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An Azhar Sheikh on Nag Hamadi

Continuing a viewing of material which we prepared for our peacemaking project reporting which has not yet been posted here on the blog, I here list below an interview I had with a fairly prominent and controversial sheikh from the Azhar University. During our conversation we spoke about two subjects primarily: First, his very modern and reformist views of Islam; second, his opinion on the events which took place in Nag Hamadi. For the first comments I encourage you simply to read on; for the second I can preview that he provides an insightful view of how many Muslims of Egypt view this tragedy. For a balancing perspective on how most Christians view the event, please click here for an interview I had with a Cairo bishop in the Orthodox Church. If you would like to read my reflection on these divided perspectives, you may click here. Now follows the report from the Azhar sheikh, for your reading pleasure:

Dr. Ahmad al-Sayih is a controversial figure in Egypt, though I was not aware of this before seeking an interview with him. Instead, I had met him informally for the first time at a meeting of the Moral Rearmament Association, an Egyptian NGO with which he is friendly, but not a member, during which he made very open comments about Islam and Christianity being one religion and of the necessity cooperation between them. This put the idea in my head of speaking with him about potential assistance with the Center for Arab West Understanding in our efforts to promote social peace and reconciliation in Egyptian areas which have experienced conflict. Though I filed this information away for later use, a more pressing reason to interview him came after the incidents of Nag Hamadi, in which six Christians were killed upon exiting Christmas Eve mass, along with a Muslim policeman assigned to guard the church. Shortly thereafter I learned Sheikh Ahmad was from the governorate of Qena in which Nag Hamadi is located; might he be an acceptable spokesperson to travel and speak of peace?

As it turns out, Sheikh Ahmad is from a small village which bears his family name, situated only 30 kilometers from Nag Hamadi. Izbet al-Sayih, where he is from, has only five to six Christian families—which live in peace with their more numerous Muslim neighbors who guarantee their safety—but is part of the larger community of al-Qara, which is one-third Christian. Sheikh Ahmad testified that local Christians speak of him as ‘their’ sheikh. Continuing up the administrative ladder, al-Qara is connected to Abu Tisht, which is equal in level and population to Farshut, where it is reported that a Christian young man raped a Muslim girl, leading in the belief of many to the violence experienced both there and in Nag Hamadi. Abu Tisht, meanwhile, is connected to the regional capital of Qena.

Sheikh Ahmad received me in his home in Madinat Nasr, a suburb of Cairo, and immediately gave me insight into his prodigious volume of authorship as well as his favored subjects of controversy. He has written 157 books and hundreds of articles in Arabic newspapers and journals around the world. Many of these books are concerned with commentary on the Qur’an or on commentators of the Qur’an, resurrecting ancient manuscripts and updating their language and relevance to the Islamic community. The other prominent subject of his attention is combating the un-Islamic nature of Islamist movements, most notably the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and many strains of the Muslim Brotherhood. This critique would be controversial enough, as their ideas have wide if not full acceptance by many in Egypt. He proceeded, however, to carve deeper into general Muslim understanding.

Sheikh Ahmad produced for me two recent newspaper articles which conveyed this thoughts—and the strong reactions against them—declaring both polygamy and the ‘torture of the grave’ to be heretical. Common Islamic belief holds that a man may marry up to four wives at one time, provided he can care for them equally, and that upon death all people, including Muslims, undergo a ‘squeezing’ as the angels interrogate them about their faith, measuring them against true doctrine. These ideas, especially the latter, have been debated among Muslims for centuries but are widely held today as correct belief. Sheikh Ahmad challenges these prevailing ideas, and furthermore declares that 60% of what Muslims believe today to be accumulated superstition (khurafa).

These superstitions were attributed to falsified words and stories attributed to the Prophet Muhammad by his early followers. He specifically blamed the Gnostic sect (al-Ghunusia) for many of these forgeries, which have worked their way into the holy sources of Islam through authenticated collections of these hadith. I asked if the great researchers of these collections, including Bukhari and Muslim, were part of this ‘conspiracy’. He nodded in great enthusiasm that I had understood him properly.

These were not always the beliefs of Sheikh Ahmad, though the story of his ‘conversion’ was not discussed during this interview. After leaving Qena he studied directly at al-Azhar University, and was in time enrolled among its professors. After many years he was seconded for five years to a university in Qatar, where he drew the attention of Um al-Qura University in Mecca. Al-Azhar was unwilling to allow him to transfer under a similar arrangement asking him instead to teach five years in Egypt before taking the post. With this understanding he completed his doctoral studies in Islamic doctrine and philosophy and attained the position of dean in the faculty of dawa (the call to Islam). Thereafter he resigned to take the more lucrative paying post in Saudi Arabia, where he taught for nine years. He spoke of his deep exposure to Islamist ideas during his time abroad, with which he grew increasingly frustrated. He also commented that he had attended over fifty international Sufi conferences, professing a great preference for this line of though, though he himself was not a Sufi as he was not attached to a teacher (murid) in an established school (tariqa). He described how in a visit to Makarius Monastery in Wadi Natrun, Egypt, he recited the opening sura of the Qur’an over the relics of John the Baptist and Elisha, praying in their churches, and esteemed the Christian monks there and elsewhere as the truest of Sufis, who are the best of all Muslims.

Following our discussion of Islamic doctrine I asked Sheikh Ahmad specifically about Nag Hamadi. He mentioned three main tribes, but concentrated on two of them, one of which he divided into three smaller tribal units. He spoke first of the Arab, which he divided into the Qulaiyat, of which he is a member, Washishat, and Samaana groupings. He stated that there were over three million Qulaiyat spread throughout Upper Egypt, but that 60% of the governorate of Qena was from the Ashraf tribe, which claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad. Historically the Ashraf were at odds with all tribes in the region, but are no longer characterized as such. The other tribe he described was the Hawara, who had originally migrated from the Maghreb many generations ago, and with whom the Arabs still have tension. Christians, he described, are not related to these tribes by blood, as they predate the tribes, but come under association with the dominant tribes of their village. This gives them status of near-members, and the Christians associate themselves proudly with the village they occupy as well as with its prominent tribe. Christians will participate in defending the honor of the village and the Muslim tribes provide protection for the Christian inhabitants. Sheikh Ahmad described this as the normal set of relations.

In this context I offered the question that there was no sectarian struggle in Nag Hamadi, and Sheikh Ahmad immediately agreed, stating that the whole affair was first the fault of a Christian, and secondarily of the government. Once the promiscuous relationship between the Muslim girl and the Christian young man, who was an employee of her family, was discovered in her village of al-Shaqifi, traditional customs called for the death of both. This would be regardless of their relationship being consensual or not, or if the girl was underage or not. As to these matters Sheikh Ahmad professed no knowledge. The honor of the family was violated, however, so the young man should be killed, after which the girl would be killed by her own father, as all marriage prospects would hereafter be forfeit.

The young man is from a village called Qum al-Ahmar, which has only one or two Christian families. If he had been killed straightaway none of the subsequent troubles would have happened. He, however, fled to his relatives in Farshut to seek protection. Tribal revenge was then exacted on Christian businesses in the city. The sheikh himself volunteered the information that the Christian businessmen of Farshut are very wealthy and control area finances, but when I asked him if there was financial motive in the attack or else a deliberate play against Christian influence, he denied this, stating that the only establishments attacked belonged to the young man’s relatives. This would be an important indication of the validity of his analysis, which needs to be verified through other sources.

During this time the young man was arrested, coming under police protection, making the customary right of the family to take revenge impossible. Sheikh Ahmad placed much blame on the local security forces for miscalculations and lack of consideration of the consequences of their arrest. Had they allowed tribal custom to run its course, meaning he would have been killed, all would have been fine. I asked him about the relationship of Islam to these customs, and he strongly asserted that there was none. Why then, I questioned, could he state this? Granted that it is the reality of the situation, with which all people must adapt, but as a man of religion how could he believe this was the best situation? Sheikh Ahmad agreed that while Islam would call for the punishment of a sex offender, the religion called for this to carried out by legitimate authorities, not by vendetta.

The situation became further complicated when the families of the Christian young man fled from Qum al-Ahmar to the seat of the bishopric in Nag Hamadi. Here they received welcome and protection, but according to the sheikh also made the bishopric a viable target for revenge, as it had interfered in a blood feud. This, he believed, is why the church was subsequently attacked.

This explanation prompted two serious questions. First, why did the families flee the village if they were under the protection of the dominant Arab tribe? Sheikh Ahmad had previously explained that Qulayiat would prevent the entrance of any foreign tribal element that sought to harm local inhabitants. Regardless of the guilt or innocence of the young man, the village would protect its own, and avenge any act perpetrated against its sons or daughters, Christian or Muslim.

Sheikh Ahmad did not have a satisfactory answer for this question. He imagined that perhaps someone in the bishopric convinced the families they would be better off under its protection, as life in the city of Nag Hamadi was less governed by the dominance of tribal altercations. Still, though an understandable sentiment it made me wonder about the realities of protection offered to the Christians of the area. A previous testimony from Nag Hamadi, from the Coptic community, described the Christians in good relations with the Hawara tribe, which was at odds with the Arabs, who among the tribes were the most antagonistic toward the Christians. Without putting too much confidence in his description, might the Arab Qulaiyat of Qum al-Ahmar been divided in their tribal loyalties? The Muslim girl also belonged to the tribe of Qulaiyat. Aware of any hint of vacillation perhaps the Christian families felt their safety strongest in the church? Of course, the testimony of the sheikh about the refuge of these families in the bishopric demands confirmation, as it is the first we have heard of this connection to the attacks of Christmas Eve.

The second question was answered more confidently. Many commentators, both Coptic and Muslim, have questioned the attack on the church as a violation of tribal custom. They state that revenge must be enacted upon the extended family of the accused; never would shots be fired recklessly into a crowd of innocents. Even if the families were stationed inside, the gunmen opened fire randomly. Many have alleged this is not traditional tribal practice.

Sheikh Ahmad related a story which may refute this line of argument. A few years ago a policeman in the region assaulted a villager, kicking him repeatedly in the groin and stomach, inflicting injuries from which he later died. The police officer was from outside the area but his origin was known; the villager was a member of the Washishat tribe of the Arabs. Shortly thereafter the Washishat organized an attack on the local police headquarters where this officer was stationed. No effort was made to travel to seek out his family. It was sufficient to attack the symbol of his authority and exact revenge on the group, even though his fellow officers were not relatives and had nothing to do with the excesses of the guilty policeman. Perhaps being frustrated in their inability to kill the young man the sense of revenge was then turned against the symbol of his community.

I asked Sheikh Ahmad about another item of information learned earlier, that the ‘Baltaga’, the violent underclass which was responsible for most civil unrest, and from whom, it is said, the gunman of Nag Hamadi originated, had great representation among the Arab tribe.  He agreed that this was correct, but added that all the tribes had their ‘Baltaga’. Asked about their self-identity he related that these would view themselves as heroes (abtal). They are the ones who carry out the dirty work of tribal revenge, which this element takes very seriously. They could alternatively be described as guns-for-hire. Sheikh Ahmad stated that it would not be fitting for a respectable member of the tribe to take a gun himself and exact revenge if the honor of his family demanded it. Instead, he would commission the ‘Baltaga’ to do the job, and it would get done. There are known families famous for their participation in this ‘trade’, and when I suggested the word ‘mafia’ he signaled that I had understood.

Earlier in our conversation Sheikh Ahmad stated his desire to travel to Nag Hamadi with members of the Moral Rearmament Association as soon as the security situation would allow. He mentioned that he wished to speak about the message of humanity which binds all men together, and not simply of Islam, no matter its true relation to the principles of humanity. He wished to emphasize that Muslims and Christians were brothers and that such a crime was an assault against all. Despite his understanding of tribal customs in no manner did he wish to communicate his support; after all, the Prophet declared that the life of a person was more inviolable than the sanctity of the Ka’aba.

I esteemed this message, but emphasized that a general message of religious tolerance did not seem to be necessary based on his assessment of interreligious relations in the area. Instead the situation appeared to call for a religious assault on the culture of revenge killings, emphasizing patience and forgiveness over the desire to retaliate. Might it be possible, for example, to go to the ‘Baltaga’ and instruct them about their violation of Islam in fulfilling their tribal customs? This, he conjectured, would be useless. These patterns have been ingrained in the population since Pharaonic times, and could not be changed through personal communication. His solution was gradual and broad, of which he was optimistic in its success. It would take fifty years, he declared, but the greater culture of openness and tolerance is already spreading in Upper Egypt. There was a time, as previously mentioned, that the Ashraf tribe was at war with everyone; now, they live in peace with the others. His own tribe until recently forbid intermarriage with other groupings, and even maintained a practice of slavery. Today these remnants of traditional culture have passed away. This transformation is slowly penetrating even smaller villages, and it will not be long until a better moral consciousness has settled into the majority. Though this infiltration is happening primarily through television and media, he is hopeful that his general message soon to be delivered may play a role, however small.

With this comment we exchanged good wishes for success and cooperation as we jointly wish to promote this general culture of peace. Sheikh Ahmad referenced the similar work being done through Dr. Rifaat Ahmad of the Jaffa Center, with whom we have had previous acquaintance. He also agreed to provide a review for the peacemaking paper summarizing our findings in preventing and assuaging incidents of conflict, provided we translate the document into Arabic. In all of these matters it is hoped that we may have found another friend in contributing to a network of social peace and reconciliation, one who has been involved far longer than we have. No matter how controversial some of his views may be, we desire to work with all, and Sheikh Ahmad appears to be a powerful contributor.

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