a granular discussion of complex and controversial issues, and often he would cherry-pick from the tradition without proper justification."
Scholarly critics pointed to his ban on the veil as an example of bending to authority—while he may have been right that the veil wasn't mandatory, they argued, banning it also had no scriptural basis and was calculated to please the relatively secular government. Tantawi also seemed willing to discard centuries of tradition in order to reach a political goal. In 1989 the government's support for Western-style, interest-based banks—long considered anathema by Muslim scholars—was under siege by the burgeoning Islamic finance movement. In response to a government request for a ruling, Tantawi declared that collection of interest might sometimes be acceptable.
For average Muslims, it was his allegiance, rather than his technique, that was problematic. In the last months of his life, Tantawi sanctioned a government barrier on the Egyptian border with Gaza, garnering accusations that the sheik was more concerned about backing Mubarak, who appointed him, than about the lives of Muslims. As Mubarak's regime has lost credibility and legitimacy, so has the sheik of Al-Azhar. Outside Egypt, his statements in favor of a French ban on veils were even more damning than the ban on the veil in Egypt. In 2008 he shook hands with Israeli President Shimon Peres, eliciting outrage (his response was not to defend the gesture, but to insist he hadn't known who Peres was). Even in Egypt, the most prominent Muslim group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is demanding that Tantawi's successor be chosen by the faculty at Al-Azhar, instead of by the government, to guard against his being a bureaucratic apparatchik. "I do not want to preempt the evaluation of [Tantawi's] legacy, but any social historian will have to address how he suppressed the balanced moral ethos of Islam in favor of statist policies that entrenched authoritarianism and upended democratic values," Moosa says.
As prominent clerics like the leaders of Al-Azhar have lost esteem because of their links with the government, Tantawi and his ilk have been eclipsed by religious leaders who can establish their independence from reviled regimes and reach a wide audience. For example, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian and Tantawi contemporary, has credibility as an anti-establishment figure—he lives in exile in Qatar because of his affiliation with the banned Muslim Brotherhood—and a megaphone, through the popular Web site IslamOnline and a regular program on Al-Jazeera TV. The two men frequentlyclashed on legal matters. There's also been a move away from traditional legal scholars, with populist preachers who lack legal training gaining large followings—like the wildly popular Amr Khaled, a televangelist who also hails from Egypt.
Qaradawi's opinions are far less comforting than Tantawi's. For example, although he condemned the 9/11 attacks, he supports Palestinian suicide bombings and said the Holocaust was God's punishment on the Jews. But he has a sheaf of awards from across the Muslim world, claims to have 40 million viewers for his show, and placed highly in a 2008 Foreign Policy poll on who is the world's foremost public intellectual.
Part of the problem is surely Islam's lack of hierarchy. Europeans and Americans seek analogues to the pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Dalai Lama. But Islam doesn't have centralized authority, and looking for one will only distort the importance of a Tantawi—an appointed official without worldwide authority. Some of the most prominent scholars today run their own shops. And since Obama, Sarkozy, and other Western policymakers are already known in the region to back corrupt Muslim regimes at the expense of democratic movements, they would do well to focus on truly popular preachers like Qaradawi rather than discredited ones like Tantawi.