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Fatimid Egypt, Built on Tolerance

The Azhar Mosque, built by the Fatimids

Note: This is an article from two years ago, never posted on the blog but presented now in memory of Dr. Ahmad al-Sayih, the primary subject. Last week was the year anniversary of his death. He was a good man.

On February 18, 2010 the Jaffa Center hosted a forum entitled, “The Fatimid State: Protecting the Holy Places of Mecca and Jerusalem”. The Jaffa Center is directed by Dr. Rifaat Ahmad, who was previously interviewed concerning the practice of reconciliation sessions in Egyptian society. He is concerned with combating the spread of Wahhabi thought in Egypt, as is one of the main contributors to the forum, Sheikh Ahmad al-Sayih, who was previously interviewed about Nag Hamadi. Upon receiving kind invitations from both gentlemen to attend the forum, I accepted in hope of strengthening relationships and seeing each in a natural environment.

Ten presenters participated in the forum, each one associated with the Jaffa Center, which aids in their research. The Libyan owned, Egyptian based satellite television channel, al-Sa’a, broadcast the proceedings. Dr. Ahmad served as moderator, and each researcher had ten minutes to present his study. Though topics varied, most presentations focused on the political relations at the time, both internal and external. Fatimid Egypt was described as a strong military and economic state, founded upon scientific inquiry, and welcoming of other religious viewpoints. The leadership of the state was composed of Shi’a Muslims originally from Tunisia, but ruled over a predominantly Sunni Muslim majority. They created al-Azhar University as a tool to promote Shi’a thought, but made little effort, it was claimed, to transform the religious loyalties of the people. Most senior military officials, in fact, were Sunni Muslims loyal to the Shi’a state. Together, they resisted the Crusader’s efforts to reclaim the Holy Land.

Sheikh Ahmad developed this line of thought in his presentation, celebrating the Fatimids for opposing the spirit of denominationalism. Instead, they promoted humanist thinking of the highest degree, espousing tolerance, dialogue, and moral consciousness throughout their territory. They combined respect for scripture with an open minded commitment to reason, welcoming Christian participation in their cause. Sheikh Ahmad highlighted that the Fatimids constructed five churches for the Christian community in Cairo, churches which remain standing to this day. These are in the area of Zuwaila bil-Jamaliyya, near the mosque of al-Hussain.

Sheikh Ahmad proceeded from the historical model to extend pronouncements about the needs of Muslims in the contemporary world. Modern Islamic thought and practice, he declared, are in great need of rediscovery of these sublime principles from the Fatimid era. The denominational spirit is alive today, dividing Muslims and other religious adherents alike. This fanaticism kills both religious and humanistic values, as well as a closed mind which is not fitting for Islamic civilization. It leads some, in fact, to imagine that Islamic civilization built itself upon religious values alone. This is nonsense, Sheikh Ahmad declared, there is no civilization but that which has taken and developed ideas and structure from that which existed before it. This is why, he concluded, modern civilizations must respect and cooperate together. None stands independent; all and mutually benefit through the exchange of culture, ideas, and viewpoints.

I am not a scholar of the period, but the presentations surprised me in two directions. First, my limited knowledge of the Fatimid period was built upon the impression that it was a Shi’a enterprise. Though I had known the population remained loyal throughout its rule to Sunni principles, I had previously only heard negative words spoken of this state. Perhaps this is not unexpected given my residences in Sunni nations alone, but most Muslims with whom I conversed dismissed the Fatimids as a historical exception, finally put right by the Sunni champion Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, known as Saladin in the West. It was strangely disorientating to hear such positive words uttered on their behalf.

The second surprise was the depth of such thoughts, compared to a particular feature of history which I have heard, but do not know well. The researchers were unanimous in proclaiming the tolerance of the Fatimid state, but it had been my impression that this was the period in which the Copts of Egypt were treated most harshly. While this requires more and thorough research on my part, I had heard this was the era in which the then still majority Christian population, along with the Jews, were forced to wear their distinctive clothing and mount only inferior donkeys for their transport. Many have understood these developments not to be intrinsic to Islam itself but reactions to Crusading Christian pressures which unbalanced internal religious relationships. It seemed, however, from the testimony that these persecutions took place under the reign of Caliph Hakim bil Amr Allah, who described as being an oddity having a personality which constantly changed his opinions and policies. It was said he later succumbed to insanity. As mentioned, these surprises came only from impressions, and impressions are unstable ground for the study of history. I was glad to have received another dimension to my understanding.

Though the study and discussion of history is enjoyable, it was not the purpose for which I attended the forum. Instead I had hoped to develop the relationship with two gentlemen with whom we have been growing in dialogue and cooperation. I had also wished to witness if the call to peace and tolerance from our private meetings would be given with the same enthusiasm in a public setting. Though I did not doubt the sincerity of the earlier testimony of either, I was pleased to see the same enthusiasm expressed amidst a group of their peers. May we all with such consistency both speak and live our convictions.


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In Memoriam: Dr. Ahmed al-Sayih, Azhar Scholar

Fully deserving of his many titles, the glorious scholar and professor, Dr. Ahmad Abd al-Rahim al-Sayih passed away on July 7, 2011, fully engaged in life at the age of 74. Dr. al-Sayih died while filming an interview for the revolutionary-born al-Tahrir Television channel, speaking about his lifelong efforts in international popular diplomacy, to display a peaceful image of Islam and Egypt wherever he went. The world will miss him, his sharp mind, and his openness to people of all faiths.

Dr. al-Sayih was born in 1937 in Ezbet al-Sayih, a community roughly thirty kilometers from Nag Hamadi in the governorate of Qena, in Upper Egypt. Late in his life Nag Hamadi witnessed the horrific killing of six Christians and a Muslim police guard on Coptic Christmas Eve in 2010, an infamous incident which raised questions about Muslim-Christian relations. Dr. al-Sayih’s interaction with Christians, however, was completely different. He was a member of the noble Qulaiyat branch of the Arab tribe, and grew up with warm, friendly relations with the five or six Christian families of Ezbet al-Sayih. As he matured in his studies these Christians proudly recognized him as ‘our’ sheikh. Following the murders he helped organize an interfaith delegation from the Moral Rearmament Association to visit the families of those killed, explore the cultural environment of the crime, and discuss ways to overcome the national tragedy.

The journey Dr. al-Sayih pursued, however, did not begin as it ended, with real exposure to and open embrace of the Copts of Egypt. Though never an extremist, he pursued his studies with Muslim particularity, coming to master Islamic doctrine and philosophy after leaving his village and enrolling in the Azhar University. After several years he engaged in a professor exchange program, teaching five years in the Faculty of Sharia Law at the University of Qatar. Here his scholarly insight took the attention of the prestigious Umm al-Qurra University in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, but contractual regulations with the Azhar required him to first complete his doctorate while teaching at the Cairo-based institution. After obtaining his PhD in Islamic doctrine and philosophy in 1986 from the Azhar, serving as dean in the Faculty of Da’wa (the Islamic Missionary Call), he accepted the post in Mecca, where he taught for nine years.

After many years of exposure to religious thought in the Gulf, however, Dr. al-Sayih began to grow increasingly uncomfortable with its extremist Islamic trends, especially Wahhabism. Wahhabism is an austere interpretation of Islam, seeking imitation of the manner of life as lived by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Unfortunately, it often results in a reactionary attitude to modern life, as well as rejection of other viewpoints and commonality with other religions. With growing awareness of the danger Wahhabism proved to authentic Islam, Dr. al-Sayih dedicated his life to exposing its errors.

This zeal resulted in a scholarly output of over 150 books and hundreds of articles written for Arabic journals around the world. Some of these books were co-authored by such luminaries as Dr. Ahmed Shawqy al-Fangary, Dr. Abdel Fatah Asaker, Dr. Rifaat Sidi Ahmed, Dr. Mohammed al-Halafawy and Sheikh Nasr Ramadan Abdel Hamid. His boldness in critiquing Wahhabism led also to the finding that much of what is attributed to Islam today is actually based on pious misunderstandings from poorly transmitted hadith, the stories recorded of Muhammad’s words and deeds. Never one to shy from controversy, Dr. al-Sayih was committed to discovering and teaching the truth as it revealed itself, finding in this the path to God.

Though he never committed himself to an actual spiritual guide or designated path, Dr. al-Sayih found sympathy with the Sufi interpretation of Islam. Over the course of his life, he attended over fifty international Sufi conferences, promoting an open and tolerant picture of Islam. This was more than a simple intellectual position. Dr. al-Sayih visited Makarious Monastery in Wadi Natroun, Egypt, and prayed over the grave of John the Baptist and the Prophet Elisha. He esteemed the monks there to be the truest of Sufis, who represent the best of Islam.

Furthermore, Dr. al-Sayih’s openness towards Copts facilitated his frequent collaboration with Arab West Report. Together they found commonality in the belief that Islam is not to blame for the often true difficulties Copts face in Egypt, but rather the ill interpretation of Islam which exasperates social tensions, giving ordinary community problems a religious face. This phenomena is often made worse when these tensions are manipulated by politics or religion. Dr. al-Sayih’s contribution toward promoting Coptic understanding in Egypt resulted in his commendation by no less an organization than Copts United, an American based group highlighting Christian difficulties in Egypt. Following the death of the Grand Sheikh of the Azhar, Mohammed Sayyid Tantawi, Copts United nominated him for succession.

Dr. Ahmad al-Sayih leaves behind a wife, three sons, and five daughters. He was buried in his village of Ezbet al-Sayih, and on July 12 received a commemorative farewell in Al Rashdan Mosque in Nasr City, near his home in Cairo. He was a man of both great mind and great heart, and will be missed by all who knew him. May Egypt produce similar scholars, who are able to follow in his footsteps.