He was a man of hope in a season of despair, and when the rifles of his own militia cut down Egyptian President Anwar Sadat during the Army Day parade in Cairo last week, the loss was felt nowhere more keenly than among his once bitter enemies in Israel. "Without Sadat there will be no peace," a distraught woman was heard to say on that suddenly chill afternoon in Jerusalem—and her fears were widely seconded. While he lived, the movement toward a permanent peace between Israel and Egypt seemed, if slowed, still inexorable. But now he was a casualty of that peace for which he had fought so bravely and so alone.

Sadat was an easy man to love but not to understand, a complex of enigmas. He was a devout, deeply spiritual Muslim; his forehead was calloused from endless hours at prayer, his face frequently gaunt from fasting. As a boy, his idol was Mahatma Gandhi. Yet he was also a worldly man, with an ebullient sense of humor and a passion for American Westerns. He was among the most aggressive foreign statesmen of his era, and at the same time a passionate family man who retreated as often as he could to the village where he lived as a boy—and to which he donated his earnings from the Nobel Peace Prize and from his 1977 autobiography, In Search of Identity. "I am tired of civilization and long for austerity and simplicity," he said once. "I want to get out and live as an ordinary citizen, but I cannot."

He may well have intuited that his death was at hand; his wife, Jihan, has credited him with an infallible sense of omen, and as he and his generals lined up for a formal portrait just before the parade last week, his face was tense, wary. Yet fear never informed his actions: faith did. "God to me is everything that I cherish," he told PEOPLE correspondent Mira Avrech last year, as they flew over his native village. "The trees, the open horizon, the wheat that we had toiled so hard to plant, the leaves, the plants, everything...I was brought up here with values, traditions and principles. And here on this land I learned something very important: that if I am true to myself and God, I am the strongest man in the world."

In the wake of his crowning triumph—the Camp David accords—journalist Gail Sheehy, author of the best-selling Passages, visited with the Egyptian president in Cairo. Fascinated by the psychological makeup of men like Sadat, who somehow manage to defy conventional wisdom and change the course of history, she began with one overriding question: Where does his inner strength come from? On the following pages is her answer, excerpted from her new book Pathfinders, to be published this week by William Morrow.