God but God: Egypt and the triumph of Islam
2000, Oxford University Press, New York, 223 pp.
Contemporary Islamic movements can be plotted on a scale between revolutionary Iran, in which violent insurrection overthrew a secular regime and replaced it from top down with an Islamic republic, and quietist Egypt, in which social reform is leading toward the Islamization of society at large from the bottom up. To date, the revolutionary path has left little lasting mark on the Arab world. The Iranian revolution, once regarded as a model for Islamic renewal, lost its credibility in the eyes of Muslim Arabs when the ayatollahs fell into internal power struggle and became bogged down by economic crisis and isolation from much of the Western world. Similarly, the Arab world's moderate Islamists have dismissed insurrection in Algeria and Afghanistan as being un-Islamic for the brutal and savage tactics adopted by the leaders of the Islamic Group in Algiers and the Taliban in Kabul.
Egypt stands alone today for the progress it has made along this second path, characterized by moderate Islamists challenging state policies, rather than the sate itself. Followers of radical Islamic movements maintain that living a fully integrated religions life will only be possible if their rulers govern by the word and law of God. Moderate Islamists in Egypt, however, are willing to live with a mixture of man-made laws and Koranic law, the sharia, which, according to Egypt's constitution, should be the "primary" source of legislation but in reality is not strictly applied. The flexible nature of Egypt's revival stands to make a profound contribution to the development of Islamic movements in the twenty-first century and will chart a new course for other countries to emulate in much the same way that the Iranian revolution captured the imagination of the Muslim world twenty years ago.
The Egyptian experience reflects centuries-old conflicts and contradictions among Sunni Muslims over the idea and role of the state. According to religious doctrine, the state was a divine institution responsible for carrying out God's intentions. However, the state was also perceived as a source of evil, and the less the citizenry had to do with it the better. The division of labor between the caliphs and the sultans came down to distinguishing between two kinds of authority, one prophetic and the other monarchial, but both religious. In modern terms, the struggle under way in Egypt among moderate Islamists is how to make state policy coincide with religious doctrine laid out by the ulama at al Azhar and the thousands of independent and unlicensed sheikhs.
Like a New York performance artist, [sheikh] Adawy turned the mosque into a stage. He transformed himself from a subdued, contemplative cleric into an animated stand-up comedian or talk-show host. Standing before a mostly male audience of about 200, he fielded questions on subjects ranging from whether using facial cream was against Islam, to whether children were allowed to take revenge against a father who had killed their mother.
Many radical sheikhs also fell victim to this strategy of collective punishment. They were banned from the pulpit and retreated underground, where they held secret sessions with their hard-core followers. On the surface, there seemed to be a freeze on the militants and a stalemate with the moderate Islamists. But, in reality, after the heated days of the early 1990s, society had made its choice. The radical Islamic movement that left its imprint on Egyptian history was displaced by a social movement among the masses who chose to apply religion in every aspect of their lives.
Religious teachings, increasingly the determinant of every aspect of daily life, varied immensely, however, depending on the messenger. Just as Imbaba was a laboratory for Egypt's religious transformation, it was also a miniature of the span of religious interpretation that had evolved over time unfettered by official doctrine. To move from mosque to mosque across Imbaba was to receive diverse opinions concerning marriage ceremonies, veiling, divorce, and general duties of keeping up the Muslim faith.
For centuries the rigid ulama class, literally "the one with knowledge", has faithfully served the political interests of the ruling powers by enforcing religious and social customs according to its reading of the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet, the hadiths. As a complete, all-embracing prescription for life, Islam makes no distinction between the spiritual and the political spheres; it draws no line between church and state. Thus, the ulama's power of social control is a potent one and can never be divorced from its political overtones. When pashas, kings, and presidents wished to declare war on their enemies, they often turned to al Azhar for a religious stamp of approval.
….living quarters to be build for Shi'ite scholars alongside the original mosque. After Friday prayers, they gathered to discuss Islamic law. Soon, classes were created for students and a complete program of study was established, laying the foundation for al Azhar's current role as the premiere institution of Islamic education.
…two main reasons for creating such an institution: to teach jurist the Fatimid system in place of prevailing Sunni code of Islamic law; and to serve as a podium from which to win converts to their ideology. Several qualities of Fatimid rule distinguish it from Sunni practice. Most important, the head of the state, the caliph, must be a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. Claims of direct descent from the Prophet are still used today by Arab leaders, such as King Hassan of Morocco and the late King Hussein of Jordan, to legitimize their rule, particularly when challenged by Islamic groups.
The fall of the Fatimids in 1171 saw the collapse of Shi'ite ideology in Egypt. The ruler, the great Kurdish warrior Saladin, banished Shi'ite teachings and imposed the Sunni code of law, to this day the prevailing teaching in modern Egypt and the official outlook of Al Azhar.
In direct conflict with the traditionalists, Abdu believed the ulama should move away from strict interpretations of Islamic texts and integrate religious values into a society that was inevitably touched by Western influences. He also challenged al Azhar' authority, arguing that members of the ulama had no religious authority over society except as a source of general guidance and advice. Although Abdu's thinking remained grounded in Islamic teaching, his liberal influence spawned a generation of modernists who relied more on reason and science than religion. These intellectuals of the early 1900s demanded that Egypt turn toward secularism to keep pace with Europe.
The new tendency split society into two camps: the nationalist-secularists, who believe Egypt must rid itself of foreign evils while adapting to the modern world, and religious-nationalists, who believed the ulama had failed to keep Islam alive, leading to disunity within the umma, or community of believers. In the religious camp, the belief that Egypt had strayed from pure Islam and failed to repel foreign influences helped lead to the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In conservative Islamic societies marriage and procreation are religious duties, the key to perpetuating the faith and ensuring the continued viability of the umma. The overage Egyptian woman has four to five children in her lifetime, with several more pregnancies typically ending in miscarriage. To be a woman living in Egypt is to fend off daily questions about marital status and the number of children one has. The Western idea that a couple should deliberately limit the number of children in the family is not only an alien concept, but is considered heretical by the pious. Such power must be reserved for God.
Clearly defined sex roles and institutions such as the veil and the segregation of men and women all stem from a need, grounded in traditionalist thinking, to harness human sexuality toward religious ends. …..Islam believes in sexual inequality. "the meaning of marriage is the husband's supremacy…Marriage is a religious act….which gives the man a leading power over the woman for the benefit of humanity."
In the West, the status and treatment of women stem largely from an underlying cultural and social assumption that females are physically weaker and intellectually inferior to men. In Islam, however, it is fear of female power that justifies the suppression of women. Women must be controlled to prevent men, who are easily tempted, from being distracted from their social and religious duties. In Islam, women are perceived as active beings; in Western secular societies as passive. Therefore, controlling women, particularly their sexual desires, is essential to controlling men and ensuring order in society.
….I was interested in the relationship between the traditionalists' ideas on circumcision and their views on female sexuality. Why must a woman be tamed sexually? And how does this keep order in the family?
"A woman can be aroused at any moment," Berri
explained…"Even if a woman is riding in a car, if she hits a few bumps,
she can become sexually aroused." This was an invitation do fitna, or
social chaos, stemming from her unbridled lust.
"Once this happens, a man loses control. So you see, this practice certainly is not meant to punish women. But it is necessary.
…..reexamining the history of the Prophet Mohammed, the caliphs, and the origin of the sharia. This desire, shared by many intellectuals, to force a degree of reformation within Islam gets to the heart of one of the major challenges Islamists have confronted this century. To question the basis of belief is to engage in a process of examination in which the outcome is unpredictable. Although many Islamic scholars in Egypt are open to a reinterpretation of religious doctrine, particularly on social matters, most oppose questioning the essence of their religion.
Qimany and other secularists intellectuals vehemently oppose this absolutist tendency rapidly gaining ground within the Islamic movement. "Each one of us has become his own dictator, because we say God is omnipotent and will have his will over my mind and life…We have this false feeling of completeness because we own the absolute truth in the Holy Book….So another drawback to this methodology is that it has taught us to be dictators, and now most of us do not know the meaning of freedom."
Men like Esam al Eryan appeared to offer a way out. They were searching for the chance to marry the demands of the modern world with the traditional values of their Islamic faith; their goal was not to modernize Islam, but to stamp the authority of their Islamic faith on modernity.
By the mid-1990s, the Brotherhood was merely the most convenient vehicle through which the new generation of Islamists, and ordinary Egyptians, could carve out the Islamic civil society they desired. The organization's long-stated aim was the implementation of the sharia, or Koranic law, as the principal source of law in Egypt, rather then one of several sources. If most contemporary Islamists were unwilling or unable to fully articulate their vision of the future, the general outlines were clear nonetheless: creation of an "Islamic order" as determined by the supremacy, in all questions of law, politics, and society, of the sharia; rejection of corrupt Western ideologies; unity of "Mosque and State"; and an emphasis on social justice. Economic relations would take on a strong moral component and stress the needs of individuals at the expense of traditional commercial elites and foreign interests. Externally, Egypt would likely move away from its Western allies, in particular the United States, reject its earlier pact with Israel, and focus instead on ties to fellow Islamic countries.
"We believe in honesty. We are against corruption, which controls the political system. This country is a dictatorship. What we want is to implement the sharia. It holds the solutions to all our problems." Qawima.
….Despite the Islamists' success in improving the personal and professional lives of the members, they too had fallen victim to internal bickering, just as their secularist predecessors before them.
The islamists also worked to separate men from women in the classrooms, a policy that was eventually adopted sporadically in some colleges in Upper Egypt. One religious student expressed the reason for segregation of the sexes: "We don't object to teaching girls, but do they have to be indecent and wear the latest fashions? Is she s model or a student? How can male students concentrate on what the professor is saying while sitting beside an immodest girl? How can we mix oil and fire and not expect an explosion?"
"Sheikh al_Islam Ibn Taymiyya says that those who follow rulers that are not based on the teachings of Islam are considered non-believers. Today's rulers were brought up by colonizers-Christians and Jews-and the only Islamic things about them are their names. Their attack and murder is justified."
p. 169 Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, professor of Islamic studies
Abu Zeid clearly intended to criticize modern Islamic though, but he never meant to deny his Muslim faith. Instead, he argued that modern Islamists refused to acknowledge that even the Koran was relevant to a certain historical time period and was progressive for the time in which it was written. Therefore, the same progressive approach of the Koran should be applied in the modern world. In his latest book, Abu Zeid declared an intellectual war against the "self-serving, preconceived ideological reading" of the Koran by contemporary Islamists who were "guided literally by the heritage of the past, in order to give them the historical depth, and consequently the legitimacy they lacked."
"Why do you believe a woman should be circumcised?"
"Women have strong sex drives. The only way to ensure order in society is to contain their sexual desires. Also, it has been proven scientifically that women are healthier if they are circumcised, and they have healthier babies. The clitoris can cause infection."
"But don't you think it is unjust to deprive women of having intense orgasms by clipping the clitoris?" I asked, shuffling in my seat after uttering words I knew were a bit extreme for his taste.
"No. This is why there is so much immorality in the West," he replied, in a matter-of-fact tone. "At a young age, girls begin to have sex. When they are older they tempt men because they can't control their desires."
In an interview with Baha al_Din, I asked him why the state fought so hard against society's wishes to wear the hijab and the niqab. He explained that the no-veiling position was a way to eradicate Islamic expression at an early age. The same thinking, he told me, prompted the education ministry to remove pictures of veiled girls from textbooks. "If girls in the primary schools are not veiled and they continue this way for five years, they will never veil. But if you veil from early childhood, then it will be a way of life, and there will be no return."
He also explained that the state believed veiling was used as a symbol by Islamic groups to convince other Egyptians and the outside world of their growing influence and power. "They [Islamic groups] want to tell public opinion and the outside world that they have a majority of support and to claim that all those girls wearing the veil are part of their organization. This is not true. Many girls and women are wearing the veil for economic reasons. They can't afford to go to the coiffeur. In the villages, wearing a cloth around your head is a tradition. It has no religious origin at all."
Two decades earlier, the Iranian revolution seemed an answer to the prayers of so many faithful throughout the Muslim world, repelled equally by the godless communism and the east and the commercial idols of the decadent West. However, the years of forced consolidation of clerical power, the devastating war with Iraq, and the debilitating isolation imposed by a hostile outside world have taken much of the shine off the Islamic Republic. More important, they have revealed the great underlying weakness of an Islamic revival imposed from the top down-its lack of permanence and inevitable tendency to cave in once the revolutionary moment has well and truly passed.
This inability on the part of Mubarak and his secularist allies to channel any newfound popularity, however fleeting, reflects the overriding logic of the moment. Egypt's militants may have lost the war, but the state has certainly not emerged victorious. The last gasps of the armed struggle, which the Luxor massacre may well come to represent, must be seen as the failure of militancy, not the success of the secular regime. In fact, the shortcomings and systematic weaknesses are more apparent today than ever. They are obvious in the growing erosion of civil liberties in Egypt, a process that began in earnest in 1992, just as the militant movement was at the peak of its power. The militants may have failed to overthrow the state, but they indirectly pushed the government toward totalitarianism. In this way, the militants have achieved a victory in discrediting the state in the eye of its own people.
The grassroots religious revival in Egypt provides the most solid evidence to date that a failed militant movement in no way spells the death of Islamic revivalism. In fact, the moderate Islamists leading the grassroots revival in Egypt have benefited indirectly from the militants' brutality. The moderates were the counterpoint to the militants, a viable alternative between the radicalism that was giving Islam a bad name and the authoritarian state. In this way, Egypt's voluntary, broad-based religious revival is likely to strengthen in the new century and offer an example to Muslim societies torn between repressive governments and militant extremism.
For contemporary Egyptians, it is the integration of their faith and their society that counts, not rigid interpretations or attempts at a codification of an Islamic sate ideology. Humble neighborhoods like Imbaba have largely gone their own way, led by unofficial sheikhs and street preachers, toward a popular notion of Islam. This grassroots revival has proven so powerful it has coopted members of the official ulama at al Azhar, long a pillar of Egypt's ruling elite and the center of gravity for the world of Sunni Islam. The senior sheikhs, in turn, have provided the grassroots movement with theological, social, and political legitimacy.