Egyptian sheikh Dr. Abd Al-Sabour Tantawi is an alumnus of Al-Azhar University in Cairo; he also taught there until he moved to Kuwait in 1998. As a child and youth, he belonged to Islamist circles: the Muslim Brotherhood movement, Al-Jama'a Al-Islamiyya, and takfir groups. In 1992, he was arrested on charges of belonging to an Islamist group, and remained imprisoned for three years. During his imprisonment, he reexamined his religious views, and focused on Koran study.
In his recently published book 'Rereading Islam,' Sheikh Dr. Tantawi spoke out against Muslim orthodoxy and presented his own approach, according to which the only valid source for religious law was the Koran and some 300 traditions (hadiths) of the Prophet Muhammad.  According to Tantawi, the Koran should be interpreted only through an understanding of Arabic, and verses must not be taken out of context. All other religious sources for religious rulings that are accepted in Islam, such as the Sunna, ijma', qias, and ijtihad, and all other ways of interpreting the Koran, such as al-nasikh wa'l-mansukh, are, in his view, invented by the ulemaa, who have complicated the religion and created within it internal conflicts and contradictions that reflect their own personal biases and interests. 
Sheikh Tantawi sets out his doctrine in articles published on the reformist site www.metransparent.com, and, recently, the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat published an interview with him.  One significant response to this interview was that of Sheikh 'Abd Al-Muhsin Al-'Obikan, a Saudi Shura Council member and legal advisor to the Saudi Justice Ministry known for often taking a critical and innovative approach. However, in this case, Al-'Obikan took an extreme and conservative position, stating in an article in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that the imperative to act according to the Sunna appears in the Koran itself. He also stressed that "the laws of God stated in the Koran are known [to believers] only through the conduct of Muhammad... and anyone who claims otherwise leaves the fold of Islam and joins the fold of the infidels."  In response, Tantawi claimed that Al-'Obikan was inciting to murder him. 
This paper provides an overview of the approach of Sheikh Dr. Tantawi, and also presents Sheikh Abd Al-Muhsin Al-'Obikan's reaction to Tantawi's approach.
The Sources of Religious Rulings in Islam
In his articles and in his book, Sheikh Tantawi explains that the traditions that were handed down sequentially, by multiple uninterrupted chains of transmitters - who never met each other but nonetheless handed down identical traditions, with no contradictions - are divinely inspired and equal in value to the Koran. Traditions of this kind (called mutawatir), could not have been falsified, and there is no dispute among the various schools of thought about them, from the time of the Prophet until now. Examples of such traditions are those regarding methods of prayer, of fasting, of giving charity, and of pilgrimage. While Muslim tradition attributes over 600,000 traditions to the Prophet, only 309 of them, at most, are classified as mutawatir.
Tantawi explains: "The problem is that the clerics say things that they do not do and do things that they do not say... They see that the vast majority of the traditions - 99.9% - are in the realm of uncertain assumptions, and there is doubt as to whether they [can be] attributed to the Prophet. But [nevertheless], the clerics stress that they must be followed..."
Tantawi states that traditions must be examined in light of the Koran, and clarifies that the repeated Koranic emphasis on the necessity of obeying the Prophet Muhammad was directed at people who lived in his time, not at those who came after. He says that obedience to the Prophet after his death must be in accordance with the Koran and the mutawatir traditions. 
He says: "My new book [does not present] a new school of religious law, or new thought. The statements in my book 'Rereading Islam' are an attempt to direct the attention of the Muslims and to guide them to the only [valid] source for legislation in their religion... [Over the years] many other sources were added to this source, including those called Sunna, ijma', qias, ijtihad, the opinions of the Companions of the Prophet, and so on... There is no evidence for the validity of these additional sources. They are the work of the hands of the clerics... and they [i.e. these additional sources] have made the religion more complicated and [added] many more [internal] contradictions. It has now reached the point where it is possible to write a doctoral dissertation on the rulings and customs of entering the public bathhouse... and after it is published, another researcher can write a similar doctoral dissertation in response to the first dissertation, claiming that it is mistaken. He can adopt a new and different position, and things can go on this way ad infinitum..." 
Tantawi blames ijtihad, the principle that permits the use of independent judgment in religious matters, for much of "the chaos that prevails in religious thought throughout the Muslim world today, and [has prevailed] for centuries." In an article devoted to this issue, he explains: "The opening of the gates of ijtihad, and the granting of religious legitimacy to it in the first centuries of Islam, have given every cleric, even every individual, the freedom to determine rulings and directives that do not appear in the fundamental source of Islamic legislation, the Koran, or in the Sunna. This has hampered the Muslims, and obligated them to cling to invalid rulings, rituals, and prohibitions. Moreover, in many instances, past and present, ijtihad by ulemaa clearly contradicts the Koran and the Sunna..."
At the same time, Tantawi explains that he is not opposed to legislation by human beings, only to granting it religious validity: "In and of itself, legislating is not forbidden by the Koran... as long as the legislation does not contradict the shari'a of Allah, does not detract from it, and does not add to it... and as long as it is not affiliated with the religion..." 
A separate article by Tantawi was devoted to the principle of al-nasikh wa'l-mansukh, used by Koran commentators to explain contradictions appearing in the Koran. According to this principle, a more recently revealed Koran verse that contradicts a previous verse abrogates the earlier one. Tantawi argues that this method of interpretation is another tool devised by the ulemaa to enable them to play with the Koranic verses in accordance with their own biases, tendencies, views, and personal interests. 
Sheikh Tantawi is opposed to dividing the history of Islam into periods, as Koran commentators and researchers suggest. Such a division marks two different periods in Islam: the period in which the Prophet was persecuted in Mecca, the city of his birth, and the period in which he became a leader and victorious commander, after his flight to the city of Al-Madina. The Mecca stage is characterized by forgiveness, tolerance, and restraint, while the Al-Madina period was completely different, characterized by warfare, vengeance and absence of forgiveness.
In his discussion of the issue of jihad, Tantawi explains that the warlike verses revealed to the Prophet in Al-Madina do not abrogate the verses of tolerance revealed in Mecca, and that the Prophet's jihad was not a religious war to spread Islam but a war to defend the rights of the oppressed and weak: "The Mecca stage was characterized by forgiveness, tolerance, and restraint in the face of injustice, because the Meccans' response to the new religious preaching to Islam was still tolerable; it included [only] curses, invective, denigration, ridicule, arrests, expropriation, and some physical harm. Accordingly, Allah instructed the Prophet and his companions to restrain themselves, to forgive, and to distance themselves [from those who caused harm].
"However, at the end of the Mecca stage, the people's response to the religious preaching to Islam changed. Instead of cursing, ridiculing, arrests, and expropriation, they plotted murder and physical killing, and seized property, children, and homes, and severely tortured [the Muslims]. They established torture camps in order to forcibly dissuade the supporters of the Prophet from adopting the new religion.
"Following the Muslims' flight to Al-Madina, and after they established a state and an army, Allah told them to fight the people of Mecca. [The Muslims were commanded to fight] not because [the Meccans] were heretical regarding Islam and claimed that it was false, but in order to regain the homes, property, and rights that had been stolen from them, and to stop the injustice and the torture that harmed the weak who had been unable to flee to Al-Madina with the Messenger Muhammad and the [rest of] the Muslims.
"Once the stolen rights were restored... and the injustice and the persecution of the weak were stopped, there would be a return to the forgiveness, tolerance, and restraint [in the face of] harm, denigration, and injustice..."
"Whoever reads the verses of war and jihad in their full context in the Koran, [argues Tantawi], and in light of the Arabic language in which the Koran was revealed - without truncating the verses... knows for sure that the Prophet's wars, invasions and jihad were not religious wars at all, and were not for the sake of spreading the religion, but were aimed at restoring stolen rights, and stopping the tortures of the weak that were aimed at dissuading them from adopting Islam..." 
Accusing Other Muslims of Heresy (Takfir )
Sheikh Tantawi is opposed to accusations of heresy (takfir) made by ulemaa against other Muslims, and claims that only Allah, who knows the soul of man, can know with certainty whether a man is a heretic: "Handing down a sentence for crimes of heresy and leaving the fold of Islam requires knowing with certainty some things that only Allah alone can determine... and therefore it is forbidden for anyone to sentence for heresy someone who belongs to Islam, someone who attests that he has no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His Prophet, and who observes the rituals of Islam - no matter what he has said and done... This [applies] as long as this person does not openly declare that he has abandoned Islam and adopted another religion. Moreover, it is forbidden to kill even a murtad [i.e. someone who has abandoned Islam], because the Koran has no text that commands [Muslims] to do this.
"With regard to the actions and words of those who belong to Islam, such as denying anything in the religion, objecting to something determined by the religion, denigrating the religion, abandoning one of its commandments, permitting something that Allah has forbidden, and other things considered heresy against the religion - it is forbidden for anyone to determine that this is heresy, because only Allah can know this with certainty..." 
Sheikh Tantawi spoke out against violence and bloodshed in the name of Islam: "Some of the extremist muftis and leaders of the takfir groups and of the groups that employ violence and bloodshed, who use Islam as a cover, intentionally give religious legitimacy to terrorist operations, to acts of murder, to so-called martyrdom operations, or to suicide operations... and to assassination of their rivals, their opponents, and their critics. This is an additional crime that some of those belonging to Islam [perpetrate in the name of] Islam and the Koran. These are criminal acts that have no legitimacy in the Koran..."
In order to gain legitimacy for crimes of this kind, Tantawi explains, the extremists use two methods. First, they take the Koran verses out of context and interpret them without connection to the context in which they appeared. Second, they find, in the Sunna and in the books of the hadiths, much material legitimizing murder.
According to Tantawi, "the muftis of terror and murder turn these lies into acts of heroism, and this causes many youths, who lack knowledge in matters of their religion and who are misled, to be willing to kill anyone for a suspicion, for a word, for a curse, for criticism, or for [expressing a different] opinion"...
"In conversations I held during the last 13 years with many youths belonging to various Islamist groups, I learned that many returned to the proper path after a long series of discussions and arguments [in matters of religion and religious law]. Many of them confessed to me that, in the depths of their hearts, they had been unhappy with what they had learned [from the extremist sheikhs] and with what was happening [in the Muslim world]. They would tell me that they had learned nothing besides [what they had been taught by the extremist sheikhs] and had not found anyone to teach them the proper path, and that they were [now] hearing these things from me for the first time."
Tantawi suggests two methods of correcting misconceptions held by Muslim youths: first, to conduct religious legal dialogues and discussions with them, explaining to them with words and logic the proper religious path, and second, to establish a satellite TV channel, that will reach every home and spread the proper religion. 
The Intellectuals and the Clerics
Sheikh Tantawi is extremely critical of both the clerics and the intellectuals in the Muslim world. According to him, there is benefit in both religion and in logic and modernity - but people don't use them correctly, and act according to personal interests: "For a long time now, we have been accustomed to hearing verbal ideological polemics between the intellectuals and the clerics... The result of these polemics is that both intellectuals and clerics see themselves and their opinions as infallible. Each thinks that the other is... the reason for the troubles, corruption, wars, and destruction that have harmed the planet Earth, and they have both neglected researching the real reasons for this..."
Tantawi explains that the clerics have taken custodianship over the religion and the public. They have monopolized the understanding of the religion; they think themselves better than and more just than the general public; they invent laws, and add sources of authority to the religious legislation, granting them religious legitimacy; they use all possible means, including bloodshed, to defend the school of thought or group to which they belong, and they regard every innovation and development as against Allah and against the religion. Tantawi states that the clerics issue rulings accusing others of heresy and spark religious wars on the argument that Muslims must come to the aid of Allah; they assign themselves the role of overseers of the public in the matter of implementing the commandments of God; and they give religious legitimacy to the rulers. With this approach to the religion and to the public, he says, these clerics seek to frighten the people away from modernity, innovation, and logic.
Tantawi states that the clerics are lying when they sanctify the Islamic forefathers and the forefathers' students, with the aim of acquiring some of this sanctity for themselves. He explains that among the forefathers of all religions were traitors, hypocrites, and people with bloodstained hands. In this matter, he concludes: "The students of the prophets and the messengers, and their companions and members of their generation, are not holy angels who are infallible. This is true also regarding the clerics who came after them. All are human beings, who can be right or wrong, who can improve something or ruin it."
As for the intellectuals, Tantawi explains that he is referring to those writers who defend secularism, freedom, logic, and knowledge from the clerics. He says that they are hostile to all religion, to a particular religion, or to some of the ideas of the religion. They are not infallible either: Some don't know enough about the religions, and many are not objective in their approach to the religions, while others deliberately confuse religion with the clerics' inventions. Some of these intellectuals think that all wars are for Allah and for the religions, and they see Allah, the religions, and the Prophet as evil. These intellectuals, he says, have appointed themselves in charge of reason, thought, and culture, and think that everything they say is the absolute truth. In addition, some of them cherry-pick from the clerics' views only what suits them: On the one hand, they dissociate themselves from the clerics and form their ideas, while on the other hand, they cling to some of the [clerics'] ideas in order to base their positions. He says: "How will justice prevail in our societies when the clerics monopolize the religion and speak in its name, the politicians monopolize politics and speak in its name, and the intellectuals monopolize thought and speak in its name?... How will justice prevail in our societies when the clerics, the intellectuals, the men of culture, and the writers all see themselves as the smartest, the most knowledgeable, and the most right?... How will justice prevail in our societies when we understand only what is compatible with our personal motivations and our private aspirations? For the sake of these motivations and aspirations... we turn truth into falsehood and falsehood into truth, injustice into justice and justice into injustice..."
"The real problem is not Allah, the religions, the holy books, the prophets, logic, modernity, serious thought, secularism or democracy. The real problem is in us, in human beings, and in the evil soul that abides amongst us... An evil cleric can use the religion in order to spill blood, desecrate honor, and act unjustly... Likewise, [intellectuals] whose evil soul has taken over them are likely to use democracy and secularism [in the same way]...
"Clerics, cultured individuals, and intellectuals are only human beings with aspirations, desires, personal considerations, and urges. Religion has not made clerics immune to error, transgression, and committing crimes against others; neither have knowledge, logic, and culture made people immune to error, transgression, and committing crimes against others. Everyone errs, everyone has victims, and everyone has bloodstained hands... If our souls heal from the hatred, jealousy, desires, egotism, greed, tyranny, lusts, and base interests... then our lives will be pleasant..." 
Sheikh Tantawi is also critical of the Copts. He claims that, just like the clerics who encourage terror, the Copts too take Koran verses out of context and rely on the Sunna in order to falsely accuse Islam of incitement to murder: "They try, in various ways, to prove that the Koran is a book of bloodshed and that Islam is a religion of bloodshed."
Tantawi explains: "As a Christian, if someone persecutes you or attacks you, you have only two options: Either you are a Christian who clings to the precepts of the tolerant Christianity that preaches not to struggle against evil, to love your enemies, to bless those who curse you, to do good unto those who hate you, and to turn your left cheek if they strike you on the right cheek... or you are an ordinary person who does not cling to the precepts of Christianity. In the latter case, if you are persecuted you are entitled to struggle using all possible ways and means to remove the injustice from you and from those close to you, and to restore your full rights. In this case, no one will reproach you, but you will have no right to speak in the name of Christians and Christianity, because the Christian religion instructs you to act differently... Speaking in the name of Christianity without clinging to its principles means using religion for political goals - exactly as some of the hypocrites belonging to Islam are doing..."
According to Tantawi, every time an extremist terrorist attacks a Christian, the Coptic intellectuals and some of their Muslim colleagues create a fuss in Europe and in the U.S. They forget that thousands of Muslims have been imprisoned in Egypt for 15 years without trial, but no one defends them or demands their release.
"I would like to say to my Coptic brothers: You have two options - [you can] be either believing Christians, or Egyptians. If you choose Christianity, cling to its precepts to love your enemies, bless those who curse you, and do not fight evil... But if you choose to be Egyptian, you must speak in the name of all your detained and persecuted Egyptian brothers, such as the Shi'ites, the Baha'i, the Communists, the atheists, and the hungry and sick Egyptian majority..." 
Norms of Behavior
In his interview with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Sheikh Tantawi referred to norms that guide Muslims in daily life. Thus, for example, he explains that growing a beard is a matter of personal choice which has nothing to do with the religion, and that if it were an essential religious matter, Allah would have said so in the Koran.
With regard to the issue of the mixing of the sexes [ikhtilat] in public places, Tantawi explains that a tradition attributed to the Prophet states that "there is no situation in which a man and a woman are alone where Satan is not there as a third [party together with them]." But Tantawi clarifies that many clerics are doubtful about the reliability of this tradition, and that even in the Koran there is no hint of a prohibition on mixing between the sexes: "Allah said [in Koran 24:60] that 'it is best for them to be modest.' Modesty means avoiding forbidden words, forbidden deeds, and forbidden passions. But the place for modesty is in the heart, not in avoiding mixing between the sexes... A man can be with members of the opposite sex and be more modest and God-fearing than one who avoids mixing between the sexes... Modesty is an obligation for both sexes, not only for men or only for women."
With regard to the issue of Islamic dress, Tantawi explains that the Koran does not stipulate a particular garment, design, or color for women's wear: "Allah instructed the women believers to wrap themselves in their robes [Koran 33:59]... Any wide, long garment fulfils this purpose... The reason for Allah's stipulation of the veil appears in the Koran [33:59] and it is: 'That will be better, so that they may be recognized and not molested.' That is, [the veil was stipulated] so that a woman would not be harmed, in speech or action - what we today call 'harassment'... The woman's modesty and her wrapping herself in a garment are [part of] the religion that was determined by Allah; [it is] not a social slogan..." 
Sheikh Al-'Obikan Responds: Whoever Denies the Sunna Denies the Koran
Sheikh 'Abd Al-Muhsin Al-'Obikan, a Saudi Shura Council member and legal advisor to the Saudi Justice Ministry, vehemently rejected Sheikh Tantawi's view regarding the Koran and the sources of religious law: "I read the interview with Dr. Tantawi... and I was quite amazed that he dares to deny the Sunna, and claims that the only source of Islamic legislation is the Koran. These statements are not new. They are like the words of the Hawarij, who stated: 'The book of our Lord is enough for us.'  They denied the Sunna of our Prophet Muhammad, and the Prophet ordered them killed because of the grave danger that they posed to Islam and to the Muslims...
"Whoever claims that he is satisfied with the Koran [alone] and denies the Sunna [also] denies the Koran, because in the Koran we are commanded to follow the Sunna. The believer's faith in the Koran is not complete until he believes in the Sunna, which interprets and clarifies the Koran, and is also an independent source [for Islamic legislation]...
"Dr. Tantawi claimed that reliance on the Sunna [as a source for religious ruling] is something added [to the religion] by the clerics, and that there is no evidence of its validity; rather, it is an innovation that complicated the religion... [But] in fact, this is a lie and a contradiction - a lie because Dr. Tantawi claims that it was the ulemaa and the clerics who made the Sunna, the ijma'a and the qias into an example and into the source [for legislation]. Anyone with even a smidgen of Koran knowledge knows that it was Allah himself, in the Koran, who made these three foundations into an example, a source [for legislation], and a [judiciary] authority in time of dispute.
"With regard to the Sunna, in over 40 places the Koran says that it must be referred to: 'O you who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you; then if you quarrel about anything, refer it to Allah and to the Messenger, if you believe in Allah and in the last day; this is better and very good in the end. [Koran 59:4].'
[Another example is:] 'Certainly you have in the Messenger of Allah an excellent exemplar for him who hopes in Allah and the latter day and remembers Allah much [Koran 33:21]'...
"Allah has instructed us to obey the Messenger and has declared his Sunna a source for settling disagreement... [Likewise,] the clerics have concluded from the Koran that ijma'a and qias are a kind of example [for religious rulings], and they did not invent them, as Dr. Tantawi has claimed...
"Had we insisted that the Koran alone was the model [for legislation] without the Sunna, we would not know many of the shari'a rulings - after all, [if not for the Sunna] how would we know the five daily prayers, and the number of the series of bowings and kneelings that comprise prayer [rak'a], as well as rulings on prayer, pilgrimages to Mecca, and so on?
"The call for the independence of the Koran without recognition of the Sunna did not emerge in the current period, but was already heard in previous eras from some atheists [zindiq]; the forefathers rose up against them and refuted their nonsense...
"Allah's commandments in the Koran are [understood by the believers] only through the conduct of the Messenger Muhammad. This is what the clerics claim; whoever claims otherwise leaves the fold of Islam and joins the fold of the infidels...
"I would like to remind Dr. Tantawi and others that Islam is fighting its enemies, and that it is an obligation to preserve it with the purity it had when it was handed down from our Prophet Muhammad, and not to cast doubts upon its foundations. Casting such doubts [as Tantawi is doing] gladdens the enemies of Islam and strengthens them at the expense of the Muslims. [Tantawi also does] this in his book 'Rereading Islam,' which essentially destroys the foundations of Islam that appear in the Koran..." 
Tantawi: Al-'Obikan's Words are Incitement to Murder
Sheikh Tantawi's response to Al-'Obikan was posted on www.metransparent.com, where he regularly publishes his articles: "First of all, I would like to remind the honorable Sheikh Al-'Obikan of the words of Allah, 'Follow what has been revealed to you from your Lord and do not follow any guardians besides Him [Koran 7:3]'; and the words of Allah, 'It was not (given) to any messenger that he should bring a portent save by Allah's leave. [Koran 13:38].'
"Second, isn't the honorable [sheikh's] reaction considered a call to accuse me of heresy and atheism, which requires that I be killed for my views regarding the Sunna?...
"Third, there is nothing in the Koran called 'Sunna.' The term 'Sunna' is an invention of the ulemaa. With regard to your statements that the Sunna clarifies and interprets the Koran, and with regard to your question about how the rulings of prayer and the rest of the ritual commandments could be known [without the Sunna], I clarified this in the study titled 'Obeying the Prophet is an Obligation Only During His Life, Not After His Death' ... I would like to clarify that in my view regarding the Sunna, I have not deviated from the Koran and from the consensus of the Sunna ulemaa. Aren't all the traditions about the Prophet considered traditions of individuals, and [haven't] the ulemaa stated that their truth and attribution to the prophet are [merely] assumptions, except for the mutawatir traditions, whose number does not exceed 309 [?]...
"What is termed 'Sunna' is the fundamental and primary reason why Islam is divided into groups, denominations, sects, and factions.
"Fourth, with regard to the sentence of those who have said things similar to what I am saying [who, according to Sheikh Al-'Obikan,] must be killed [because they] pose a danger to Islam and to the Muslims, and [because] they are atheists - during the period of the Messenger, weren't there [people] who mocked Allah, his signs, and his Messenger, and the Koran noted their heresy, but nevertheless the Prophet did not reveal their identity to anyone, did not accuse them of heresy, and did not kill them, and they remained as they were, among the Muslims?..." 
*A. Dankowitz is Director of MEMRI's Reform Project.
 Also belonging to this stream of thought, which rejects most of the Sunna as a source of authority for religious rulings, are Egyptian intellectual Jamal Al-Banna, and another Al-Azhar alumnus, the Egyptian intellectual Dr. Ahmad Subhi Mansour. For more on this thought, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 208, "Accusing Muslim Intellectuals of Apostasy," February 18, 2005, Accusing Muslim Intellectuals of Apostasy.
 The Sunna are the traditions describing the way of life and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions; ijma' is the agreement of all to a custom or belief that has taken root among the Muslims; qias is a logical analogy from something written in the Koran or the Sunna regarding things about which there is no specific ruling; ijtihad is the use of independent judgment in matters of religious law; al-nasikh wa'l-mansukh is a method for settling contradictions between Koranic verses, in which later verses abrogate earlier ones.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 27, 2006. The full version of the interview was posted on May 5, 2006, on
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 4, 2006.
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 Metransparent.com, April 3, 2006.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 27, 2006.
 Metransparent.com, March 22, 2006.
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 Metransparent.com, May 16, 2006.
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 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 27, 2006.
 The Hawarij was a group that split off from the camp of the Fourth Caliph Ali ibn Abi Taleb in the Battle of Sifin in 657. They are considered the first Muslim opposition in Islam.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 4, 2006.
 Metransparent.com, April 3, 2006.
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