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 »

  1. Interesting post, Lozah. Unfortunately, people used to care about their image in the eyes of the others regardless the core of themselves. There’s complete difference between what they know and what they apply.

    I hate generalising but this is the bitter truth regardless the religion by the way. It’s not Muslims problem only but all in fact. If you came to watch the Egyptian film Hassan & Mor’oss you’ll understand what I mean

    Here’s a promo over YouTube:

    Comment by Hicham | June 13, 2009 | Reply

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