From the village of Toma in Sohag to the cemetery of Jannatul Baqi’ in Madinah al-Munawwarah. Shaykh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawiy was born in the village of Salim ash-Sharqiyah in the municipality of Toma, Sohag, Egypt. He was born on October 28 1928 M (14 Jumadil Ula 1347 H). His mother passed away a few months after giving birth to him, but that did not deter him from his journey of seeking knowledge.
Shaykh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawiy’s father has always encouraged him to pursue knowledge. He memorised and learned the Quran in his village, following in the footsteps of Al-Azhar scholars. In 1944, he enrolled at the Ma’had of Al-Azhar’s Alexandria branch, where he pursued his Ibtida’iyya (primary) and Thanawiyya (secondary) levels. He excelled in his Ma’had level, making him eligible to enter the Faculty of Arabic Language, which at the time was the most difficult faculty to enter because it only accepted the top students. However, Shaykh Tantawiy’s devotion to the Quran was so strong that he decided to enrol in the faculty of Usuluddin.
He graduated with honours from Al-Azhar’s Usuluddin faculty in 1958 and went on to earn a master’s degree in teaching in 1959. With a magna cum laude, he was awarded a PhD in Tafsir and Hadith in 1966 for his dissertation thesis entitled “Bani Israel in the Quran and Sunnah.”
In 1968, he was promoted to the faculty of Usuluddin. In 1972, he was appointed assistant professor at Al-Azhar University’s Asyut branch. He was then assigned to the Islamic University of Libya, where he taught from 1972 to 1976. After returning from Libya, he was named the Dean of the faculty of Usuluddin in Asyut branch. He relocated to Saudi Arabia in 1980 and became the head of the Tafsir section of the Postgraduate Studies branch at the Islamic University of Madinah. In 1985, he returned to Egypt.
He was appointed Mufti of the Republic of Egypt on his 58th birthday on October 28, 1986. After nearly a decade in the position, he was appointed Grand Shaykh of Azhar on March 27, 1996, succeeding Shaykh Gad El-Haq, who died on March 15, 1996.
This is Shaykh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawiy’s magnum opus, an exegesis on the Quran that has been published several times, the most recent being in 1993 by Dar al-Maarif. This 7,000-page project took around ten years to finish. Shaykh Muhammad Tantawiy’s methodology in this Tafsir begins with discussing the linguistic element of the words in the set of ayahs before explaining the asbab nuzul (the historical context of the revelation), if any. Then he goes on to summarise the meaning of the ayah before elaborating on it further, covering the rhetorical, juristic and ethical aspect with support from other Quranic ayahs and Hadith. Finally, he concludes his discussion of the ayah by expressing the views of Salaf and Khalaf scholars.
This was his doctoral thesis dissertation. It is divided into two volumes and contains about 1,000 pages. He begins by recounting the history of the Bani Israel and the Quran’s approach to calling them to Islam. He then goes on to talk about the Jews throughout the Prophet Muhammad SAW’s time and how he interacted with them in times of peace and conflict. He by discussing how Zionism arose and, eventually, the Palestinian predicament.
In 2006, Singapore was honoured to have Shaykh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawiy as a distinguished visitor. On Friday, May 26, 2006, Shaykh Muhammad Tantawiy started the inaugural Muis Lecture Series at the Ritz-Carlton, Singapore. It was delivered in front of an audience of 800 people. This Muis Lecture Series will continue in the future with scholars of a high calibre such as Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, Shaykh Mustafa Ceric, and Shaykh Hamza Yusof sharing on topics ranging from humanity to human dignity.
According to Shaykh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawiy, Singapore is a prime example of how Muslims can feel comfortable in a secular state. In his call for cooperation rather than a conflict of civilizations, he praises Singapore’s multi-faith community, in which the majority is non-Muslim and coexists with the minority Muslims, according to Channel News Asia.
He said in his speech that “Egypt has a very high regard for Singapore because it is constructive and forward-looking.” Shaykh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawiy also complimented Singaporeans of many faiths for working together for the good of society, allowing the country to prosper peacefully while achieving scientific and technological breakthroughs.
Shaykh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawiy has been most prominent as the Islamic establishment’s moderate voice. He has maintained a cool head in the face of today’s complex situations, seeking intelligent and restrained replies. He was also quick to label terrorist offenders as heretics, claiming that it is not heroic “to kill an innocent person, or to kill thousands of people, including men, women, and children.”
On February 20 1989, when he was the Mufti of the Republic of Egypt, he issued a fatwa regarding the prohibition of bank interest as it was a form of riba, according to him. His view was disagreed with by his friend, the Muslim cleric Dr Yusuf Al-Qaradhawi. However, when he was appointed the Grand Shaykh of Al-Azhar, he retracted his fatwa by affirming its permissibility.
On October 5, 2009, he initiated a campaign against the niqab in all Al-Azhar-affiliated institutions. To everyone’s surprise, he removed the niqab of one of the lower secondary students. He claims that the niqab is a cultural practise with no religious significance. Perhaps he prohibits the Niqab for the sake of the students’ safety. Wallahu’alam.
Shaykh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawiy died on March 10, 2010, at the age of 81, as a result of a heart attack while visiting Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He died at Riyadh’s King Khaled International Airport. moments before boarding his aircraft back to Egypt. His heart attack occurred shortly after he collapsed while boarding the plane. He had just returned from the King Faisal International Prize for Service to Islam award ceremony. At the Amir Sultan Hospital, he was pronounced dead. Shaykh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawiy died unexpectedly, despite being in “excellent shape and health” prior to his trip.
Muhammad Isyraq Bin Abdul Aziz,
Undergraduate of Belief & Philosophy, Islamic Theology at Al-Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt