Watani International

A freethinke­r passes away


On 6 February 2022, Egypt lost one of its most controvers­ial culture figures: Sayed al- Qemani (also written Qimany), philosophe­r, intellectu­al, researcher and writer. He passed away aged 75 in his home, following what his daughter Isis alQemani said was probably a heart attack.

Mr Qemani’s passing brought on divergent responses on social media: liberals and seculars mourned the departure of a singular thinker and scholar, whereas fundamenta­l Muslims gloated over his departure and insisted he was set to rot in hell.

You could never be neutral about Mr Qemani; you either endorse his intellectu­al prowess and hail him as a hero who stood up for what he believed in despite threats, abuse, and allegation­s of apostasy; or you despised him as a heretic. Mr Qemani was a champion of critical thinking even, or perhaps especially, as regards religious texts. He was a staunch advocate of secularism, vocally calling for separation of religion and State, and for correcting widespread erroneous ideas on pre-Islamic and Islamic history. He viewed the Qur’an as a historical document to be studied using the same scientific tools and criteria employed for other discipline­s. Little surprise that he was a prime target of Islamic threat and revilement.

Sayed Al- Qemani was born in al-Wasta in Beni Sweif some 100km south of Cairo, on 13 March 1 47. He earned a degree in 3hilosophy from Ain Shams University in 1 6 , and went on to do research and teach in universiti­es in Gulf States and in Southern California till he settled down in Egypt.

Most of Mr Qemani’s works are academic; many delved into Islamic history and thought and, in the process, refuted concepts upon which political Islam is built. Among his books are: H H J R V DQG HPRFUDF D Q D P TUDW D 2005; ,V DP F UR SV H I URP : W Q D -DPD DDW D ,V DP D D P Q D DN 2004; ,V DP F UDG W RQV D ,V DP DW 2001; WRU RI UHDW RQ VVDW D N D T 1 ; H :DUV RI W H URS HW V WDWH U D DW D DV 1 6; H URS HW UD DP DQG W H QNQR Q VWRU D , UD P D DU N D DM 1 6.

In 200 , Mr Qemani won Egypt’s State Award of Merit in the Social Sciences, Egypt s highest cultural award. This incensed Islamic figures and scholars in al-Azhar, the Mufti, the Muslim Brotherhoo­d, and others. Egypt’s Mufti 1asr Farid Wasil called the decision to award Qemani the prize “a crime against Egypt’s Muslim identity”, and -abhat Ulamaa AlAzhar stated that Qemani “has openly blasphemed in a manner that does not lend itself to any other interpreta­tion”. They launched a Mudicial battle and media campaign calling for the prize to be withdrawn from him.

Mr Qemani replied that “Islamic scholars do not want the Muslim to use his God-given brain They want a submissive and obedient Muslim who refers to them in the slightest details of his life.” Egyptian liberals, rights activists, academics and media persons, however, strongly turned out in Mr Qemani’s defence and called on the government to defend him against accusation­s of blasphemy “which are tantamount to incitement to murder”.

To his last day, Mr Qemani was adamant in his defiance of belligeren­t threats, standing tall in his defence of critical thinking.

In 1ovember 2002, :DWDQ hosted Mr Qemani as guest in :DWDQ )RU P On how he viewed himself, Mr Qemani said: “I am not an ally of anything or anyone but the principles I believe in.”

In tribute to the free thinker, we today reprint excerpts from the Forum which focused on the ancient Egyptian, Coptic, and Islamic identities of Egypt, none of which, he claimed, should be sidelined or given predominan­ce.

Mr Qemani addressed religious extremists, both Muslim and Christian, saying: “For diehard Copts, Egyptian history and identity seem to begin with St Mark who preached Christiani­ty in Egypt in the first AD century. For Muslims, history starts with the Muslim Arab invasion of Egypt led by Amr Ibn al-Aas in 640AD. Both sides appear to disregard the country’s ancient history, which began ages before either event.

“Copts are reluctant to admit the intrusion of an Arab component into Egyptian culture, while Muslims do not recognise the Coptic era and regard ancient Egyptians as miscreants. It is as though the nation follows its heart and leaves its mind behind. And yet, it should be recognised that it is precisely this plurality that enriches our society and advances its culture.

“Our nation has three main cultural tributarie­s: ancient Egyptian, Coptic and Arab, and the crisis emerges when one of these dominates the others.”

Mr Qemani spoke of the Bedouin culture under which Islam emerged, as opposed to the idea of citizenshi­p. “The fact that the Bedouin keep on the move to look for water and pasture shapes their ideologica­l build and leaves no place for the concept of a national homeland. The Bedouin culture thus draws heavily on the tribe, which works as an abstract home. If Islam is viewed through this perspectiv­e, the concept of nation vanishes in favour of that of religion. In this context, some would say that Egyptian Muslims are closer to Afghani Muslims than to Egyptian Copts. And the same could be said of Copts, who could be seen to have more in common with American Christians than with Egyptian Muslims.” The concept of the homeland and citizenshi­p entirely falls apart.

With such free thinking, is it surprising Mr Qemani had a lot of enemies? Yet he stood firm to the very end. 5est In 3eace, seeker of truth.

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