Sayyid Al-Qemany, the Egyptian scholar who spent a lifetime challenging mainstream Islamic discourse, died in Cairo on February 6, 2022. He was 74. Islamic thinkers had nothing good to say about a man whom they had tried to silence – or kill – since the 1990s, describing him as an apostate (murtad in Arabic): someone who has abandoned his religion. Apostasy is a crime in Islam, punishable by death, although Prophet Mohammad never put anyone to death for apostasy during his lifetime.

Qemany’s Early Career (1967-1990)

Born in the village of Al-Wasta in the Beni Senuf Governorate on the Nile River, south of Cairo, Qemany grew up inspired by the leftist secular policies of President Gamal Abdul Nasser.

When he was studying philosophy at Ain Shams University in 1967, Nasser led the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian armies into an ill-fated war with Israel, which cost Egypt the Sinai Peninsula, Syria the Golan Heights, and Jordan the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The magnitude of the defeat shocked young Arabs of Qemany’s generation, sending them in different directions of the political spectrum.

Many took up arms with Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian guerrillas, hoping to right the wrongs done to them during the Six-Day War of 1967 with a war of annihilation against Israel. Others pursued an Islamic path, turning to religion for salvation and joining political parties that called for jihad, the overthrow of Arab military regimes, and their replacement with Islamic theocracies.

Qemany called for a new understanding of the Arab world, based on a re-evaluation of its ancient history.

Qemany took a third path — this time a liberal and intellectual one — calling for a new understanding of the Arab world, based on a re-evaluation of its ancient history. Only when at peace with their ancient past can the Arabs understand what happened to them in 1967. The Arab identity, he claimed, predated the emergence of Islam, and ought to be seen as an older, richer, and superior civilization. After graduating in 1969, Qemany studied at the Jesuit University in Lebanon, then obtained a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.

Fame and Controversy

The esteemed scholar’s rise to fame began with his seminal book, Al-Nabi Ibrahim wa al-Tareekh al-Majhoul— “The Prophet Abraham and the Unknown History”— published in Egypt in 1990. In it he recounts the history of Abraham and other prophets mentioned in all monotheistic religions, approaching the narratives about them from a secular perspective while refusing to classify any as divine or Messengers of God.

That book put him on Islamic fundamentalists’ hitlists throughout the Arab World, causing a stir in his native Cairo. It was followed by Hurub Dawlat al-Rasoul— “Wars of the Prophet’s State”—in 1993. Here, Qemany emphasized the political aspect of the Prophet Mohammad’s ambitions, downplaying his religious legacy and – what Muslims believe to be fact – that he had been commanded to fight the infidels by God. Clerics accused him of blasphemy and heresy, of being a Marxist, and oddly, of being on the payroll of the CIA.

According to him, schoolbooks ought to be liberated from any Islamic indoctrination.

Since the mid-1990s, Qemany began calling for a complete overhaul of school curriculums throughout the Arab World, both in his native Egypt and in Saudi Arabia. According to him, schoolbooks ought to be liberated from any Islamic indoctrination, or what he called “disastrous curricula” that promoted terrorism. Those calls resonated strongly after the 9-11 attacks, which put Islamic radicalization on the world’s radar given that 15 of the 17 hijackers were Saudi citizens, and one was Egyptian.

Views on the Qur’an

Following the 9-11 tragedy, the now controversial author caused even more polemic by stating that there were two aspects to the Holy Qur’an. The first he agreed with since it was historic and covered well-documented battles of early Muslims. The second characteristic of the Qur’an was more metaphysical and spiritual and based on legend rather than solid fact, according to Qemany.

As an example, he referred to the story of angels sent by God to fight with the early Muslims in the Battle of Badr, arguing that this should be taken in its symbolic context, rather than a literal one – despite it appearing in verse 12 of Suret al-Anfal.

The same applied to the story of al-Isra’ wal-Mi’raj, which Muslims observe on the 27th day of Rajab, the seventh month in the Islamic calendar. On that night, God is said to have taken his messenger, Mohammad, on a miraculous journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, and then to Heaven, riding a winged horse.

Qemany noted that critical thinking ought to be applied to the Qur’an.

For pious Muslims, the story is divine, beyond doubt or suspicion, drafted first in the Qur’an (Suret al-Israa) and then recounted in the Prophet’s Hadith. The Qur’an, Qemany noted, was an important tool to study the history of mankind, but critical thinking ought to be applied to it — just like any work of literature. Nothing in it should be taken at face value unless verified by solid fact and science.

[Mohammed Arkoun’s Critique of Islamic Reason]

Death Threats and Early Retirement

By 1997, al-Azhar, the highest religious authority in Egypt, had called for the banning of Qemany’s books. He was then summoned to court on charges of insulting the Islamic faith and its history.

In October 2004, Islamic fundamentalists carried out three attacks at the Hilton Taba Hotel in the Sinai Peninsula, killing 34 people — mostly tourists. Qemany lashed out with an article called “This is Egypt O’ Dogs of Hell.”

“Can our sheikhs meet once in a useful and impactful manner so that they can provide something useful to humanity? Tell us, gentlemen, what is the homeland and what is our identity?” he asked angrily. “Is our homeland Islam or is it Egypt? Based on their answer, there will either be construction or demolition and blood.”

From that point on, Qemany began to receive serious death threats from Egyptian Islamists, culminating in a public call to have him killed, made by al-Qaeda on June 17, 2005. The author issued a public announcement, saying that he was going to retire from writing and avoid creating more uproar in Egypt and beyond — but he didn’t.

Qemany began to receive serious death threats from Egyptian Islamists, and eventually from al-Qaeda.

Four years later, on June 25, 2009, Qemany caused controversy, yet again, by winning the Egyptian Culture Ministry’s prize for achievement in the social sciences, including a cash reward of US $36,000. The ex-Egyptian Mufti Nasr Farid Wasil called the award a “crime against Egypt’s Muslim identity,” demanding that the Egyptian government of then-president Husni Mubarak intervene to have it withdrawn, which the president refused to do. Egypt’s fatwa-issuing body, Dar al-Ifta, and its chief mufti, Ali Jumaa, followed in Wasil’s footsteps.

Forgetting that he had promised to retire and keep quiet, Qemany gave an interview in 2010, calling for building a second Ka’aba, instead of the original one in Mecca that is visited annually for the hajj pilgrimage by Muslims from all corners of the globe.

He suggested building another shrine on Mount Sinai as an affordable alternative destination for less-fortunate Muslims who could not afford to travel to Saudi Arabia. A new shrine, he said, could generate money for the Egyptian treasury and improve relations between the three Abrahamic faiths, since Mount Sinai is important in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

In 2012, Qemany called for amending Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution, which specifies Islam as the religion of the state. That was shortly after Mohammad Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was chosen as the first democratically elected president of Egypt, making his words all the more audacious.

Qemany was challenging a legal clause that had existed since Egypt’s first constitution back in 1923, and which none of the secular politicians — not even Gamal Abdul Nasser himself — dared to amend or even revisit.

“Sayyid Al-Qemany paved the road for those who see in secularism and rationality a way out of pending historical problems.”

“Sayyid Al-Qemany paved the road for those who see in secularism and rationality a way out of pending historical problems,” said Nourallah Kaddoura, a Dubai-based ophthalmologist and one of Qemany’s fans.

Speaking to Inside Arabia, he added, “When the road is arduous and rugged, it needs steel shovels to erode its deaf stones. Sayyid Al-Qemany was one of those shovels.”