By Abraham Cooper
Simon Wiesenthal Center
I just learned that Sheikh Mohamed Sayyed Tantawi, Egypt’s leading religious authority, died today while visiting Saudi Arabia. The news brought back a flood of memories of one of the most unique days in my life; the day in the summer of 1995 that two Rabbis from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Marvin Hier and myself, came to Cairo to ask the then Grand Mufti of Egypt for a fatwa.
We were accompanied to Cairo, by our friend, Israel’s renowned expert on Arab Affairs, Ehud Yaari, who would serve as our interpreter. After wending our way in and out of the city’s endless traffic jams, there we were two Orthodox rabbis entering the campus of al-Azhar, a millennium-old university and mosque complex, widely regarded as one of the main seats of Islamic learning and the most prominent Sunni institutions in the world. Understandably, we were greeted by incredulous stares from young worshipers and students.
But once inside Sheik Tantawi’s office, it was a different story. It reminded me of my Rosh Yeshiva’s study in Jerusalem. The texts may have been different, but the atmosphere was very much the same. We were greeted warmly and with respect and invited to sit amid the shelves of tomes of Islamic law and writings.
We actually came to make two requests. First, we wanted to facilitate an early meeting between the Grand Mufti and Israel’s then new Chief Rabbi, Israel Meir Lau, a child survivor of the Nazi Holocaust. We felt that these two spiritual leaders could help improve Muslim-Jewish relations. It would take four years or so, but eventually the two did meet at a historic interfaith gathering in Alexandria, Egypt.
Then, in the presence of a senior official of Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, we asked the Grand Mufti for a fatwa against a relatively new but devastating development–religious sanctioned suicide bombings. Contemporary suicide terror first emerged in the war in Sri Lanka, but by 1995, it had already wreaked havoc in the Holy Land. We hoped against hope that powerful voices within Islam would decry those who invoked G-d’s name and promised heaven to its practioners. Sheik Tantawi listened attentively, ever mindful of the government handler in the room, but did not make a commitment either way.
We flew on to Israel, where the next day we were scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. A deadly attack by a suicide bomber in a city bus near Hebrew University forced the cancellation of our meeting, but late that night we were surprised to be summoned to the Prime Minister’s office. The former general who led Israel in so many wars was now, as Prime Minister, charged with finding a path to peace. A continued spike in Palestinian terrorist attacks targeting civilians would make any peace deal virtually impossible for an Israeli leader. Always the pragmatic leader, Rabin wanted to know every detail of our meeting with Tantawi and what chances we thought it my bear some fruit.
Little did we know that it would be the last time we would see Rabin, who in a few short months would himself would become a victim of terrorism–at the hands of a fellow Jew.
As for Sheik Tantawi, his statements over the years about terrorism were all over the map, hardly the kind that would thwart the headlong drive to deploy suicide terror within the Islamic world. In 2010, the majority of perpetrators and victims of this scourge remain Muslims.
Still there is some cause for hope. Just a week before Sheik Tantawi’s death, a prominent Muslim organization in Britain issued a fatwa on suicide bombings and terrorism — declaring them “un-Islamic”. Written by Sufi scholar Dr. Muhammed Tahir ul-Qadri the Fatwa in fact explicitly condemns all suicide bombers saying that they are destined for Hell–not enter paradise after death.
It’s a shame that Sheik Tantawi never put it so bluntly. But as his family and flock mourn his passing, people of good faith everywhere pray that this fatwa will ultimately prevail and help put an end to the scourge of the 21st century.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance.