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.