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EGYPT: Mubarak names new Al Azhar top cleric

March 19, 2010 |  9:44 am

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Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Friday named Ahmed Tayeb as the new head of Al Azhar, Sunni Islam's most influential institution, which includes a university and a research center. Tayeb has presided over Al Azhar's university since 2003 and will succeed Sheik Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, who died of a heart attack on March 10.

Tayeb was Egypt's grand mufti for a short period between 2002 and 2003. He is considered to be one of the more enlightened Egyptian Sunni clerics, as he speaks fluent English and French and has a PhD in Islamic philosophy from France's Sorbonne University.

He is known for his moderate and progressive opinions and was previously criticized by some Azhar sheiks and professors for preferring modern suits to the traditional cloaks worn by nearly all Azhar leaders. His views are seen as coinciding with the Mubarak government's efforts at strengthening mainstream Islam against radical voices.  

"Through his work as head of the University, El Tayeb has proved and shown that he is well capable of being Al Azhar's top cleric," Gamal Awad, a professor at Al Azhar's Sharia college told The Times. "The man has full understanding of the religion without any complications, and he made some great efforts in making Al Azhar reach out to Muslims and non-Muslims from all nationalities, and that's exactly what Al Azhar needs."

Tayeb, head of Al Azhar University's religious dialogue committee, is also a member of the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) policies committee, which is chaired by the president's son and possible presidential candidate, Gamal Mubarak. Despite his efforts to maintain a low profile and distancing himself from religious or political controversies, Tayeb has appeared in the media spotlight on a few occasions.

In 2006, he firmly dealt with university students belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood opposition group; the group had carried out a demonstration of their martial arts inside the university's campus. More than 100 students were arrested, and Tayeb announced that "the university will never be an open field for the Brotherhood" to spread its political or religious agendas.

He has also supported banning the niqab (face veil) among female university students, stressing that the niqab is no more than an ancient Arabic tradition and that the headscarf is the only religious obligation for Muslim women.

Tayed's appointment was made by Mubarak from Heidelberg Hospital in Germany, where the 81-year-old is recovering from a March 6 gallbladder surgery

-- Amro Hassan in Cairo

Photo: Al Azhar cleric Ahmed Tayeb. Credit: Al Youm Sabee

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