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Aly El Samman. Who, after him, will have the skill to pilot the ship of interfaith dialogue and steer it safely under the slogan, “We need to live together in peace and security”

15/08/2018, Al Magella
By Moncef El Mouzghani
Illustration by Aly El Mandalawi

1- Aly El Samman was born in Cairo at a time when the kingdom of Egypt was under the British occupation. He was born in the district called El Manial in the year 1929. His stay in Cairo did not last long, due to the death of his father, when he was only two years old. His family was compelled to move to the city of Tanta. His mother died while he was only four, so he was raised by his grandmother from the mother’s side of the family. He attended the Coptic elementary school to learn science and among other topics, how to invite the other to dialogue.

The Sunnite Muslim child learned early on that there are other people in the world who have different monotheistic religions than his; however, they do not differ insofar as the belief in one God is concerned. He was also able to feel the passions of those different from him. This prepared him well to understand the need for coexistence – and not just dialogue – with the Copts and Jews, for they are all the sons of one mother, namely, Egypt.

It is quite probable that this early acquired spirit was his drive when he decided to share his writings with Christian and Jewish clergy. His books were rich in what was common between these religions and Islam. The most famous of these books was “Three Windows on Heaven”, which he co-wrote with Rabbis and Priests, to assert that religion is a matter of God alone and that the land of God has enough room for everyone.

As his secondary education progressed, he got to know other people and acquire new ideas. He also learned about the active political parties working against British imperialism. He was intellectually attracted to the Muslim Brotherhood but split from them after a violent act he could not accept. This incident was the assassination of the Judge Ahmed Al Khazendar. He distanced himself from the Muslim Brotherhood and joined the 23 July Revolution.

2- Like many youth searching for truth, and being extremely enthusiastic about justice within occupied nations, his attention diverted towards learning law. He got his law degree from Alexandria University in 1953, and then continued with postgraduate diplomas in International Law and Political Science from the University of Grenoble in 1956. He topped all of that off with a PhD in law and political science from the University of Paris in 1966.

3- El Samman’s life revolved around his continuous research. He always had a constant concern, almost an obsession that never left him. This obsession was raising dialogue between religions and civilizations. This personal inclination led him to many consecutive posts. He was vice-president, of the Permanent Committee of El-Azhar for Dialogue with the Monotheistic Religions; advisor to the Grand Imam of El-Azhar for Interfaith Dialogue; president of the Committee for Interfaith Dialogue at the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs of Egypt; all that in addition to his constant presence in many of the national, Arab and international conferences involved in that issue.

4- Aly El Samman was acquainted with government work; he was able to become the role model of the working Egyptian patriotic gentleman. He worked as a “committed citizen”, quoting his own words, during the time of Abled Nasser. He was a renowned political and diplomatic activist who stayed through the days of President Anwar Sadat. He was appointed as the President’s Advisor for Foreign Media. He struggled to identify the misconceptions bonding ideological and political issues and how this segregation was a must for fruitful dialogue. There are interesting stories in this realm that he himself narrates in his autobiography. These stories may be found in his book “From One Revolution to Another: Memoir of a Committed Citizen Under Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak”, published in 2012.

5- Doctor Aly El Samman was extremely knowledgeable of his mother tongue Arabic. In addition, he spoke French and English fluently. He did not limit himself to the dialogue and its managerial acts, but also wrote many articles in renowned French newspapers, and participated in many talk shows. He always set the example of how proper dialogue should be conducted, with modesty, but bold in truth, firmly distinguishing between agnosticism and atheism, and keeping the two separate. He also believed that the Muslim Brotherhood’s understanding of dialogue was violent and unacceptable.

6- The Al Majalla team has lost a writer who is difficult to match. He had a history of patriotism and humanity, and was a strong believer in everything he did. He lived a happy life venturing to experience his own humanity through accepting the other unconditionally. He was deeply pained by the violent acts of terrorism in Egypt and around the world. These atrocities devastated him.

7- It appeared that the honorable Aly El Sammam’s private life mimicked his public life, in accordance with his firm belief in dialogue of religions. His wife, Brigitte, is a Christian, and he chose a name for his son that is shared among all the three Monotheistic Religions, Sam.

8- Dr. Aly El Samman lived his entire life promoting his dream and the humanitarian slogan: "We need to live together in peace and security", which is an objective that has not yet been reached. He was able to steer interfaith and intercultural dialogue safely to the shores of coexistence. Alas, he is now gone leaving the compass in search of a skipper to steer the ship that preaches love. Love must triumph.