Judge, broadcaster, author, editor, teacher, orator, Sheikh Ali Al-Tantawi died on June 19, 1999 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the country that has been his home for close to 40 years. Born in Damascus in 1908, he belonged to a family distinguished by scholarship and high social standing. His father held the position of ameen al-fatwa, which in today’s terms may be described as coordinator and member of the Council of Religious Rulings. Such a position required the holder to be a distinguished scholar, which his father certainly was. His maternal uncle Sheikh Muhibbuddin al-Khateeb was a famous Islamic writer who lived for sometime in Egypt, published a magazine and wrote some valuable works.
Ali Al-Tantawi was educated in Damascus. In his memoirs, he gives a vivid description of his school days at the then prestigious school of Maktab Anbar. This provides insight into the system of education that was available in the early twentieth century in Damascus. This was greatly different from the sort of universal education that we have today, as the system catered only for a small minority of school-age children. He graduated from the University of Damascus in 1933, obtaining two degrees in law and Arabic literature.
He started his career as a teacher in Syria, teaching not just the set curriculum. He also taught his students the meaning of jihad, knowing that the best method of teaching is by example. As Syria was under French rule at the time, jihad took the form of fighting the colonial power and working to make sure that its stay in Syria was both unwelcome and costly.
He led his students in demonstrations demanding independence for Syria. His call echoed the feelings of the population, and Damascus, his hometown and capital of the country, responded to his appeals and staged a total strike lasting two months, paralyzing the country. The strike put the colonial authorities in a quandary. All shops and services shut down, except for a few bakeries and essential food services that worked part time to give the population the bare essentials for life. He then had to travel to Iraq, where he also worked as a teacher and inculcated in his Iraqi students a love for jihad against the British rule.
That clear commitment to the independence and sovereignty of Muslim people, wherever they happened to be, was clear in Al-Tantawi’s mind throughout his life. In the late 1940s, he played a leading part in mobilizing volunteers to defend Palestine against the coming Zionist takeover. In the early 1950s, he was in the forefront, mobilizing support for the struggle for independence in the North African countries of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, calling on all Muslims to boycott French goods and services until these Muslim countries gained independence.
In the late 1950s, he appealed for donations to equip the Syrian army with suitable armament to stand up to Israeli aggression. He rejoiced at the fall of any dictatorship anywhere in the Muslim world, and was saddened whenever a new regime revealed its dictatorial nature. He believed that no dictatorship could ever bring good results for the community, as it deprives people of freedom, which he believed to be a God-given human right.
After the creation of Israel in 1948, the loss of Palestine was a very painful event for Al-Tantawi, as indeed for many scholars and advocates of Islam. He took part in the Islamic Conference on Palestine which was held soon afterward. It was attended by a large number of Muslim scholars and prominent figures from all over the Muslim world. Together with Sheikh Amjad Al-Zahawi, a well-known scholar from Iraq, Al-Tantawi traveled on a mission from the Conference to most Muslim countries to raise funds for Palestine. The funds were utilized, among other things, to build a wall to separate the old city of Al-Quds (Jerusalem) — which remained in Muslim hands — from the modern part of the city occupied by the Jews. That gave the Islamic areas good protection from clashes that the Israelis might have provoked.
Sheikh Ali Al-Tantawi’s travels had a profound effect on him. He wrote about them and spoke about them in his weekly radio program, bringing home to his audience images of the life of other Muslim nations and a splendid description of the countries he visited. His description of the scenery in Indonesia is perhaps as breathtaking as the scenery itself. He included many of his impressions in his memoirs.
His personal career took a different course when he became a judge on his return to Syria. He moved up the judicial system reaching the top position of Justice of the High Islamic Appeals Court. He continued to hold that position until he was forced out in 1963 by a revolutionary decree which dismissed a large number of judges for the express purpose of ‘making the judicial system subservient to the revolution. That was the time when he had to leave Syria, never to return. He always had a longing to return to Damascus, the city of his upbringing, but it was a dream not to be fulfilled.
Being a judge affected his life in the sense that, socially, he moved within only his close circle of personal friends. He tried hard not to leave himself open to any sort of pressure or temptation that might influence his judgment. This meant that he would never accept a gift except from a handful of people whom he trusted not to have any personal interest. If a plaintiff or a defendant tried to pay him a visit, he would be sure to find his door closed in his face. If he were to try to see him in the mosque, he would not discuss with him anything regarding his case. Hence, he gained wide reputation as a judge who maintained fairness at all costs.
Ali Al-Tantawi excelled in literature as well as Islamic law, which he studied at the university. He often joked about being disowned by the ‘experts’ in both. He said that when he attended a literary circle or wrote on a literary issue, there were always those who said that he belonged to religious scholarship, while some Islamic scholars tried to dismiss his views regarding Fiqh matters on grounds that he was a man of letters, not a religious scholar. The fact is that he was master of both disciplines, and a superior one at that. No one could dispute this.
As an Islamic scholar, Sheikh Ali Al-Tantawi was among the top figures in the twentieth century. In his early life, he followed mostly the Hanafi school of thought, but later did not commit himself to any school, taking whatever view he thought to be better supported by the Qur’an and the Sunnah. As a legal authority, he was in home territory. In the late 1940s, he was instrumental in the formulation of the family laws in Syria, and took an important part in the drafting of Islamic laws in Egypt. As a literary figure, his style was inimitable: simple but powerful, with clarity of purpose, full of imagery, appealing both to layman and specialist. When he wrote biographical notes on political personalities or scholars of old, their characters came alive. His short stories reflected his rare talent of character delineation. Ali Al-Tantawi was a man of strong convictions and immense personal courage. The I930s and 1940s witnessed famous literary disputes. Al-Tantawi joined them with great enthusiasm, supporting the stand of Mustafa Saqiq al-RafI’e (1880-1937), who represented the more Islamically committed front, against ‘Abbas Mahmood AI Aqqad’ (1889-1964).