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EGYPT: Moderate cleric the front-runner in race to take over powerful Sunni Muslim post

March 13, 2010 |  7:36 am


A moderate cleric is in line to assume a powerful post in the Sunni Muslim world.

The sudden death of Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the top cleric at Al Azhar in Cairo, on Wednesday has prompted instant speculation on who will succeed him as head of the world's most influential Sunni Muslim institution.

Tantawi died of a heart attack at age 81 while on a short visit to Saudi Arabia, and Al Azhar insiders have suggested a number of clerics that might well fill the void left by his departure.

Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, one of the main candidates in the running to land the top post, has gained a reputation of combining a powerful personality and firm stands with moderate opinions and calls for integrating Islam with liberal democracy.

The 57-year-old became head of Dar Al Ifta, a government entity responsible for issuing official and nonofficial religious opinions upon request, in 2003.

Nonetheless, Gomaa's chances to succeed Tantawi can be hampered by the fact  that he is not a born and bred Azhar product. He studied in public schools and finished a degree in commerce at Ain Shams University before pursuing his religious studies at Al Azhar University.

Al Azhar has always maintained the tradition of promoting clerics who spent all their educational careers studying and teaching at Azhar schools and universities, which teach extensive Islamic curricula not available at other public or private schools.

Another front-runner is the current head of Al Azhar University, Ahmed Tayeb. The former grand mufti, who has a doctorate in Islamic philosophy from Paris' Sorbonne University, is known as a cleric with relatively enlightened views.

Other candidates include former Azhar University president Ahmed Omar Hashem, and the former deputy to Tantawi and current temporary head of Al Azhar, Mohamed Wasel.

Appointing Azhar's top clerics is ultimately up to President Hosni Mubarak. The procedure has long been criticized by religious and opposition figures, who say the appointment minimizes Al Azhar's independence from the state.

-- Amro Hassan in Cairo

Photo: Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa. Credit: Agence France-Presse