Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Examining the spiritual and profane

Egyptian society is re-examining its beliefs this Ramadan, part of complex debates on contemporary identity and spirituality, writes Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Why are we here? We are here because we need to reflect on our lives and to find a path on which we can find solace. We are here because we need to help our souls find a place in our lives — otherwise we are just going through life without an inner light,” said Nadine at the beginning of a Sufi gathering hosted by a middle-aged lady in her chic apartment in the Garden City district of Cairo.

The gathering brought together around 15 women of different ages, all of them well-off, for a post-iftar meeting at the beginning of the third week of Ramadan. It offered the ladies a chance to listen to what they qualify as a short Sufi sermon, en vogue in the upper and upper middle classes in Cairo, to pray and then to eat a sohour meal that the host had provided with the help of an elegant catering service.

Nadine, in her late 20s, is not a newcomer to the Sufi sessions. She has been going to them upon the invitation of an older friend who has been with this group for over a year. “Malak invited me to try these sessions when I was going through a hard time, having just lost my mother to cancer, and I was really troubled and confused. I was not into praying really — I don’t know why but maybe it was because I was born and brought up in Saudi Arabia where everything was so constraining, in relation to religion I mean,” Nadine said.

The experience has been helpful, and Nadine has found her way through her ordeal and is again finding meaning in her life — something “which I could not do through the other forms of help I accessed, including an extensive overseas trip, yoga, aerobics, shopping and the rest of the usual tricks,” she says.

The trend towards Sufism has been picking up in Egypt over the past few years. It is a version of Sufism that is different from the original schools of Sufism that have been established in Egypt for centuries and that have millions of followers aligned to several schools.

“I cannot say we are Sufis as the book would say, but I think we are exploring Sufism in a lighter version. We don’t do the oath taking with our sheikh as you would if you were to follow a Sufi school in the traditional sense, but we are getting the help of a Sufi preacher to learn about our religion in a way that is different from the otherwise traditional, and to be honest somewhat off-putting, preaching that we have been used to,” said Samia, a retired banker who lived and worked in the United Arab Emirates for three decades before coming back home to Egypt.

When she first came back over a decade ago, Samia’s way of learning about “being a better Muslim” was about attending the lessons of the sheikhs and preachers whose names were trademarks among Egypt’s upper and upper middle classes during the 1990s and the subsequent decade before they almost went out of fashion after the 25 January Revolution.

“It is not that they went out of fashion exactly, but I think they failed to live up to what we were looking for. We were looking for a way to integrate religion into our lives, but what they offered us seemed to be more about separating our lives from religion. With this Sufi approach, things seem to be working more,” Samia argues.

The demand for Sufism, mostly in its en vogue version, has been on the increase since the revolution, and not just in terms of attending sessions and lessons from Sufi sheikhs, whether in upscale or more mainstream settings. There has also been an unprecedented demand for Sufi titles of all types from bookstores.

“We get requests for what you might call Sufi novels like the ‘Forty Rules of Love’, but we also get requests for books on what you could call the basics of Sufism and the lives of great Sufi figures,” said Gamila, an assistant at a downtown bookstore.


Alternative spiritual paths: According to Abdel-Rahman Mustafa, a journalist and researcher on social issues, the growing taste for Sufism is perhaps related to the failure of the more predominant traditional forms of religion to live up to the challenging questions of the younger generation. A third of Egypt’s population is under 35 years old, and many people are asking serious questions about life, faith and identity.

“This generation, or at least a good part of it, is no longer finding satisfactory answers to its questions in the programmes, sessions or books of either the traditional sheikhs or for that matter what have generally been qualified as the ‘modern preachers,’ the non-traditional preachers who dress and speak in a modern fashion, so today is not exactly the time either for people like Amr Abdel-Kafi or Amr Khaled,” Mustafa said.

Mustafa added that after the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president who was removed from office two years ago in the wake of massive demonstrations calling for an end to his regime, the taste for “traditional” Islam as generally represented by the Muslim Brotherhood “or for that matter the Salafis” suffered a setback “in many, but of course not all, social classes and age groups.”

“The fact that many of the religious satellite channels were taken off the air following the ouster of Morsi helped reduce the presence and not just the appeal of this version of Islam, again in some parts of society,” Mustafa said. Today, he argued, there is a growing audience not just for the Sufi sheikhs but also for the many other facets of Sufism, including Ibn Arabi chants and the more popular versions of singing for the love of God and the Prophet.

Gamila agreed that the demand for the books of the traditional Muslim preachers or the modern ones is receding. She particularly noted that the volumes of the once-celebrated sheikh Mohamed Metwali al-Shaarawi are no longer uncontested Ramadan bestsellers. Not even the novel of Amr Khaled entitled “Ravy Shaker” is gaining a large audience.

According to Gamila, this year, in addition to the rising interest in Sufi books, there has been a growing interest in the books of Abbas Mahmoud al-Akkad on the great Muslim figures of the past and also the volumes by Nasr Hamid Abou Zeid on revisiting the traditional basis of Islamic discourse. “This has been a growing trend since the 25 January Revolution, but this year it cannot be missed,” Gamila said.

According to Mohamed Shoeir, editor of the monthly Aalam al-Kitab magazine (World of Books), the decline in the demand for books on the traditional version of Islam has been reached through an accumulative process of societal soul-searching ignited on a large scale by the 25 January Revolution.

“This coincided with the availability of quality literature that was encouraging people to ask more and more questions about otherwise established facts,” Shoeir said. He added that this Ramadan coincides with the fifth anniversary of the death of Nasr Hamid Abou Zeid whose work revisits the dominant religious discourse. It also, he added, coincides with the state’s appeal for a “renovation of religious discourse” more generally.

Mustafa is willing to argue that the current mood could also be attributed to the fact that some of the leading figures of the official Muslim establishment, including grand imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb and the former mufti Ali Gomaa, are associated with Sufism. Amr Ezzat, a researcher on religious freedoms at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an NGO, is also willing to argue that the “firm grip” that the ministry of religious endowments exercises over the preachers of mosques under its control is making their chances of attracting followers very limited.

“Of course these mosques are still full of people who attend the Ramadan evening prayers and who take time to attend lessons offered by the preachers – but it is not a very vivid religious sphere because its ultimate mandate is to make sure that the state is not challenged through the mosques, or rather that the state is supported by the mosques,” Ezzat argued.

In rural Egypt, Mustafa argued, traditional preachers are still offering a line that is dominated by ultra-orthodox readings of Islam. “This is, however, being adjusted somewhat in parts of the big cities,” he added. Mosque-goers for al-tarwih (special Ramadan evening prayers) in mosques around Cairo and Giza speak of a declining effort by the sheikhs to offer short sermons as used to be the case. Some sheikhs still do so, but these are mostly in mosques located within gated communities and usually focus on mainstream and non-controversial issues.

“We need to think of our lives as a journey and not as an end in and by themselves. We need to make sure that while we are on this journey we pick up the items that we will need once we get to the end and reach the ultimate destination – the afterlife. These items are there in the basics of Islam: true faith, mercy and compassion,” announced the sheikh of one of the mosques in a gated community in East Cairo.

“It is usually a very brief sermon of no more than 15 or 20 minutes to allow for a short break in the middle of the usually over 90 minutes of evening prayer,” said Maha, a regular goer to this mosque. “It is about different issues, but it is generally about strictly apolitical matters and is mostly on the spiritual side of religion,” she added.

According to Mustafa, it is “precisely this call for spirituality, or rather this search for spirituality, that seems to be gaining ground, especially in the face of a disappointing urge for consumerism that is failing to satisfy those who can consume and is failing to be available for the vast majority that cannot afford to do so.”


The Beit al-Hawadit: Away from the religious sphere, Ramadan this year is increasingly seeing what Mohamed Abdel-Fattah, founder of the Beit Al-Hawadit (House of Stories), calls “a growing trend to give more presence to the spiritual in many ways.”

Having been part of the establishment of this story-telling exercise, Abdel-Fattah, a theatre director by profession, finds that people “want to tell stories. They want to talk. They talk to heal and to hold on to good memories.”

For the past 15 years, Abdel-Fattah has trained some 60 people, mostly at the younger end of the age spectrum, to tell their stories. “Some 90 per cent of each group comes to our story-telling workshops suffering from unmistakable signs of depression. But through the process, which allows their souls to be freed from the many restrictions that are forced on them in their daily lives, they start to find inner peace,” Abdel-Fattah said.

“People need to talk so they can heal, and with the growing impact that the increasingly materialist life we are leading is having on our souls there is definitely a bigger room for story-telling,” he argued.

This Ramadan, Abdel-Fattah decided to take his story-telling to the world of social media to allow those who wanted to open up to join through a Facebook event allowing them to share accounts of Ramadan. The vast majority of the participants were in their twenties, but some from the over forties also joined. “The stories of the younger and the older people were similar. They were about soul-searching really,” he said.

Poet Ahmed Hadad is also finding a wider and greater audience for poetry reciting and singing events. “It was the case for a few years before the 25 January Revolution, but it is certainly growing, and this goes for all types of poetry. I think reciting poetry touches the soul in a very particular way,” Hadad said. Last Friday, he was impressed with the large audience that came to the Cairo Library in Zamalek to listen to him reciting his poetry and poems by leading other names like Salah Jahine, Fouad Hadad, Salah Jahine and others from the colloquial school.

One week earlier at the headquarters of the Egyptian Socialist Democratic Party, Mohamed Abul-Ghar, the party leader, hosted an event where the poems and songs of the famous duo Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Fouad Negm were performed. “It was in 1967, right after the military defeat, that I was introduced to the great works of Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Fouad Negm, and what remains with me is the enormous energy that these songs provided for a nation that felt defeated and broken but that still wanted to pick up the pieces,” Abul-Ghar said.

“It is true that the songs of Sheikh Imam never left the nation. However, it is also true that nowadays there is a growing desire to recall this heritage. It is more than just nostalgia – it is about hanging on to a romantic side of our nationalism that seems to have been overlooked somehow,” argues Sayed Einaba, president of the Sheikh Imam Fan Group.

Today, Einaba said, the complete works of Sheikh Imam have been transformed into digital format and will soon be available to the “millions of fans of this man who has always been the voice of Egypt — Egypt then and Egypt today.”


The upper hand of consumerism: When all is said and done, however, it is this year’s very rich TV dramas that are capturing the attention of the vast majority of Egyptians during the holy month.

Executives at the leading satellite channels speak of budgets of tens of millions of pounds — one of them putting them at LE200 million — that have been invested in this year’s drama productions that are very diverse and shed light on many of society’s most pressing issues: materialism, spirituality and identity.

One of the dramas, Al-Ahed (The Oath), is marked by a mystical atmosphere and reflects the traditional combat between good and evil in the human soul. “The drama supposedly takes place in the 19th century, but I find that it really captures the current dilemma of the material-versus-the-spiritual that we are caught up in today,” said Naeila, a young woman in her 30s.

According to Naeila, “aside from the soap operas that are produced for the purposes of sheer entertainment one line is very clear in the dramas of this year: we are faced with many people who are basically lonely souls and who have been failed by their own material wealth in the absence of a serious spiritual light, making them easy prey for drug-abuse and other problems.”

Essam Youssef, the author of the soap opera Zihab wa Aawda (Return Trip), has captured one particularly tormenting face of society today: the kidnapping of children. The first scene of the drama starts with a mother who realises in the middle of a shopping trip to one of the big malls that her young son has disappeared.

The blame is shared between the parents — the father blames the mother for not paying attention to their son while busy with the shopping, and the mother blames the father for the kidnapping since it is designed to avenge a business argument he has been involved in. The show has been written to show “how engrossed we have become in the material side of things over the simple meaning of joy and family,” Youssef says.

“It is not just that materialism now has the upper hand. It is much worse than that — happiness is being reduced to an artificial form in which parenthood is about buying your children expensive things rather than spending quality time with them,” he adds, saying that in this sense the drama reveals the “unspoken sorrow people are suffering from”.

For Hassan, a retired civil servant, the way Ramadan celebrations have evolved over the years reflects “ the decline of peaceful joy in simple things in favour of excess.” He adds that “everything is now done in an excessive way: the prayers of al-tarawih are put on loudspeakers without any sensitivity to the needs of the elderly and the sick to be spared from noise and many cafes are operating from the time of iftar until the very early hours of the morning when it is time for working people to start getting up to start a new day.”

“It has become a ‘Super Ball’ [the American football finals] for 30 consecutive nights. This is what Ramadan has evolved into being in recent years,” argues economist Samer Attallah. And like the Super Ball, each of Ramadan’s 30 nights has become a golden opportunity for big companies to promote their commodities, from food to real estate, he adds.

“You are talking about excessive drama production? If we take a closer look we will find that even this production has succumbed to commercials. Every episode of every drama is interrupted at least five times with commercial breaks, and each break goes on for at least ten minutes,” Attallah noted. Even the spiritual side of Ramadan, which relates to giving to the poor, “has been commercialised in an aggressive way”.

“Look at the commercials that promote the cause of charity and donations. They are almost uncharitable as they strip the needy of their dignity, something that goes against any religiously ordained charity, especially in a month where people should feel for the poor not use the poor to feel good about their own charitable selves,” Attallah argued.

In general, he said, TV screens during Ramadan reveal a society that is too engrossed in consumerism for its own good, especially at a time of serious economic challenges. In the analysis of Attallah, this is the result of a policy that was started during the later years of the rule of former president Anwar Al-Sadat when he introduced the Open Door Policy — “alleged liberalism that was really about consumerism rather than anything else.”

This trend, Attallah added, has been exacerbated as a result of the influence of Gulf State consumerism introduced through subsequent labour migration. “Today, when we look at the country’s trade balance and budget we should immediately realise that we need to part ways with this excessive consumerism,” he argues.

But according to Mohamed Gad, an economy reporter, there are no signs, despite the many economic challenges, that society is coming to realise that it has gone too far with consumerism. “The volume of interest that readers show in stories offering options for consumption is much higher than that in stories debating the annual budget which has been adopted in the absence of any public review,” Gad argued.

In Gad’s view, this was not exactly the sentiment in the immediate wake of the 25 January Revolution when “people felt they were partners with the regime in decision-making. This is no longer the case, and that adds to the lack of interest in matters that do not immediately qualify as consumption options.”

Leading member of the Al-Karama Party Amin Iskandar says that “the regime is only too happy to see people busy watching soap operas, buying food, following football games and refraining from every type of politics, from the long-overdue parliamentary elections to the budget that was not even made public before its adoption.”

“This is not just about an overdose of consumerism. It is more about a joint scheme adopted by the government and the businessmen who own the private-sector TV channels to keep public opinion busy with matters that do not prompt any serious political debates,” Iskandar suggested.


Large questions: For sociologist Ziad Akl, the interest of the regime or the business community in promoting consumerism is only an added catalyst to “something that is already there,” however.

According to Akl, it is there because everything has been corporatised — even poverty is being corporatised, he says, through commercials that promote donations. Religion itself seems to be have been corporatised through TV programmes that present religion as a packaged commodity rather than as a spiritual exercise.

The basis for this corporate approach towards everything, even the supposedly most spiritual of all, came about as a result of excessive ritualism, Akl says. “Close social monitoring shows that since the late 1970s, and in parallel with the Open Door Policy introduced by Sadat, rituals started to take a more important space in the religious sphere than doctrinal or spiritual matters,” Akl argues.

He adds that while the state was encouraging society to embrace consumption and a ritualised style of religion “to serve its political and economic agenda,” it was also failing to provide basic welfare, creating a society that was encouraged to consume when a large part of it was finding it difficult to make ends meet.

“I think this was perhaps the beginning of the rise of Islamism where the poor, by far the majority of society, found a haven from a society in which the rich were able to consume as much as they wanted and the poor were excluded,” Akl argues.

“In the charity commercials of Ramadan we see appeals to the rich to reach out to the world of the ‘pious and the poor’ through donations, which strips charity of spirituality,” he states.

However, “this pattern does not seem to be sustainable because we are now seeing the younger generation, by far the majority of the population, raising questions that challenge established norms, including choices of faith. More people are now being open about the fact that they don’t fast, even if they are legally penalised, and indeed religion itself is being questioned through the growing number of agonistics.”

“We have seen these issues indirectly brought up in public debate in the soap operas broadcast during Ramadan. What we are seeing today is not just a society that is trying, at least partially, to escape from consumerism or to embrace a new form of spiritualism, but one that is re-examining its conventional beliefs, the spiritual as well as the profane,” Akl concluded.

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