By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD
A stunning opera show was held on Egyptian TV on the birth of Islam last week, with beautiful music and a spectacular light show, superb direction, acting and great lighting and costumes. This was done for the October War celebrations; however it seemed a bit overly religious for such a ‘national’ occasion. It is true that the new Islamic year will begin this week, but could there be something else prompting this uncharacteristically theatrical display of our religious history? Maybe, say, a Sunni response to the Iranian biopic of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)?
Could it even be an attempt to modernise and moderate the khitab al-dini (Muslim discourse or message)? Who knows? All that I can say for sure is that they did a rollicking good job with the opera, proving to the naysayers that theatre is not contrary to Islamic scriptures, and with very Western credentials to boot. The music didn’t ‘feel’ entirely Arabic – there were some James Bond tunes in there – and the costumes looked slightly ancient Egyptian. Not to forget that theatrical traditions, as we all know, aren’t Arab to begin with. All that can be said, as well, is that the new Minister of Culture, Helmy Al-Namnam, has an uphill task facing him, and he’s a long-time advocate of moderating the Islamic message in mosques and on television and everywhere. Mosques aren’t his remit, quite literally. Mosques and Friday prayer sermons are the exclusive preserve of the Waqf (Religious Endowments) Ministry. Clearance for what is said in mosques has to go through them. Helmy Al-Namnam, being a self-declared “secularist”, hasn’t fared well even in his own department, with criticisms voiced in the press almost from day one. There are many in the religious establishment that aren’t happy with him either, without naming names.
While I’ve never got around to reading any of his books, Helmy Al-Namnam is a top-notch intellectual and contemporary historian so if anyone deserves to be a minister of culture, it’s him. Whether he has the administrative skills for the job, that’s another matter, but we can’t pre-empt these things. And I can vouch for his being a good Muslim. He used to show up in a religious series on (Saudi-owned) MBC, just before the Friday prayers, covering various aspects of the history of various Prophets and religious figures recorded in the Quran.
The important thing is for us, and every new culture minister, to learn from history. Statist intervention in matters of prayer is constant of modern European history, to cite Sally Morem: “For centuries, national governments and papal representatives had engaged in the sensitive business of negotiating detailed ‘rules of engagement’ under which the Catholic Church would be permitted to operate in European nations–Protestant and Catholic. Nations took their power over church life within their borders very seriously. Church and state were deeply intertwined. Some regulations were so precise they included the number of votive candles that could be set on the altar of each church!” I presume this is leftover from the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), when the boundaries between the religious and political and the sovereign domain of the state were first clearly spelled out, a process that never took place in this part of the world. You don’t want the mosque to become a bully pulpit for the wrong kind of people but, at the same time, you want people who are proper religious scholars regulating places of prayer. There are religious strictures involved and they must be observed.
If you leave no domain for the strictly sacred, people will feel boxed in and insist on imposing their brand of defensive religious discourse absolutely everywhere, specifically because they see that there is encroachment on them and their beliefs everywhere. The culture ministry can make its own valuable contributions but through strictly cultural means, like the opera.
The other aspect we need to learn from European history is that there is no one model of secularism out there, or any one ideal way of dealing with religious minorities. Here’s a concrete and unusual illustration. A few years ago, I attended the “Arab-Nordic (Scandinavian) History Seminar: Exploring Common History” (organised by The Finnish Institute and held at the American University in Cairo, Tahrir Campus, 9-10 November, 2013). The audience was flabbergasted to find out that the separation of church and state only took place in Sweden in the year 2000. Previously, the King was officially ordained as the guardian of the ‘Lutheran’ faith, while fellow Christians from other sects couldn’t openly practice their other religion in the country.
A final lesson to learn is to stop relying exclusively on European, Western and/or Christian history. We have our heritage that we can, and frankly should, draw on. Harvard Professor of Islamic Studies, Roy Mottahedeh, had noted how the Islamic regime in Iran, of all places, follows the principles of the old Muhtasib system, never inquiring what goes on behind closed doors in such matters as the consumption of alcohol. The Muhtasib in Muslim history was the “public inspector”, and his jurisdiction most explicitly extended to mosques, as “talking about worldly affairs in it is forbidden”.
Better still was this semi-juristic post, with many religious and scholarly heirs, that included making sure that the “mosques in general should be protected from boys, the insane, and anyone who eats, sleeps, performs his craft, or sells goods in the mosque”. Civility, in other words. You can be pious and modern at the same time, if by modernity you mean orderliness and cleanliness. The added bonus is that you can avoid ideological-theological controversies over what is meant by secularism altogether by reviving this aspect of Muslim history and legal culture.
Part of the encroachment of the worldly in places of prayer, in modern-day Egypt, is specifically that they have become economic zones with beggars and street-hawkers and fruit-vendors, with animals all over the place to boot. The Muhtasib, it has been said, is a cultural import, possibly from Roman history, but the point is it has been digested and incorporated into the corpus of Islamic practice. If you want to go forwards and moderate or modernise anything in this part of the world, you have to a little bit backwards first!
Emad El-Din Aysha received his PhD in International Studies from the University of Sheffield in the UK and taught, from 2001, at the American University in Cairo. From 2003 he has worked in English-language journalism in Egypt, first at The Egyptian Gazette and now as a staff writer with Egypt Oil and Gas