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Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, Sunni Islam's most senior cleric, died last week of a heart attack.  
 
The 82-year-old Egyptian headed al-Azhar mosque and university - a crucial institition for Sunni Muslims. 

This made him one of the most influential and controversial religious figures in the Islamic world.

Opponents viewed him as the theological functionary through which the state marketed not only its brand of Islam, but also other policies.

He drew criticism from nationalists for branding suicide bombers as "extremists" and for backing the state's tight border policies toward the besieged Gaza Strip and Palestinians living under blockade.

His biggest supporters were perhaps among the reform camp in Egypt – the sheikh backed a controversial organ transplant law, denounced female circumcision and supported women's right to get an easy divorce.

His sudden death raises questions about al-Azhar's future, its role and whether it has been hijacked by the state.

Has the diminishing role of al-Azhar in the Muslim world given a chance for alternative Islamic movements to fill a vacuum?

Inside Story presenter Imran Garda is joined by Hatem el-Karanshawy, the founding dean of the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies at Qatar Foundation, Khaled Hroub, an Islamic affairs analyst and lecturer in modern Middle East politics at the University of Cambridge, and via broadband from Colorado, we are joined by Geneive Abdo, an analyst and the author of No God But God: Egypt and The Triumph of Islam.

This episode of Inside Story aired from Sunday, March 14, 2010.

Source: Al Jazeera