Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

By Bernard Lewis | Go to book overview

29
The Egyptian
Murder Case

During the few moments that passed between the murder of Sadat and the seizure of his murderers, the leader of the four assassins shouted some words that were repeated all over Egypt during the days that followed. According to reports, he cried out: “My name is Khālid al-Islambuli. I have killed Pharaoh. I am not afraid to die.”

Of this tripartite declaration, the most significant part is certainly the second. Its meaning is clear—that he had killed a tyrant. The choice of Pharaoh as the prototype of tyranny conveys a religious perception of the offense, the judgment, and the punishment executed.

To anyone brought up in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and with even a minimal acquaintance with the Book of Exodus, the naming of Pharaoh as a paradigm of the evil ruler seems obvious enough. But Sadat’s murderers were neither Jews nor Christians. They were Muslims, and moreover Egyptians. The Old Testament had not formed part of their education, and in modern times they had been taught at school to regard Pharaoh as a symbol of the greatest and most glorious age of Egypt’s past, a source of national pride rather than an oppressor of God’s servants.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, in Egypt as in other Muslim lands, Pharaoh was known only from the Qur’ān, which presents the Exodus in terms broadly similar to those of the Old Testament. In the Qur’ān, Pharaoh is the villain of a story in which Moses and the children of Israel are the heroes, and in several passages Pharaoh appears as the ultimate

A review of Autumn of Fury: The Assassination of Sadat by Mohamed Heikal. Random House,
from The New York Review of Books, 31 May 1984.

-375-

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