Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Sayyid al-Qimni: Audacious Intellectual in Numerous Battles

Sayyid al-Qimni was an Egyptian intellectual known for his controversial stance within Egypt and the Arab world. While some considered him a prominent figure in the rationalist Enlightenment movement, others accused him of heresy and atheism, leading to legal cases against him.

Sayyid al-Qimni
A photo taken for Sayyid al-Qimni in 2009.

Youssef M. Sharqawi

Sayyid al-Qimni, an Egyptian intellectual, occupied a position of considerable controversy within Egypt and the Arab world.

Views on al-Qimni within Arab circles vary, with some regarding him as a prominent figure in the rationalist Enlightenment movement. However, others have levelled accusations of heresy and atheism against him, leading to the filing of numerous legal cases.

The Rise of al-Qimni

Born in 1947 in a village near the city of al-Wasta in the Beni Suef Governorate of northern Upper Egypt, Sayyid al-Qimni pursued his education in philosophy at Ain Shams University, graduating in 1969. After a period of teaching, he resumed his studies at Saint Joseph’s University in Beirut.

Subsequently, he set out to write his doctoral thesis, which he completed at the University of Southern California, obtaining his doctorate under the supervision of Egyptian philosophy professor Fouad Zakaria.

Al-Qimni later specialised in writing about early Islamic history, analysing and critiquing numerous historical events until he received death threats in 2005.

Over the past three decades, al-Qimni has garnered significant renown through his involvement in intellectual disputes and media debates with both conservative intellectual factions and fellow intellectuals aligned with the “Enlightenment” movement, of which al-Qimni identified himself as a representative.

Egyptian writer Sayyid Mahmoud says, “Al-Qimni commenced his writing journey with a series of articles focusing on historical anthropology and Egyptology. These articles were published in the late 1980s in the Palestinian magazine al-Karmel, which was overseen by the renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.”

These articles later served as the foundation for al-Qimni’s first book, Osiris and the Doctrine of Immortality in Ancient Egypt. The book did not provoke extensive debate, unlike his subsequent work, The Prophet Abraham and the Unknown History, in which al-Qimni explored historical research of the Abrahamic religion and its trajectory within the Arabian Peninsula.

In the aftermath of decades of confrontations with political Islam in Egypt, an intellectual trend emerged primarily aimed at critiquing these Islamist movements, irrespective of their diverse intellectual and ideological origins.

According to Sayyid Mahmoud, philosopher Fouad Zakaria played a leading role in this trend, alongside proponents of Mu’tazilism such as Hassan Hanafi, Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid and Ali Mabrouk.

Within this context, liberal intellectuals assumed influential positions within cultural institutions and spearheaded prominent publications. Notable examples include the late critics Jaber Asfour and Ghali Shukri.

Mahmoud notes, “During this era, al-Qimni’s book The Hashemite Party and the Establishment of the Islamic State garnered significant acclaim, solidifying his reputation as a critic of Islamic history.

Following the success of this book, al-Qimni authored a series of subsequent works that enjoyed considerable popularity and wide circulation among critics of radical religious movements.

These included titles such as The Wars of the Prophet’s State, The Story of Creation: The Sources of the Book of Genesis and Abrogation in Revelation: An Attempt to Understand.

Battle and Approach

Al-Qimni’s battle began after Egypt’s defeat in the June War of 1967, prompting deep reflection on the unfolding events. In an interview with the Middle East Times in 2004, he expressed wanting to become a different kind of soldier.

The root of the issue, according to al-Qimni, lay within the Islamic intellectual framework rather than the Pan-Arab intellectual context. In this context, journalist Abdullah Rami says, “Since the June War, his battle began and reached its peak in confronting the religious movement during the 1990s, with numerous books, in addition to the debates and disputes that he engaged in.”

Al-Qimni’s approach diverged significantly from that of his contemporaries. Writer Muhammad Tolba Radwan characterises him:

He was a product of the “Islamic Revival” and the resultant “angry Islam.” Moreover, he operated in parallel with major ideological endeavours seeking solutions for the Islamic ummah within its heritage, psychological framework and cultural reservoir, as articulated by thinker Hassan Hanafi.

These endeavours aimed to reinterpret, or rather redirect, these elements to align with predetermined progressive ideologies. Despite originating from this milieu, al-Qimni’s trajectory diverged from that of the architects of these ideological projects.

Instead, he chose to navigate with his imagination within the critical religious context, populism, and the “degenerate” political environment, which permitted actions ranging from roguery and opportunism to recklessness.

Approach and Publications

Al-Qimni’s approach, as outlined by the al-Akhbar newspaper, followed two parallel lines. The first pertains to Islam and Islamism, wherein he adopted a historical materialist approach. This approach involved what he termed a “socio-historical reading of the Prophet’s biography.”

Al-Qimni incorporated this reading into several of his works, including Wars of the Prophet’s State, The Hashemite Party and the Establishment of the Islamic State and The Abrogation in Revelation.

The second line pursued by al-Qimni delved into eras predating Islam and monotheistic religions. Here, he explored ancient Mesopotamian myths, including Babylonian and Sumerian myths, regarding them as foundational sources from which the Torah derived. He contended that the Qur’an, in turn, drew upon these myths from the Torah itself.

Within this framework, al-Qimni authored several works, beginning with Myth and Heritage, which served as a foundational text. Subsequent publications include The Story of Creation: The Sources of the Book of Genesis, An Introduction to Understanding the Role of Biblical Mythology, The Prophet Abraham and the Unknown History and The Israʼiliyyat of the Torah: History and Beguilement.

Al-Qimni’s works extend to encompass contemporary political and social issues. His works include People of Religion and Democracy, Thank You, Bin Laden, The Road Map to Reform, Fascists and the Homeland, Our Revival, May Allah Not Bless It and The Hijab and the Seventeen-Person Summit.

These writings engage with pressing issues of governance, democracy, extremism, societal reform and cultural identity, reflecting al-Qimni’s multifaceted intellectual exploration.

“A Courageous Thinker”

A notable quote attributed to al-Qimni encapsulates the essence of his life’s mission and focal point: “The idols of the unseen belief thinking must be destroyed.”

Writer Ibrahim al-Farghali described Al-Qimni as courageous: “He persisted in his endeavour to reinterpret history, particularly Islamic history, drawing from numerous sources often overlooked by mainstream narratives.

His approach diverged from the established orthodoxy, challenging prevailing discourses, particularly those propagated by political Islam, which often employed tactics of takfir (excommunication) and exclusion.

Al-Qimni’s death on 6 February 2022 reignited an online controversy surrounding his legacy and intellectual project. His passing marked the conclusion of a journey characterised by critical political and social transformations.

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