It has been a strange week. Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, grand imam of the Al-Azhar mosque and head of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo (Sunni Islam’s pre-eminent centre of learning), died on Wednesday 10 March while staying in Saudi Arabia. Tantawi was an enigmatic man – but be careful of quotations taken out of context – and one of courage and vision. He was one of Islam’s leading spiritual authorities to champion Islamic moderation across the globe – incurring the wrath of Muslims who took a more militant approach to their faith. A good obituary can be found in the Guardian.
I met Tantawi several times in Kazakhstan at the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. He was always rather inscrutable, but he handled challenge extremely well. In July 2009 when the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, stood to speak – driving the Iranian delegation to loudly evacuate the room – he maintained his presence and took what could have been seen as provocation in his stride (at least publicly). Several years ago he refused to rise to the deliberate provocation by Chief Rabbi Metzger and maintained his position. Whatever differences some of us might have had with some of his views, he certainly gained respect by his behaviour in such circumstances.
Tantawi will be missed. It will be interesting to see if his shoes will be filled by someone of equal spiritual authority, political wisdom and personal courage. Moderate Islam needs it and so does the rest of the world.
Last night I went from ruminating on Tantawi to the presentation by the Russian Ambassador to Archbishop Rowan Williams of the Russian Order of Friendship, for his “outstanding contribution to the cooperation and friendly relations between Russia and the UK”. The Archbishop
The honour, which was awarded by Russian presidential decree by President Dmitry Medvedev, was presented by the Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, His Excellency Mr Yury Fedotov, who said “What the Archbishop is doing helps tremendously to establish better understanding and to set a better climate in relations between Russia and the UK.” Dr Williams is hugely respected in Russia for his interest in and mastery of Russian religious philosophy. He has written and spoken widely throughout his career, notably in his doctoral thesis on the theology of Vladimir Lossky, on Sergii Bulgakov (Towards a Russian Political Theology, 1999), and his recent book on Fyodor Dostoevsky (Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction , 2008).
It was – as they say – a good gig at the Residence of the Russian Ambassador in London. The honour, which was awarded by Russian presidential decree by President Dmitry Medvedev, was presented by the Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mr Yury Fedotov, who said
What the Archbishop is doing helps tremendously to establish better understanding and to set a better climate in relations between Russia and the UK.
Rowan responded with (as usual) an erudite and witty speech (without notes), remarking that:
The depths and challenges of the Russian world have continued to play a crucial part in my own life, in my mind and in my heart… It is a very special personal honour, and an immense personal privilege to be recognised in this way so unexpectedly.
My wife and I went to support Rowan, but also because I continue to be intrigued by what Rowan referred to as “the new Russia still being built”. My own background in Russian language and politics was something best kept quiet about, but it was a really good evening among some very interesting and nice people. The Russian diplomatic hosts were generous, welcoming and open to all the questions I (at least) asked. A nice touch came at the end when the Director of the All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature, Dr Ekaterina Genieva, surprised the Archbishop with the presentation of a special bilingual edition of his selected poems printed in Moscow for the occasion. All guests came away with a signed copy – and I am already struggling with the Russian translations. I have forgotten too much…
Just for the record, my conversations with Rowan about Russia have usually ended up with me being embarrassed. After a dinner several years ago during which we discussed Zimbabwe, we eventually got on to Russian literature. I could blag my way through Tolstoy, Lermontov and Turgenev, but then blew my cover with Dostoyevsky. I mentioned that I had attempted Crime and Punishment three times and never got beyond page 82: it was boring and nothing seemed to happen except in the head of the ‘hero’. After a short – pregnant – silence Rowan said: “I’m about to write a book on Dostoyevsky…”
I’m sure he’s been suspicious of me ever since…
I decided that my next conversation had better be a bit better informed. So I have now read everything Dostoyevsky wrote – OK, I’ve got the last half of The Brothers Karamazov to finish.