Born in Buhayra, a province in Lower Egypt, Sheikh Shaltut left his small village, Binyat Bani Mansur, in 1906 at age thirteen and enrolled in Ma’hd dini of Alexandria- a newly established Azhar- affiliated religious institute. Upon completion of his studies in 1918, Shaltut received his Alameya Degree (Azhar equivalent to the BA) and began teaching at the same institute in 1919. At age thirty four, he was called upon to lecture at the Higher Division of al-Azhar and subsequently transferred to Cairo in 1927.
In 1929 Sheikh Mohammad Moustafa al-Maraghi was chosen as rector of al-Azhar University. Al-Maraghi began creating his own reform program and was firmly supported by Shaltut whom, several years prior to his transfer to al-Azhar, created reform ideas of his own concerning al-Azhar. Shaltut’s reforms were ones specifically geared toward separating the religious institution from the state. However, not everyone was keen on change and it was al-Maraghi’s bold ideas that quickly brought him down. After a brief one-year posting, Sheikh al-Maraghi resigned as grand imam of al-Azhar and in his place came Sheikh Mohammad al-Ahmadi al-Zawahiri. Unlike al-Maraghi, who Shaltut viewed as being a proactive leader and reformer, Sheikh al-Zawahiri was perceived by Shaltut as being reactionary. Shaltut himself was a modernist disciple of Muhammad Abduh and Muhammad Rashid Rida and their influences on him are clearly discernible in his writings, actions, and ideas. Thus, it was inevitable Shaltut would harbor resistance against al-Zawahiri’s passive policies, and therefore, he was consequently dismissed from al-Azhar in September 1931 along with others in what can be conceived as a general purge of those associated with al-Maraghi’s reform faction. Shaltut spent his time spent away from al-Azhar working as a lawyer in the Shari’a courts. It was not until al-Maraghi’s second appointment in 1935 that Shaltut would return to al-Azhar.
During al-Maraghi’s second post at the helm of al-Azhar, which lasted ten years until 1945, Shaltut became Wakil (Vice Dean) of the Kulliyat al Shari’a, and in 1937 he attended the Deuxieme Congrès International de Droit Compare conference at The Hague where he was one of only three scholars selected to represent al-Azhar. His speech regarding the civil and criminal liability in Islamic law impressed those within al-Azhar circles and thus served to increase his status within the institute. Later in 1939, Shaltut was appointed as inspector of religious studies and went on to become a member of the Arabic Language Academy in Cairo as elected in 1946. Shaltut’s rise to prominence continued and in November 1957, he was selected as Vice-Rector and less than one year later, Shaltut was finally given the highest honor and made Sheikh al-Azhar by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in October 1958. Previously, al-Azhar scholars were granted the power to elect the grand imam, but in 1961, after nationalizing the religious institution, Abdel Nasser issued a new al-Azhar Law, limiting the power of the al-Azhar imams and giving the government power to appoint the grand imam. By deepening the ties between the regime and the institution, this allowed the post-1952 revolutionary government of Abdel Nasser to work to integrate education into a unified system and find an ally in Shaltut who would strive for modernization of curricula and a broader public-service function- at home and abroad- for al-Azhar.
Shortly after assuming his position as Sheikh al-Azhar, Shaltut’s announced his vision for reform. Shaltut attempted to prove that shari’a law was not an obstacle to modern society, but rather a guide through the changes modern society brings with it. He was fervently determined to see al-Azhar achieve greater independence from the state’s control and worked toward getting the National Assembly to pass declarations such as the Reform Law, which they did in 1961. The Reform Law was aimed at integrating al-Azhar into the wider field of higher education, improving job opportunities for students, and producing modern scholars knowledgeable in matters of the contemporary world and able to serve the Muslim community. Admiration for Sheikh Shaltut grew rapidly and his unprecedented decision to broadcast regularly for religious sermons and answer questions from those who had doubts or criticism only enhanced his reputation. These broadcasts were later published by the Ministry of National Guidance as Ahadith al-sabah fi’l-Midhya and Yas’aluna (Ask Us). Also, he is noted as being a great orator. His capability to communicate well with the masses garnered him many listeners as he spoke of varying issues regarding contemporary Muslim society such as family law, private property, birth control, and polygamy (which he strongly defended) to name a few. In essence, Sheikh Shaltut believed that the relevance of shari’a law in the modern day was not to be undermined. Also, he viewed his Quranic commentary, or his tafsir, more as practical advice for any literate Muslim rather than a strict scholarly analysis.
Sheikh Shaltut is remembered for encouraging harmonious interactions between the main body of Muslims (Sunni), and Islam's largest sect, the Shi'a. He maintained close relations with prominent Shi’i figures such as Seyyed Hossein Borujerdi and zealously campaigned for open discussion and cooperation between the two branches. Shaltut desperately wanted to overcome misconstructions and avoid quarrels between the two sects. Shaltut even went as far as to issue a fatwa which essentially declared that worship according to the Twelver Shi’i doctrine was valid. Although several internal, external, and political complications (i.e., a crisis involving majority Shi’i Persia and majority Sunni Egypt in the summer of 1960) arose regarding this declaration, the fatwa is still seen as a symbol of hope for those aspiring for a reconciliation between the two branches. Sheikh Shaltut strove to portray Islam to the world as a religion of unity, flexibility, and moderation. He furiously condemned sectarianism, saint worship, and miracles while promoting tolerance and reason among the Islamic population. Moreover, Shaltut had no concerns accepting socialism and had great pride in his Egyptian nationality while at the same time supporting Arabism. Nevertheless, as any prominent figure would, Shaltut (and the overall ulama at the time) had his dissenters. A post-1960s Arab world was essentially one in which there was a crisis of religious leadership. Shaltut's attempts to reengage the ulama into people's broad culture fell on deaf ears as he was seen as peripheral to the state- a man set in place to satisfy the regime rather than serve the religion. Regardless, he is viewed as many to this day as a great reformer who attempted to advance Islam during a troublesome time in the Islamic world.
A. Tafsir al-Kuran al-Karim: al-Adjza al-Ashara al-Ula (1959)
B. Jihad al-kital fi‘l-islam (1948; translated into English by R. Peters in 1977 as Jihad in Mediaeval and Modern Islam)
C. al-Islam, Akida wa-Shari’a (1959)
D. al-Fatiwa, Dirasa li Mushkilat al-Muslim al-mu asir fi Hayatihi al-Yawmiyya al-Amma (1964)