Tuesday,20 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)
Tuesday,20 November, 2018
Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Mentor of generations

Obituary: Al-Sayed Yassin (1933-2017)

Mentor of generations
Mentor of generations

Al-Sayed Yassin, mentor and inspirer of generations of researchers and academics in Egypt and across the Arab world, passed away on Sunday at the age of 84.

He is known by many honorary sobriquets, any one of which can be used without hyperbole to refer to this pioneering writer and thinker whose reputation extended from Egypt to the Arab world and beyond. He was the great sheikh, great jurist, eminent sociologist, pioneer of the sociology of law, major theorist of the sociology of literature, prominent researcher, and founder of the school of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

More importantly for the Arab world and Middle East as a whole was how this national school, its learning environment and cycle of extended dialogue, excelled under his influence and thanks to his unique blend of personal brilliance with the spirit of brotherhood and openness and dedication to the causes of academic freedom and democracy.

Yassin was an important link in the golden chain of great Egyptian intellects without which the country and its people could have withered and ossified beneath political and religious authoritarianisms, the dominance of shallowness or pettiness, and the sway of threats to modernity, citizenship rights and civic and human freedoms.

He taught us how to think. He steered us through hidden corridors and secret places, introduced us to charms and incantations, and revealed to us myths and mysteries through his extraordinary passion and insight and his exceptional flare for teaching, orderly argument and systematic debate.

This “sheikh of the scientific approach”, to borrow a phrase from his own work, cofounded with Gamal Zaki the Egyptian school of social research. But his interests took him well beyond theorising about research approaches, systems and strategies in the various disciplines of the social sciences. He systematically and meticulously kept up with developments in methodological approaches to linguistics, comparative political systems, international relations, cultural analysis, modernism, postmodernism and post-postmodernism, globalisation and post-globalisation.

He was a true teacher who opened our eyes to the importance of method, the precise definition of concepts and strict accuracy in the use of terminology in the study of comparative history, the investigation of the socio-cultural roots of problems, and the proper treatment of problematics in research topics.

He was himself a consummate researcher, determined to probe the minutest details of his subject matter and to attain the most up-to-date and accurate approaches, theories, and applications. A tireless renovator of ideas, theoretical innovator and prolific writer, he was also a great visionary who was known not only for his scientific excellence, but also for his erudition and cultural sophistication.

He was a man of the future. He did not believe in pining for the past, not even for the past that was as near as yesterday or the past hour or minute. His sights were fixed forward on the world, the Arab region and Egypt, and his focus was on his role and the place of his country in shaping the world. He was a magnificent human being. His heart and spirit were as vast and open as his intellect, willing to embrace those who differed from him politically or ideologically and ever ready to forgive those who may have offended him. A beautiful, magnanimous soul shined through his great intellect.

Yassin had a passion for philosophy. He loved its major texts and followed their exegeses with a vigilant and critical eye. He was a great legal scholar in criminal law and criminology, to which bear witness his pioneering works “Studies in Criminal Behaviour and the Treatment of Prisoners” and “Contemporary Criminology”, the latter a study of the theories of French legal scholar Marc Ancel. He also authored an important compendium of “Studies in the Sociology of Law”.

In addition to these works, he is noted for “The Foundations of Social Research”, “Egypt, between Crisis and Renaissance”, “Analysis of the Concept of Nationalist Thought” and “The Arab Personality between Self-Perception and the Concept of the Other”. But it is difficult to know where to begin in discussing the prodigious output of this great intellectual, legal expert, scholar and humanist. Should one begin with his books on the Arab personality, or with his writings on globalisation and identity, or on the developmental state? Or should one look first at his analysis of radical Islamism and its ideologues, or at his cultural analyses of socio-political phenomena?

Not only was he prodigious in his own output, Yassin was also a discoverer of new generations of talent that were ready to be refined. He had the power to do this, furnishing the instruction, developing the skills, and opening the minds of the country’s young people such that they could mature in famous universities in the West. He would keep track of our progress during our studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, for example, and he would join us and our eminent professor Dominique Chevalier in his elegant Parisian home near the Louvre, far from the pillars of the oldest university in France and Europe.

He not only followed his students’ academic progress closely, he was also interested in the latest books we had read, the art exhibitions, films and plays we had seen, and the jazz clubs we had frequented. He was as familiar with Paris and Dijon as he was with Alexandria and Cairo, and he was as at home in the cafés frequented by intellectuals in the Latin Quarter, Saint Germain, Saint Michel, and Montparnasse as he was in the cafés of the Champs Elysées. He loved to sit and watch the passers-by. He was a keen observer of life and people, and his accumulated insights into both fed his sense of irony, his gift for wit, and his ability to summon up a cautious, level-headed optimism even in the most complicated circumstances. 

He could outmanoeuvre with the dexterity of the professional tactician the various follies of power and bureaucracy in order to defend his school of research at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. A font of knowledge and erudition, unfailingly courteous and considerate, a man of integrity, an Egyptian and Arab patriot, a consummate humanitarian, he lived for his work, the exercise of his intellect, and his scholarly and cultural insights.

He was one of the foremost Arab intellectuals of the second half of the 20th century. He will remain at the forefront by dint of the legacy of his bold and audacious intellect, his vigilant patriotic consciousness, his sense of social justice and fairness, his open-mindedness, and his succinctness, elegance and objectivity. These are the qualities he taught us. To our great sheikh, professor and mentor Yassin we express our love and our gratitude for all that he gave us.

Yassin joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1950s. Appointed a teacher at a school for preachers in Muharram Bey in Alexandria, he taught the Quran, the hadith (Prophet Mohamed’s sayings), Islamic jurisprudence, and the biography of the prophet, as well as contemporary political ideologies. He was tutored together with a group of other students by Sheikh Mustafa Al-Shamarqa in the curriculum of Al-Azhar’s Faculty of Letters. It was not long before he became a resolute adversary of the Muslim Brotherhood and its oppressive totalitarian ideology. He built up a huge archive of studies refuting the group’s ideas and political-ideological project.

Recalling his experience at the outset of his career in Alexandria, Yassin once said that “the school for preachers totally changed me. From a shy, introverted kid who stayed alone for hours in his room reading, I developed into a young, cheerful man with the ability to address the public during Friday prayers every week. I would eventually draw on that early training when I became a researcher delivering papers in scientific conferences or a lecturer at Cairo University or the American University in Cairo.”

In 1957, the National Institute for Criminological Research (now the National Research Centre) posted an advertisement in Al-Ahram announcing openings for assistant researchers who were also law school graduates. Yassin was one of three people accepted out of 300 applicants. In 1975, after 18 years at the institute he left to become director of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. 

Although he initially studied French law in Paris, his interests branched out to the study of the sociology of literature and political sociology. Later, he decided to leave the study of law. He was a researcher at heart, and “I couldn’t waste three years of my life chasing after appeal court rulings,” he said. He returned to Cairo in 1967. The Arab defeat in the June War that year led him to devote himself to the study of Israeli society and to join the Al-Ahram Centre for Palestinian and Zionist Studies. Around the same time, the then editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, decided to transform the Centre into the Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, inspiring Yassin to expand his knowledge and expertise in the theories and methodologies of strategic research.

In addition to serving as a member of the Supreme Council for Culture’s Social Studies Committee, he received numerous awards and honours during his career, most notably the Jordanian Medal of Merit, First Class (1992), the Medal for the Sciences, Arts and Literature (1995) and the State Award for Sociology awarded by the Supreme Council for Culture (1996).

His son and our colleague at Al-Ahram, Amr Yassin, relates that his father was hospitalised for four days earlier this year. After his release from hospital, he suffered another attack in February for which he was kept in intensive care for nearly a month.

Yassin was born in the governorate of Alexandria in 1933 and graduated from the Faculty of Law at the University of Alexandria.

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