Selective Religiosity

My first day on the job and everyone around me was walking around with sibhas (Islamic rosaries). When the duhr prayer called, the general manager immediately stepped out of his office to gather all the employees so we could pray together. “The prayer should be prayed on time!” he bellowed, shaking his sibha emphatically. He would, from time to time, insist on volunteering information (in the form of a long yawn-inducing lecture) about Islam and Islamic law, often mentioning how his countrymen (he was not Egyptian) were the most knowledgeable people about Islam. Aside from the boring lectures I had no problem with these overt displays of religiosity – in fact, I was initially pleasantly surprised by them. However, over time I began to notice that the general manager’s insistence on praying on time and waving the sibha around for all to see did not prevent him from gorging on beer and wine during corporate outings. Similarly, his insistence on not shaking hands with women once he had performed wuduu’ did not prevent him from hugging and patting female employees on the back (and once even tickling a female employee, but that’s another story for another time). I want to emphasize that I am not protesting against his drinking or other personal habits, to each his own, what bothers me is the hypocrisy of it all. Don’t give me a condescending lecture about what a good little Muslim you are and how I should look up to you and all your countrymen as role models! Do what you want to do, but be a man and own up to it.

This phenomenon could be simply explained away as hypocrisy, but I think it’s better described as picking and choosing which parts of the religion you will abide by (usually those having to do with appearances), and conveniently ignoring the rest. The reason why I think this is a big deal is because it doesn’t stop at merely enjoying a beer, this type of behaviour has become so pervasive in our society that it extends to lying, cheating, bribery, sexual harassment, violence and torture (to name a few). Alaa al-Aswany wrote an article on the 29th of April 2009 describing a phenomenon which he termed “al-tadayon al-badeel” which literally translates to “alternative religiosity”. I prefer the term “selective religiosity”. I translated the bulk of his article below, for I have witnessed this phenomenon many times – as I believe every Egyptian who is aware of it has.

 It is known that many of those working in Egypt’s internal security force are religiously observant; they pray the prayers on time, they fast, they perform the hajj [to Mecca]…but that does not ever prevent them from conducting their daily work of torture, beating, and electrocution of prisoners.

In the same context, I know of a prominent official in the government who is known for his role in forging elections and violating the judiciary’s independence, while he is known within the family for his deep religiosity to the extent that he gives his relatives lessons in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Such examples are uncountable. Many Egyptians perform their daily religious obligations with devotion, but in their daily lives behave in a manner that is completely at odds with the religion.

 Last Ramadan the daily newspaper al-masry al-youm published an excellent investigation of public hospitals during iftar [when fasting Muslims break their fast]. They found that most of the doctors leave the patients without care so that they can perform the [non-obligatory] taraweeh prayer. Those who do this are not ignorant, quite the contrary, they are educated doctors, but they simply consider the taraweeh prayer to be much more important than taking care of the ill, even if their lives are in danger.

 Thus, the issue isn’t merely hypocrisy or ignorance, but it is a corrupt and twisted understanding of the religion that leads to a sort of superficial apparent religiosity that becomes an alternative to true religiosity.

 Alternative religiosity is profitable and easy and doesn’t require a lot of effort or incur costs because it restricts religiosity within the limits of slogans and appearances. Defending the true principles of Islam – justice, freedom, and equality – is an issue fraught with dangers in Egypt that will ultimately lead you to jail, destruction of livelihoods, and destitution. But alternative religiosity, on the other hand, costs nothing while giving one a false sense of security and self-contentment.

Those who adopt alternative religiosity fast, pray, they greet people with the Islamic greeting, they force their wives and daughters to wear the hijab [modest clothes combined with a head covering] and niqab [hijab with the addition of a face veil], and they may even participate in protests against the Danish cartoons or the ban on hijab in France, or they may publicly lament the increase in provocative video clips…and they believe that by this they have performed their religious duty to the fullest. …Alternative religiosity is a sad illness that has inflicted Egyptians and has led them to passivity and unawareness, and has made them susceptible to oppression and tyranny. This was not always the nature of the Egyptians. Since 1919 and until 1952 the nationalist Egyptian movement with the leadership of the Wafd party went through a violent struggle and sacrificed thousands for the purpose of ousting the British occupation and achieving democracy.

 The truth is that the spread of alternative religiosity has several causes, for until the end of the 1970s Egyptians, both Muslim and Coptic, were less interested in the appearances of religion and more attached to its true principals, until the arrival of Anwar al-Sadat who utilized religion as a tool to strengthen his political clout against the leftist opposition. Then the Iranian revolution happened which created a real threat to the Saudi Arabian system that was allied with the Salafist Wahaby ideology. And over the course of three decades Saudi Arabia spent billions of dollars for the purpose of spreading its interpretation of Islam which necessarily leads to alternative religiosity….Salafist thought provides a basis for alternative religiosity that frees you from the burden of ever taking an actual stand for justice and freedom.

Indeed, some of the new televangelists take pride – as do their followers – in the fact that they have been able to convince scores of girls to take on the hijab – as if the great Islam was descended from Allah (SWT) for the purpose of covering women’s hair, and not for justice, freedom, and equality [despite the fact that during the time of the Prophet (SAWS) ‘equality’ was one of the most revolutionary and central ideas due to tribal hierarchies etc].

 Tyrannical systems always promote alternative religiosity, for these citizens are actually the model citizens under tyrannical/authoritarian rule because they live and die without ever rocking the boat, always in a state of non-opposition, and their opposition is restricted either to what happens outside of Egypt or things that don’t affect the governing system such as a revealing dress worn by an actress in her latest film (a group of such “alternatively religious” citizens are now actively advocating on the internet to sign a petition against singer Tamer Hosni because he stared at the body of the female star in his latest movie in an inappropriate way).

 Thus, the system is absolutely welcoming of alternative religiosity because it clears it of its responsibility. For in the true Islam the ruler holds primary responsibility for the problems of his/her citizens. However, the alternatively religious citizens, when suffering from poverty and unemployment, will never think of the responsibility of the ruler towards this, rather they will reduce this phenomenon to one of two possibilities: this tribulation is either a punishment or a test from Allah, so they must be patient and not complain.

 The martyrs of this system whose numbers have exceeded the number of all the martyrs of all the wars Egypt has ever gone through – the victims of burning trains, sinking ferries, falling buildings, kidney failure and cancer – all of those in the eyes of true Islam are victims of corruption and oppression, and the ruler is primarily responsible for their deaths and the destitution of their families. However, in alternative religiosity, this is viewed merely as fate and destiny and no more. It is believed that these victims’ time was up anyway, and they would have died somehow, so there is no point in placing blame on anyone for their deaths.

 The great Islam once pushed Muslims to rule the world and teach humanity civilization, art, and science. Alternative religiosity, on the other hand, has led us to all the strife and humiliation we are immersed in. If we want to change our reality we must first adopt the true Islam and not only superficial religiosity as an alternative.


This type of religiosity has become so normalized in Egyptian culture, that even the media depicts this as normal. I recently watched a film where Hisham Selim plays a policeman. For the entire 1st half of the film he is depicted as a devout Muslim, shown praying and using the sibha. Towards the end of the film Selim needs some information from a witness and resorts to torturing this witness until said information is obtained. This scene was not shown in any way that emphasizes the contradiction in Selim’s behaviour, but rather the film progressed as if this were completely normal. You could almost tell that the writers did not find any kind of irony or contradiction in these scenes. Similarly, the Egyptian series el-Daly, which depicts the life of successful businessman Saad el-Daly, depicts him as a devout and pious man. Suddenly, in the last episode, he takes revenge on his nephew (who had previously tried to kill him and his family) by putting him a coffin and burning him alive – all while smiling and smoking a cigar. Again, I was on the lookout for any kind of irony to be pointed out by the writers, even in the subtlest of forms, and found none (I only saw the last episode so if anybody found that such irony was pointed out in the previous episodes let me know). Of course, this is not true of all Egyptian films, and al-Aswany’s own Omaret Yacoubian (the Yacoubian Building) is a good example of mature writing that subtly but clearly sends the message across –  and I do believe that media plays a large role in shaping the collective conscience.


However, until the ubiquitous satellite Sheikh(a) – who today has substantial influence over people’s understanding of religion – takes a stand against this phenomenon, we will always be in a disadvantaged position. In my opinion, those Sheikhs that place more importance on the hijab or growing a beard than they do on sadaqa (charity), kindness, honesty, equality, freedom and justice are equally as hypocritical and harmful as those self-proclaimed “progressive” Muslims who constantly try to twist Islam to fit it under some western ideology.


May 16, 2009 Posted by | Islam, Media/Press | 1 Comment

Nostalgic Lozah

Dear Vancouver,

 I know I haven’t visited in a while, but I just wanted to let you know that I really miss you. I miss the wonderfulChildhoodInVan childhood and memories you’ve given me. I miss trees that are so gigantic you can walk around inside them. I miss being surrounded by nature wherever you go. I miss my brother, who is blessed to still live such a beautiful city. I miss walking to Trafalgar School with him everyday. God, I miss Trafalgar! Daycare was my favourite time of day. I used to play “house” with a boy named Doug. I think he was Asian…can’t quite remember though. I wonder what Doug is up to these days. The boy who sat next to me in class was called Dean. One day he farted out loud in the middle of class and we laughed about it for weeks. I miss Natalie and Madame Vinet, my class teachers.

 I remember my first best friend, Emily. We became friends during day care. Emily and I shared an obsession with Michael Jackson and we used to co-choreograph dance routines to his songs – especially Black & White. Emily, Destry, and I were like the three musketeers. I recently found them both through facebook (God bless), it was nice to see their faces again. I remember when Stephen – a kid in my class – fell off the fireman’s pole we had on our school playground; he broke his leg. During the winter, the school would give us sleds (or maybe they were just sleeping bags that we pretended were sleds) and we’d all slide down the snowy hills behind our school. In the summer, we climbed trees. I miss the house I grew up in! We had a great backyard where I turned on the sprinklers during the summer and created my own private little water-park, and where I made snowmen and snow angels in the winter. I learned to ride my bike in the alleys behind my house. I learned to roller-skate and then rollerblade in the alleys behind my house. I learned how to have good old fashioned fun in the alleys behind my house.

Strangely, I miss how it felt to come to Egypt in the summer. Back then, Egypt was to me that sunny place where I did a lot of swimming and running around during the summer – mainly associated with Maraqya and the other Sahel resorts existing at the time. I hated Cairo. Absolutely hated it. It was ugly, hot, crowded, noisy, uncomfortable and generally unpleasant. It’s strange to think back about how much I hated Cairo as a child and how much I love it now – despite the fact that Cairo has only become uglier, hotter, more crowded and polluted, and more uncomfortable than one could ever imagine tolerating. And yet, as Egyptians, we adapt, we learn new ways, new techniques, and we are a sentimental and emotional people. We become attached to houses that are no longer homes, and we refuse to abandon spaces that have long shunned us.

 Nostalgia really is one of the funnier human emotions – its propensity for breeding selective memory is at once comforting and misleading when one is finally reunited with the object of one’s longing. The longing builds up and turns into almost euphoria on the plane ride back, and then you step off the plane and it hits you like a ton of bricks. Then there’s depression and asking yourself why the hell you came back. And then you just get used to it; the unusual becomes normal and everything gels and makes sense again. Strange how nostalgia is such a universal experience that a Latin American author writing in the 80s about the Caribbean can describe these exact sentiments so well:

He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past. But when he stood at the railing of the ship and saw the white promontory of the colonial district again, the motionless buzzards on the roofs, the washing of the poor hung out to dry on the balconies, only then did he understand to what extent he had been an easy victim to the charitable deceptions of nostalgia.

…A short while later…he could no longer endure the unmerciful reality that came pouring in through the window. The ocean looked like ashes, the old palaces of the marquises were about to succumb to a proliferation of beggars and it was impossible to discern the ardent scent of jasmine behind the vapours of death from the open sewers. Everything seemed smaller to him than when he left, poorer and sadder…he found nothing that seemed worthy of his nostalgia. …he did not have the heart to live another day in his rubble-strewn homeland.

But in time the affection of his family…mitigated the bitterness of his first impression. Little by little he grew accustomed to the sultry heat of October, to the excessive odours, to the hasty judgment of his friends, to the “we’ll see tomorrow, Doctor, don’t worry”, and at last he gave in to the spell of habit. It did not take him long to invent an easy justification for his surrender.

This was his world, he said to himself, the sad, oppressive world that God had provided for him, and he was responsible to it.

 (from Gabriel Garcia Marguez, Love in the Time of Cholera, p.106.)


A lot of the time it sounds like he’s describing Cairo, especially the part about the excessive odours (I’m only half-kidding); and “we’ll see tomorrow, don’t worry” should really become the official mantra of Egyptian culture (just add an inshallah and you’d be describing Egypt). Has anyone every noticed how Egyptians love to use inshallah as an answer to any question? Taxi, can you take me to Heliopolis? Inshallah. Hi, are you the person in charge here? Inshallah. Is your name Abbas? Inshallah. Do you need to go to the bathroom? Inshallah.

 I’m sure that just as Cairo always seems glorious and majestic and quirky while I’m in Vancouver, Vancouver can’t be as wonderful as it seems now as I’m reminiscing about it in Cairo. Still, if I close my eyes and concentrate hard, sometimes I can actually feel like I’m walking down Robson Street sipping a frappucino on my way to meet a friend on the stairs in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery – and I just feel content.

 Sigh…Will I ever visit Vancouver again? I guess, being Egyptian, all I can say is…Inshallah.


May 12, 2009 Posted by | Personal | Leave a comment

Mis-Referring to Allah SWT

I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend. Some Muslims have begun to refer to Allah SWT using feminine pronouns (Her, She). It seems that these Muslims think they are making some kind of feminist statement by doing this – that somehow by referring to Allah SWT using “Her” it will prove to all those doubters out there that Islam is, in fact, woman-friendly. I would like to clarify though that those (I know of) who do this are not trying to imply that Islam has a female deity. Rather, it is to emphasize that unlike in Christianity or Judaism, Muslims do not refer to Allah SWT as “the Father”, “the Son”, or any male being whatsoever. Rather, Islam emphasizes that Allah SWT – the creator of all things – is genderless. Allah is beyond gender, which is a purely earthly construct. Allah SWT is a supreme genderless being that our human minds simply cannot fathom in earthly terms. This is further explained in the following paragraph:

We Muslims do not believe that Allah SWT is male or female. Allah is the Creator of everything and is beyond any gender or similitude. Allah does not incarnate, either in the form of a male or in the form of a female. Allah is not called in Islam “Father” or “Mother”. Allah is the Rabb [Lord] of the worlds. The Qur’an says clearly, “There is nothing like Allah.” … Allah SWT is a not a thing, but a Being with qualities and attributes [as described by the 99 divine names]. Muslims always believed in Allah as the Being beyond maleness or femaleness. When Muslims used the pronoun “He” for Allah, it never occurred to them that they were talking about a man. Muslims never made a picture of Allah. They knew that it was Haram [forbidden/sinful] to depict Allah in any form or person.

Some people may ask: if Allah SWT is beyond gender, then why does the Qur’an use male pronouns when referring to the Divine? The short answer to this question is that the pronoun “it” does not exist in the Arabic language. Some may respond to this answer saying: even though there’s no “it” pronoun, that still doesn’t explain why Allah SWT is referred to in the Qur’an using “He” and not “She”. This is where the long answer is given, which is simply that referring to a non-gendered being using “Her” or “She” is grammatically incorrect in the Arabic language, so it makes no sense to translate it that way in the English language.

In Arabic, non-gendered singular nouns are referred to using gendered pronouns that are assigned based on grammatical reasons, while female pronouns and verbs are used to refer to the non-gendered plural of any gender (keep in mind that verbs are also gendered in the Arabic language).

For example, a non-gendered object such as a tree is referred to using feminine pronouns, while a pen is referred to using male pronouns. In Arabic a grammatically correct sentence would be “al-qalam howa allazhy yaktub”: al-qalam [the pen] howa [he] allazhy [male pronoun meaning the one who] yaktub [male verb meaning writes].

However, if I am referring to a group of pens, a grammatically correct Arabic sentence would be “al-aqlam heya allaty taktub”: al-aqlam [plural: pens] heya [she] allaty [female pronoun meaning the one who] taktub [female verb meaning writes].

Therefore, there is absolutely no basis whatsoever for using a female pronoun to refer to a singular non-gendered being when translating from Arabic to English. Thus, by using “Her” to refer to Allah SWT one is not preserving the “genderlessness” of the Divine, rather, one is essentially assigning a gender to a non-gendered being – Allah SWT –  which is by anybody’s account haraam. However, even if there were no grammatical explanation, the fact remains that the Qur’an uses Arabic male pronouns and we simply do not have the right to change this when translating.

As Muslims, we are constantly under pressure to fit Islam under one ideology or another. We must not let this pressure – whether from the outside or from within ourselves – incite us to try to morph the religion into something it’s not. Rather, we should assume that any perceived inconsistencies are simply due to our own ignorance, and can be resolved if we put in a little extra effort – such as learning about the Arabic language before attempting to translate from Arabic to English.

May 6, 2009 Posted by | Islam | 4 Comments

Wakeup call: Etshahhedy ya Lozah

Today I was on my way back from Itsa village in Minia to Minia city to take the train back to Cairo. I was in a taxi with 2 other people and we were in a hurry to catch our train, so the driver sped up and started passing by the slower cars – which was a tad bit dangerous on this 2-lane 2-way highway.

One of the other passengers looks at the ter3a (canal) to our left and says “they should really install some kind of barrier between the highway and the ter3a, it’s easy for a car to swerve and fall in”. The driver says “they did add a barrier but it starts about 2 kilos from here”. A few minutes later we were in between a car on our right going in the same direction as us, and a truck on our left going in the opposite direction, when suddenly the right back tire blows. When the back tire blows it really shouldn’t be a big deal, you just don’t panic and allow the car to gradually slow down. However, the driver, seeing that we were in between 2 vehicles, panics and slams on the breaks. Suddenly the car swerves to the left and we’re moving horizontally across the highway. Somehow I remember exactly what my thought process was in those few minutes: 

–         Oh my God, hanekhbat fel na2l, ana hamoot? Elhamdulellah el na2l 3adda. Yeb2a mesh hamoot inshallah.

–         La2 bas e7na wakhdeen el taree2 bel3ard, law fee 7ad gay fe weshena yeb2a hanmoot. La2 el taree2 fady elhamdulellah yeb2a mesh hanmoot inshallah.

–         Hanekhbat fel soor, wel soor gay fel yemeen ya3ny ana elly hakhod el khabta kollaha, yeb2a hamoot.

–         Bas ma3takedsh enena mashyeen besor3a kefaya en el khabta temawetny, hamsek bas kwayes fel korsy 3ashan matersh men el shebbak, yeb2a inshallah mesh hamoot.

–         El soor bey2arrab…bey2arrab…bey2arrab. BAM!


Elhamdulellah. Nobody got hurt. The car was pretty damaged but nobody got hurt. After recovering from the initial shock and getting another taxi we all started going over the incident, apparently if we had been a only a few kilos back where there was no barrier we would have drowned in the ter3a.

 I was contemplating this when I realized: I didn’t even say the shahaada. I actually believed that there was a possibility I might die in the next few seconds and I didn’t say the shahaada? Tab ezay! All I was doing was analyzing the situation trying to figure out what was happening. I’ve always been the type of person who goes into robot mode as soon as I panic, but I never realized that could be a bad thing.

 Elhamdulellah that I got this wakeup call, 3ashan lama ye7sal el mawdoo3 begad ba3d 3omren taweel inshallah ab2a mosta3edda, wel marad el gaya ha2ool el shahada!

May 2, 2009 Posted by | Personal | 2 Comments