Sayyid El-Qimni, the religions critic who met fire with more fire

Mohammed Saad , Thursday 10 Feb 2022

Controversial Egyptian secular thinker and researcher in the history of religions, Sayyid El-Qimni, who rattled Islamists and gained both criticism and praise from academic scholars, died on Sunday at the age of 74.

Sayyid El-Qimni

El-Qimni's colourful language, heated battles with religious institutions and Islamists, and controversial statements in the media often shocked the general public, earning his controversial status.

The late author stirred up controversy over by his views on the Quran and his battles with Al-Azhar (the highest institution of Islamic learning in Egypt), accusing the latter of sponsoring terrorism. His works challenged many of the notions Islamic scholars deem fundamental, including his notion that the Quran is a historical text that is subject to historical and sociological changes, and calling for a rearrangement of the Quran.

El-Qimni, who was born in 1947, focused his work mainly on the Islamic tradition and the history of monotheistic religions. He often said that he sought a new understanding of the Islamic tradition.

His life was marked by his work as well as his battles with religious institutions in Egypt, mainly Al-Azhar, which he accused of teaching “disastrous curricula” and that it “sponsors terrorism.”

He offered what he labelled a socio-political reading of the life of Prophet Muhammad and the beginnings of Islam in a four-book series starting with Al-Hizb Al- Hashimi (The Hashimite Party), Horoub Dawlat Al-Rasoul (The Wars of the Prophet State), Adawla Al-Muhamadeya (Muhammad’s State), and Naskh in Al-Wahy (The Abrogation in the Revelation).

The late author said in a 2010 article: “What I try to do is seek a new understanding of religious tradition and not the religion itself. [….] I have no problem with any religion let alone Islam, which I’m proud of and I’m proud of my own understanding of it, an understanding that topples the interests of the religious authority.”

In these four books, he sought to show the political and sociological factors in the decision making in the early stages of Islam.

While some of his critics commend his “bravery and dedication to his subject,” they also say that his work cannot be labelled as “academic work.” Researcher Amr Abdelrahman said in a Facebook post after El-Qimni’s death that his work “lacked a methodology and was full of reductions and segmentation to twist the narrative into what he intends to say.”

Abdelrahman said out that while Islamists gloating over the death of El-Qimni, was “understandably revolting,” he added that “we are part of an intellectual current and not a tribe or football fans or a cult that blindly glorifies its members, that sensitivity should not escape us.”

Egyptian historian Sherif Younis considered El-Qimni one of the thinkers who offered a “rational explanation of the social, economic, and intellectual factors that surrounded Islam from the beginnings, and how this new belief was founded.”

Al-Azhar and El-Qimni

His problems with Al-Azhar and the Islamic Research Academy, which follows Al-Azhar, came in 1996 after he published his book Rab Haza Azzaman (The God of This Age), which the academy demanded be confiscated.  

In 2005, he received death threats on the internet from Al-Qaeda, which prompted him to stop his writing in the media.

In 2009, El-Qimni was awarded the state’s appreciation award for his body of work, which led to a lawsuit against the Egyptian Ministry of Culture to withdraw the award from him, accusing him of “insulting Islam,” but the courts tossed the lawsuit out in 2012.

In 2016, he criticized Al-Azhar’s curricula in an interview, saying they were a “disaster even after reforms,” adding that “my students are filing a lawsuit to label Al-Azhar a terrorist organization in international courts.”

In the same interview he also criticized the contempt of religion law, saying “it does not apply to Christianity, if you want to apply that law then prosecute those who insult Christianity too.”

Al-Azhar replied by saying it was filing a defamation suit against El-Qimni.

Quran is a 'historical text'

El-Qimni’s thesis to treat the Quran as a historical text that can be examined in a critical fashion brought the wrath of scholars and Islamists who assert that the Quran is the word of God and not an earthly text. 

His critical approach to Islam brought accusations of apostasy and blasphemy on him.

El-Qimni caused an international uproar in 2010 when the British news outlet The Guardian published an excerpt from an interview with him where he proposed that a second Ka’ba be built in Sinai in Egypt, as an alternative to the one in Mecca, where all Muslim pilgrims go each year.

But he clarified by saying: "I used the word Ka'bah so it would be more acceptable to Muslims. It is not intended to be a substitute. This would not be an obligation, it would be a choice."

The Saudi embassy in London then replied by saying: "This is impossible. There can only be one Holy Ka'bah. This is a sacred place, sacred to all Muslims." 

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