April 8, 2003 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 130

Sheikh Tantawi's Positions on Jihad Against Coalition Forces, Saddam's Resignation, and The War in Iraq

April 8, 2003 | By Y. Feldner*
Iraq, Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 130

The positions of Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, the sheikh of Al-Azhar University, regarding the issue of Jihad against the U.S. and other coalition forces fighting in Iraq seem to be changing over time. Every few days, Sheikh Tantawi, who is the highest-ranking cleric in Sunni Islam, declares a position which seems to contradict the previous one. A look at statements made by Sheikh Tantawi shows that he supports Jihad against coalition forces, and supports suicide bombings. However, he is also in favor of the resignation of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and is opposed to labeling the war in Iraq a "Crusader war." The following are statements made by Sheikh Tantawi in recent weeks which demonstrate the contradictory nature of his opinions regarding the war in Iraq:

Stage I: Sheikh Tantawi Fires Top Cleric Who Declared Jihad Against the U.S.

In early March 2003, Sheikh Tantawi fired Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee Chairman Sheikh 'Ali Abu Al-Hassan after he ruled that "it is an obligation to fight the American forces if they enter Iraq" and that "the blood of the American and British soldiers is permitted in this case."[1]Sheikh Abu Al-Hassan also ruled that it is forbidden for Muslims to hold U.S. citizenship. On several occasions, Sheikh Tantawi stated that he fired Sheikh Abu Al-Hassan because he had reached retirement age; however, Sheikh Abu Al-Hassan said that he had been "promised an extension of my services for another year, but after the American and British embassies protested my two rulings, the idea to extend my services was dropped."[2]

Stage II: Sheikh Tantawi Approves Fatwa In Favor of Jihad Against the U.S.

A few days after firing Sheikh Abu Al-Hassan, Sheikh Tantawi approved a Fatwa issued by Al-Azhar University's Islamic Research Center. The Fatwa stated, inter alia, that "in accordance with reason and with Islamic religious law, if the enemy raids the land of the Muslims, Jihad becomes a personal imperative binding on every Muslim man and woman, because our Muslim nation will be subject to a new Crusader invasion targeting land, honor, belief, and homeland."[3]

Research Center Secretary-General Wafa Abu 'Ajour said, "The sheikh of Al-Azhar, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, read and approved the communiqué."[4]

Stage III: Sheikh Tantawi Opposes the Term "Crusader War"

Although he had approved Al-Azhar Research Center's communiqué, Sheikh Tantawi announced that he was opposed to the term "Crusader war." During a meeting with the head of the Supreme Council of Anglican Churches in Scotland, Sheikh Tantawi said, "All the monotheistic religions call for peace, stability, and reform, and oppose war," and added that he was "opposed to the words 'Crusader invasion' because it had racist connotations and was against Islam and Christianity."[5]

At the same time, the Al-Azhar Research Center issued a "clarification communiqué" stating, "Islam was not and will not be at war with Christianity, because all monotheistic religions call for disseminating peace and security among all humanity. The expression 'Crusader war' in the previous communiqué was not aimed at declaring war between Islam and Christianity, and some misunderstood it. The Crusader wars took place hundreds of years ago, and any reasonable person understands that the reasons for them were not religious but other [reasons]." The communiqué was signed by Research Center Secretary-General Wafa Abu 'Ajour.[6]

Stage IV: Sheikh Tantawi in an Interview: Jihad Does Not Mean a War of Islam and Christianity

Sheikh Tantawi told the Al-Liwa Al-Islami weekly, published by the Egyptian ruling party, that "the American Embassy had phoned to ask for a clarification of the meaning of [the terms] 'Jihad' and 'Crusader invasion' as written in the communiqué." He said, "The meaning is not what arises in the minds of a few, because we as Muslims call for peace and for preventing war, and Patriarch Shinoda [head of the Egyptian Coptic Church] and Pope John Paul [2] agree with us on this matter – as do Germany, France, Russia, and many other countries in the Christian world. We all support peace and oppose war on the Iraqi people or the Palestinian people."

According to Sheikh Tantawi, it is not true that he refrained from signing the Al-Azhar Research Center communiqué that called for Jihad. He also said, "It is customary for every communiqué issued in the name of this center to be signed by the secretary-general, and there is no need for it to be signed by the sheikh of Al-Azhar. The signature of the secretary-general of the Research Center, which issued the communiqué, fully serves the purpose… The meaning mentioned in the communiqué does not express the position of the sheikh of Al-Azhar alone, but the position of the entire Research Center, including [that of] the secretary-general and the sheikh of Al-Azhar…"[7]

Stage V: Egyptian Information Minister Denies Sheikh Tantawi Called for Jihad

Apparently as the result of political pressure on the Egyptian government, Egyptian Information Minister Safwat Al-Sharif declared, "the Sheikh of Al-Azhar did not issue a Fatwa regarding Jihad, and everything said on the matter was not presented [for discussion] at the Al-Azhar Research Center. The sheikh of Al-Azhar published a communiqué stating that the war on Iraq could not be called a 'Crusader war,' because this term is Western in origin and never came from the Muslim world."[8]

Stage VI: Sheikh Tantawi Condemns Shi'ite Clerics Who Support the U.S.

The Qatari television channel Al-Jazeera broadcast an interview with Shiite cleric Sheikh Mustafa Al-Qazwini, who lives in exile in the U.S. Sheikh Al-Qazwini said that he belonged to the Iraqi opposition and called on the Iraqi army to surrender in order to protect the lives of civilians.

In response, Sheikh Tantawi told the Al-Liwa Al-Islami weekly: "Islam, with all its various schools of thought and ethnic groups, orders every Muslim to defend the homeland, the people, property, and the honor to the last drop of blood. Anyone who listens to these defeatist calls spread by people like the one who has abandoned his religion [i.e. Sheikh Al-Qazwini] sins a tremendous sin, and Allah will call him to account for abandoning [his Muslim brethren]. This applies to every Muslim everywhere who refrains from defending his Muslim brethren in Iraq and flees from the enemy. Surrender to them is expressly forbidden by Islam."

"The Prophet said: Refrain from seven sins: [Worshiping another deity] along with Allah, sorcery, killing a soul whose unjust killing Allah has forbidden, usury, taking the money of orphans, abandoning [the battlefield] during invasion, and rebelling against parents. He who scorns his land, honor, and property, and he who does not defend his homeland with all his might, is not fit to live. What that man from Washington [meaning Sheikh Al-Qazwini] said is against Islam and morality. How can the Iraqis throw down their weapons and hand their country over to the cruel enemy who wants to plunder their lands and their resources?! These things are not even worthy of rebuttal."[9]

Stage VII: Sheikh Tantawi Again Calls for Jihad, Supports Saddam's Resignation

On April 6, Sheikh Tantawi again called for Jihad against the allied forces; at the same time, he called for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to resign. The press reported from Cairo that in his Friday sermon at Al-Azhar, Sheikh Tantawi said, "The American aggression against Iraq is not acceptable to Islamic law, and the law [of the land], and the Iraqi people must defend itself, its land, and its homeland, with all means of defense at its disposal, because it is a Jihad that is permitted by Islamic law. Jihad is an obligation for every Muslim when Muslim countries are subject to aggression. The gates of Jihad are open until the Day of Judgment, and he who denies this is an infidel or one who abandons his religion. This is an obligation applying to the nation now, in order to respond to the aggression..."[10]However, Sheikh Tantawi was cut off by persons in the crowd of worshipers shouting, "You will not stop us from waging Jihad!"[11]

At a press conference he convened on Saturday April 5, 2003, Tantawi called on the Iraqi people to "continue its Jihad in defense of religion, faith, honor, and property, because Jihad is a religious law of Islam aimed at opposing aggressors. It is the right of the Iraqis to carry out any operation in defense of their homeland, whether martyrdom operations [i.e. suicide operations] or [by] any other means." Sheikh Tantawi encouraged volunteers from Arab and Islamic countries to go to Iraq "to support the Jihad of their oppressed brethren there, because resistance to oppression is an Islamic obligation, whether the oppressor is Muslim or not." He reiterated, "The gates of Jihad are open until the Day of Judgment, and I say to the volunteer: Go in peace, and I wish you the best. I speak words of truth, but I cannot [issue an] order [to] any man." Sheikh Tantawi also said, "Some tried to exploit the description of the war as 'Crusader' in order to influence the positive positions of France, Germany, and Russia, which tried to prevent the war. Therefore, a need emerged to state that a war that bears religious slogans is unacceptable, and that Crusader wars were in the distant past and they had causes that have no connection to Christianity, which calls for peace among men."

At the same time, Sheikh Tantawi announced that he supported the demand of UAE leader Sheikh Zayyid that Saddam Hussein "should resign in order to save the Iraqi people from the aggression, and the Arab League should manage Iraq's affairs."

Sheikh Tantawi also said, "Saddam's clinging to power is one of the causes of what is happening, and of the aggression from which his people suffer, and of the threat of occupation hanging over its future." He said this was "one of the reasons for the division of the nation and the loss of its strength during the Eight-Year War against Iran, followed by the invasion of Kuwait."

However, Sheikh Tantawi reiterated, "… If an Arab country helps foreign troops against another Arab country unnecessarily, this constitutes a betrayal of the religion. Similarly, if the oppressed seeks assistance from people who are not his coreligionists while his coreligionists are capable of helping him, this also constitutes a betrayal of the homeland."[12]Tantawi also stated, "Martyrdom operations [i.e., suicide bombings] carried out against invading troops are permitted by Islamic religious law."[13]

*Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis

[1]Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), March 7, 2003.

[2]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 15, 2003.

[3]Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt Web site, March 10, 2003,

[4]March 11, 2003,

[5]Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), March 17, 2003.

[6]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 20, 2003.

[7]Quoted in Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), March 20, 2003.

[8]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 21, 2003.

[9]According to Reuters news agency, quoted in Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), April 4, 2003.

[10]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 5, 2003.

[11]According to Reuters news agency, quoted in Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), April 6, 2003.

[12]Al-Hayat (London), April 6, 2003.

[13]April 6, 2003,

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