Why I wear the Hijab.

This piece was originally published at BikyaMasr.com.

Although I derive great pleasure from bemoaning the world’s obsession with – (cue sinister music) – THE VEIL, I have agreed to contribute my own two cents to this never-ending discussion. Between the “Aren’t you hot under that thing”, the “Babe if you took that veil off you would be soooo hot, like I would totally date you”, the “Do you wear the veil like all the time? Like even in the shower?”, and the “You’re oppressed, let me save you” I have no grandiose ambitions of ending this obsession. The world will continue to marvel over women’s bodies and the various ways in which we dare to exercise our own personal autonomy over them. I do not intend to discount the fact that many women are deprived of the right to free choice when it comes to what they wear. This applies to women who are forced to cover, those who are forced to uncover, and the many other atrocities we continue to hear about around the world. I am in no way making light of these atrocities. The below piece does not intend to end this debate (although I can’t say it wouldn’t be nice if that happened), but rather it is solely to provide a personal answer to a personal question I have received many times:

Why do you choose to wear the hijab?

Read the rest of my piece here.


October 22, 2009 Posted by | Islam, Personal | 2 Comments

Really Interesting Film: White Girl

Bafta award-winning White Girl is about a white non-Muslim family that moves to an area in the UK populated by Muslims. Really interesting, watch it!

October 5, 2009 Posted by | International Affairs, Islam, Media/Press | 1 Comment

Deen as Multi-Dimensional Islam

This article was originally published at www.ReadingIslam.com

In today’s materialistic world, the personal spiritual connection with God has been all but lost. Ironically, it is a well-documented fact that religiosity in the Muslim world is on the rise, giving Muslim communities a somewhat contradictory image.

This contradiction can be especially confusing for non-Muslims, who are genuinely trying to understand whether being “religious” from an Islamic perspective is restricted to a certain dress code and set of rituals.

The problem is that many Muslim societies have become obsessed with appearances of piety, and consequently, outward manifestations of religiosity say nothing about inward spirituality. While these visible aspects of the Islamic way of life (known to Muslims as Shariah) are important, they are by no means sufficient on their own as a path to get closer to Allah (God).

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) explains in a hadith (Prophetic saying) how being religious should be pursued from an Islamic perspective.

One day while the Companions were sitting with the Prophet, there appeared before them a man, who said:

“O Muhammad, tell me about Islam (submission).”

The Prophet said: “Islam is to testify that there is no deity worthy of  worship but Allah (God) and that Muhammad is His messenger, to perform the prayers, to pay the zakah (obligatory alms), to fast in Ramadan, and to make the pilgrimage if you are able to do so.”

The man said: “You have spoken rightly.”

He then said: “Then tell me about iman (faith).”

The Prophet said: “It is to believe in Allah, His angels, His books, His messengers, and the Last Day, and to believe in divine destiny, both the good and the evil thereof.”

The man said: “You have spoken rightly.”

He then said: “Then tell me about ihsan (excellence).”

The Prophet said: “It is to worship Allah as though you can see Him, for if you see Him not, truly He sees you.”

After this, the man left, and the Prophet told the Companions: “This was the angel Gabriel, he came to teach you your religion.” (Muslim)

According to this hadith, religion — as a methodology or framework used to get closer to Allah — is much more than the visible aspects of worship such as prayer, fasting, and dressing appropriately. Rather, Islam as a religion is described as a three-dimensional way of life that combines:

  • Submission with one’s body through actions and rituals.
  • Submission with one’s mind through faith, belief, and creed.
  • Submission with one’s heart through ihsan, which is usually translated as excellence in worship through purification of the heart, strengthening the spirit, and breaking the ego.

This multi-dimensional view of religiosity deals with the human being in a holistic manner that encompasses one’s physical being, one’s mind and intellect, and one’s heart and soul. Therefore, those who follow only the visible practices of Shariah, such as prayer and fasting, without concerning themselves with strengthening their faith or purifying their heart, can be described as “one-dimensional Muslims”.

This saying by Prophet Muhammad speaks about worshipping God as if we can see Him, and knowing, believing, and feeling in one’s innermost core that He can see us at all times. This is about checking our intentions before every action, our conscience being active at all times, being humble and aware of our equality in front of God,  having the utmost trust in God’s power and mercy, and seeking help from Him and Him alone.

Excellence in worship is also achieved through excellence in action, for in Islam, worship goes beyond rituals and includes regular daily actions, if done with the proper intention. That is why ihsan can be pursued through many different channels.

Ihsan also means doing good to one’s self and doing good to people, and it means not being attached to material things in this world, or as the Prophet said, “Be in this world as if you were a stranger or a wayfarer.” (Al-Bukhari)

Living one’s life as if one can see Allah means being in a constant state of awareness that all one’s actions are being observed and recorded. It is a special state of God-consciousness that prevents us from doing wrong and causes us to aim for excellence in everything that we do.

It is to ask yourself: Would you throw that piece of garbage on the street if you could actually see God in front of you right now? If you could see Him watching you, would you ignore that poor person on the corner, or would you stop to give that person some charity? Would you cheat? Would you lie? Would you hurt others?

Doing good in this world is given such a high priority in the Quran that in many different parts the Quran describes the rewards of those that do good, and they are given the title of those who have achieved ihsan. The Quran says what means:

[And do good. Truly Allah loves those who achieve ihsan.] (Al-Baqarah 2:195)

[For those who do good in this world there is good, and the home of the hereafter will be better. And excellent indeed will be the home of the pious.] (An-Nahl 16:30)

[For those who have done good is the best reward and even more. Neither darkness nor dust nor any humiliating disgrace shall cover their faces. They are the dwellers of Paradise, they will abide therein forever.] (Yunus 10:26)

This shows us that the concept of excellence in worship is not effectively pursued solely through ritualistic forms of worship or by applying the public aspects of the Islamic way of life. Rather, we must understand that every form of worship has been perscribed upon Muslims for their own spiritual education.

Prayer, fasting, hajj, and even the Islamic dress code all have an inner dimension that goes beyond the physical movements of the body. Ihsan is pursued through understanding these inner dimensions and strengthening one’s personal consciousness of God’s omnipotent gaze.

We must do good to other people, and try to contribute something positive to humanity by striving for excellence in everything we do. Only then, can we hope to be considered among those who have achieved ihsan, and thus, only then can be considered among those who are truly “religious”.

September 4, 2009 Posted by | Islam | , , | 2 Comments

Random Thoughts on History Repeating Itself

From the book “Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes” by Tamim Ansary, describing the spread of Islam during the Ummayad dynasty:

Another shadow haunted the conscience of the Islamic world as well. Muslim sacred history was problematically rich with anecdotes about the simple, rugged lifestyle of the founders. Their simplicity and humbleness went to the very essence of their appeal as religious figures. Inevitably, therefore, a feeling started percolating in the lower reaches of this new society that something about all this splendor wasn’t right. This prosperous, pleasure-plump society could not be what Allah had meant when he charged Mohammad with establishing a just community devoted to worship of the one God. Of course, the richer you were, the less likely that such considerations would trouble your dreams. For the poor, however, tales of luxury at court and the sight of perfumed Arab noblemen riding through the streets clad in silk had to evoke comparisons with Mohammad’s simple blanket folded four times to provide both mattress and cover, and Khalifa Omar at his cobbler’s bench, mending his own shoes. Add to all this the odor left by the way in which the Ummayad’s came to power, a process that had generated two enduring opposition movements, the Shi’a and the Kharijites….

Inevitably, the one mapped onto the other. Persians began to embrace Shi’ism, and Shi’ite agitators began looking to the Persian east for recruits. When the two currents mingled, rebellion began to bubble. It bubbled ever harder the further east one traveled, for Umayyad police power ran ever thinner in that direction, while anti-Arab sentiment mounted ever higher. One day, around 120 AH, a mysterious man blew into the city of Merv … almost fifteen hundred miles east of Damascus… He went by the handle Abu Muslim… In truth, Abu Muslim was a professional revolutionary, dispatched to Merv by a secretive underground group based in Iraq, a group called the Hashimites. This group was a cross between a cult adn a political party, whose core membership probably never exceeded thirty. …This was just one of many angry little hard-core bands of antigovernment conspirators active at this time, all preaching some version of the same message: the comunity had fallen off the track, history had gone off course, the Mesenger’s mission had been subverted, and toppling the Umayyads and empowering a member of the Prophet’s family in their stead would set everything right again. Let me note that this narrative has been reinvented again and again in the Muslim world over the course of history, and some version of it is being recited even today, by revolutionaries who have substituted “the West” for “the Umayyads”.

The above passage made me think:

1) Muslims have been a burden on Islam pretty much since the end of the Khulafaa Rashidun (or some may argue since the end Sayyidna Omar’s rule). Classism, decadence and corruption have been rampant ever since and the true message of Islam is slowly getting lost among the mass of Muslims.

2) History has a scary way of repeating itself – whether it’s the decadence and corruption of Muslim regimes in the East or Western colonial ambitions coupled with orientalist fantasies and ideas about an imminent clash of civilizations in the West. They say one of the definitions of madness is repeating the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Anyone notice a pattern here?

3) According to a Sheikh I was speaking with recently, this pattern of the Muslim community consistently “falling off the track”  has led to the many Islamic scholars accross history who believed that the poor condition of the Muslim ummah can only be a sign that something must be fundamentally wrong with the Aqida (creed) of the Muslims. Instead of seeing things for what they are – that a corrupt Muslim is simply a Muslim who has stopped practicing the Sharia the way it should practiced – these scholars sought to “reinvent the wheel” so to speak, by revisiting some of the core issues in the Islamic creed, such as Ibn Taymiyyah and later Muhammad Abdel Wahab (who led to Wahhabism).

I have only recently started reading about Ibn Taymiyyah so I can’t say for sure whether I agree with this Sheikh’s theory or not, but it is definitely an interesting point.

Another passage from the book, describing the same period in history:

Mainstream Western histories usually praise this process. The Umayyads introduced that wonderful quality called stability to the civilized world. Stability enabled farmers to plan next year’s crop. It enabled businessment to invest in long-term projects. It encouraged students to enter upon long courses of study with confidence that what they learned would still apply by the time they graduated. Stability gave scholars the freedom to lose themselves in study and dig deep into the mysteries of nature without having to worry that their families were meanwhile getting killed by thugs. All this came at a price however, the usual price of stability, which ensures that whatever is the case one day is even more the case the next day. The rich got richer. The poor increased in numbers. Cities with magnificent architecture sprangup, but so did vast slums sunk in squalid poverty. Justice became a commodity only the rich could afford.

(Emphasis mine.)

This particular situation is being repeated today almost word for word. So-called stability in Egypt is often praised for allowing for long-term investments and businesses to open up. Politicians point to the rise in foreign investment, trade, services (for the rich only, of course), and magnificent suburban communities (mostly gated, of course, so as not to be disturbed by the slums across the street). The rich are getting richer, and poor are getting poorer and increasing in numbers. “Justice is a commodity only the rich can afford” only the rich would dare dispute the truth of this statement. The West praises these “successes”. In fact, stability has been probably the main argument used by the Egyptian regime to dissuade Western governments from pushing for democracy: If you want democracy, you just might get another Hamas or Hezbollah in Egypt. You have to choose: democracy or stability in the Middle East.

The Prophet (Salla Allahu Alaihi Wa Sallam) said:

“When the most wicked member of a tribe becomes its ruler, and the most worthless member of a community becomes its leader, and a man is respected through fear of the evil he may do, and leadership is given to people who are unworthy of it, expect the Last Hour”

August 21, 2009 Posted by | Egyptian Affairs, International Affairs, Islam | , , , | 12 Comments

Islam in America: Great Series by al-Jazeera

August 10, 2009 Posted by | International Affairs, Islam, Media/Press | Leave a comment

American Christian Spends 30 Days as a Muslim

Very interesting series!

Of course there were some ridiculous parts, like the way the narrator kept saying “they must follow the rules of halaal” which literally means “they must follow the rules of permissible”. I mean, that’s just bad grammar!

Also, when David was on the radio show and the host said something like “you’re now living in an Arab household” and David nodded, although the narrator at the beginning clearly said that the Haques were of Pakistania descent.

And that Imam that David first went to was just useless! I am so glad he found another one who was much better at explaining things. I have heard from many American Muslims that they often feel there is a communication gap between immigrant Muslims and those who are born and bred Americans. I have also been told that most Imams are immigrants, and so many born and bred Americans, especially youth, find turning to the Imams for advice or guidance to be trying.  That seemed to be exemplified by that first Imam, versus the second Imam who was able to actually have a conversation with David.

I’ve always been fascinated with American Muslims, and with Dearborn because I’ve heard so much about it. So I really enjoyed watching this.

August 8, 2009 Posted by | International Affairs, Islam, Media/Press | 5 Comments

Umar Lee’s Excellent Account of the Salafi Movement in the U.S.

I just finished reading this 10-part series by blogger Umar Lee on the rise and decline of the Salafi movement in the U.S. I’ve never lived in the States so I had no idea about all this. This piece was truly an eye-opener. It really is a fascinating read. I’ve copied a short exerpt below but I highly recommend reading the entire thing here.

After many of us became Muslim in the early 90’s, we found that there was a competition for our hearts and minds between the Sufis/traditional Muslims, the Salafis, and the Tablighis. There is, however, a lot of overlap between the Sufis/traditional Muslims and the tablighis so in some ways I kinda put them in the same category.

The ‘Ikhwani’ movements just weren’t interested in converts except where they could help speak out on issues such as
Palestine. This usually required white converts and hence not a lot of black converts were interested in their movement and the ikhwan weren’t interested in them…unless they had big money. This is why you’ll find that there are more converts amongst the Sufis/traditional Muslims, salafis and tablighis than the Ikhwani groups where it is/was very rare.

Many of the new converts at that time, because of the internet, began connecting with other new Muslims across the country, learning their Islam together and many were learning about salafi speakers. Email lists were formed and websites began to go up. Thus began what some have called the ‘cut and paste’ era. A brother could in this era look like a scholar if he knew the right sources to cut and paste from.

Salafis – because they eventually had an army of zealous converts from which to pull – did an excellent job of book and tape distribution and had two magazines that were spreading like around the country in Muslim circles. These books, tapes and magazines went into the prisons where more Muslim converts eventually became salafis.

But one of the most important parts (if not THE most important part) of spreading the salafi dawah to other parts of the country were the annual winter conferences. The two major conferences were IANA (Islamic Assembly of North America) and QSS (Qur’an and Sunnah Society of North America). Although there were some conflicting issues with the leaderships of those organizations, many of the rank and file attended both conferences and there was a lot overlap of speakers at both.

It was at these conferences that the attendees would buy many tapes, meet other salafis, connect hearts, network, make new friends, meet the speakers personally and sometimes even become friends with the speakers.

At these conferences you saw many big beards, thobes (above the ankles), and many niqaabis wearing all black. All of this may sound cliché or even silly now, but back then it was really a big deal to see so many people actually “practicing the religion” in the eyes of relatively young and new Muslims.

Then on top of that, the emphasis on following the letter of the Islamic law and keeping the salaat lines straight and filling in the gaps that was emphasized no place else. Nowhere else would you see this type of emphasis, and through the eyes of a zealous convert eager to practice his new religion, this all looked good. Most importantly, we felt like we were “a part of something”. This is a critical point

Unlike today’s caricature of a typical salafi, there were quite a few professional and responsible brothers in the ranks that were African American. There were also white and Latino brothers there. It was the bulk of these type of brothers that would later leave.

July 30, 2009 Posted by | Islam | 4 Comments

Labels and the Insensitive Sheikh

I’ve always hated labels. But certain labels tend to annoy me more than others. The terms  “salafist” and “fundamentalist” are two such labels that make me roll my eyes at their blatant inaccuracy.  The ideas that are propagated by these so-called salafists are vastly different from what was practiced by the actual salaf (which translates to predecessors or early generations). The term “fundamentalist” has come to imply ideologies that diverge dramatically from the actual fundamentals of Islam. And yet, these labels are used with seemingly no qualms by non-Muslims and Muslims alike. Case in point: when I first announced that I was going to be taking a class at the Dar el-Iftaa of al-Azhar University, I was warned that they were all salafis. I was asked: Wouldn’t my knowledge be better served by readings books that I could choose for myself, rather than having a salafi sheikh project his views onto me?

Ironically, the issue of labels was raised during that class when the Sheikh made a seemingly derogatory comment about salafis. In response to a question by one of the students, the Sheikh said “I don’t want to hear any of this salafi speak”. He explained that he hates these labels just as much as we do, and he understands how inaccurate they are and how labels such as “salafi” and “fundamentalist” paint a negative picture about the earlier generations of Muslims and about the fundamentals of Islam. The actual “salaf” – the early generations of Muslims – did not equate between non-observance of the hijab and kufr (a term generally used in Islam to refer to someone who does not recognize the onness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad, and is thus outside the folds of Islam). Similarly, the fundamentals of Islamic jurisprudence in no way equates non-observance of prayer with kufr. In fact, according to traditional Islamic scholarship, a person is a Muslims as long as (s)he believes in the shahada (there is not God but God and Muhammad is His Prophet), regardless of whether or not they practice the Sharia. However, according to the Sheikh, current so-called salafi or fundamentalist groups equate the Sharia (practice of Islamic rules) with Aqida (adoption of the Islamic faith). Unfortunately, the Sheikh said, these labels have now become a reality, especially in the field of research [which is the field we are studying].

What should be and what actually is are two completely different things, and as researchers we must operate from a context that represents reality.

Personally, I’m not quite sure if I agree. Isn’t it this very attitude that has resulted in the normalization of these terms? Isn’t it this very non-resistance to their usage what gave credence to their ideas? On the other hand, I see what he means about operating from a realistic context.

He continued that we must acknowledge these labels and understand what they represent so as to avoid falling into the traps of the ideas they have come to represent. At this point, the Sheikh started addressing an older woman who does da’wa in a non-Muslim country. Her and her daughter are both students in the class. He remarked that she has the heavy burden of doing da’wa in a non-Muslim country, and that she has to be careful that often in non-Muslim countries because Muslims are under so much pressure they tend to fall into the trap of believing that the ideas propagated by so-called salafi groups actually represent the true Islam.

“By the way,” he said, “I actually found that your name pops up a lot on salafi websites, both yours and your husband’s, so I’m worried about you!”. The woman just smiled wisely and said “don’t worry about me Sheikh”, seemingly aware of how condescending that statement sounds but willing to let it slip for the sake of the class. Her daughter, however, tensed up immediately. The Sheikh didn’t say what he said in a condescending tone, in fact, it sounded as if he was genuinely just trying to give her advice. But if it were my mother he said that to, I would have been annoyed to tbe point of offense. This man doesn’t know them, he doesn’t know how they think or what their life is like. Just because he did an internet search he feels he has the right to advise this woman on how to do her job? Sure, he is a scholar of Islam,  and he is our teacher, but his job is to pass on the knowledge he has, not pass on his personal opinions, and definitely not to question those of the students!

The daughter had had it. She interrupted the Sheikh’s speech telling him that the use of these labels is incorrect and that they actually don’t use these labels in their country (the non-Muslim country where I mentioned the mother does da’wa), so he does not have the right to use these labels to describe her family. These labels, she said, are divisive in a time where unifying the ummah should be our top priority, especially in a non-Muslim country where having a strong Muslim community is vital to the Muslims living there. She was offended, and I was offended on her behalf and proud of her for speaking up. The Sheikh kept trying to interrupt her to defend his point, but she wouldn’t have it and insisted on finishing her point first. The room was peppered with nervous laughter as the other students started saying she had misunderstood and that the Sheikh didn’t say that at all.

Perhaps they were right, but if so she’s not the only one who misunderstood, I also felt that he had crossed a line by implying that this woman might “fall into the traps of the salafis”. I must point out that in no way do I belittle these so-called traps, for they are very real and I have personally seen people slowly but surely drift away from the mainstream middle path and gravitate more and more towards the extreme. But nevertheless, it is not his place to say what he did, definitely not in front of the entire class and especially keeping in mind that this woman is his elder, even if she is his student.

I could tell the daughter was embarassed at the prospect that she may have misunderstood the Sheikh and been too harsh in her tone. But hey, at least she has the knowledge that she spoke up to defend her point of view despite the looks of disbelief on the faces of almost every student in the class, and the Sheikh himself.

July 27, 2009 Posted by | Islam, Personal | 2 Comments

Sarkozy’s Burqa Ban

Note: I will hereafter refer to the “burqa” as “niqab” which is the Arabic term for the face-covering. For more information see here.

That the niqab is not mandated by Islam has nothing to do with Sarko’s right to ban it. Many Muslims have expressed acceptance of or even outright support for Sarko’s move stating that the niqab is a bedaa (something that was not actually practiced by the Prophet Muhammad PBUH but is a later invention wrongly made in the name of Islam). Some Muslims also agree that the niqab is an imposition of extremists on our moderate religion in an attempt to control women. Those women who freely choose to wear it are dismissed by both Sarko and his supporters – Muslim or otherwise – as brainwashed, oppressed, extremists, or people who surrendered rather than fought for their rights and thus are unworthy of our support for their rights.

I happen to agree that the niqab is not mandated by Islam, the Qur’an and the sunnah (the Prophet Muhammad’s traditions and sayings) are clear on the hijab (head-covering) and say nothing about covering the face. An ongoing debate now is whether those women who choose to wear it get “extra points” for their devotion to God – for wanting nothing from this life and wanting everything from the next – or whether they are actually committing sin by isolating themselves from society and painting a negative misrepresentation of Islam. The latter argument may be true in a country like France, where niqabis are almost necessarily isolated and cannot work or participate in community acivities.

But in Egypt I know firsthand that the argument doesn’t apply.

Just 2 weeks ago I was on a work trip to Aswan to visit some youth centres and interview some of their participants. One of those I interviewed was a niqabi woman who used to be the head of the centre’s Youth Parliament – voted in the position by her colleagues (both girls and boys) – and after a few years was given a management role in the centre. Her daily work entailed working with and managing both men and women. During my interview with her we talked, we laughed, she was funny and clever and when one of her subordinates – a man – informed her that he hadn’t completed one of his tasks, she let him know he better get his act together. Not seeing her face was not a problem at all. I could see her eyes, I could hear her voice, and as Egyptians in general we like to talk with our hands, what more do I need to have a conversation? During the interview a male colleague of hers joined us, and they laughingly reminesced about their days together in the youth parliament (when she was leading him).

Granted, this type of story is not exactly probable in France, and women in France may choose to don the niqab for very different reasons than women in Egypt do. But that shouldn’t matter! People’s reasons for dressing a certain way is personal and completely irrelevant to the debate, which is a debate about RIGHTS. The point here is: Citizens have the right to wear whatever they want in public (minus walking around naked). Governments should not have the right to interfere in what people wear in public.

Sarko’s comments render the supposedly democratic French government no different than the Saudi Arabian or Iranian governments in their belief that government has the right to judge what people can and cannot wear. How can we in good concience argue so vehemently against Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s strict dress codes and then accept Sarko’s move just because we don’t like the niqab? Anybody noticing a double-standard here??

Many Sarko supporters are using the well-worn argument “if a woman wears skimpy clothing in Saudi Arabia or Iran they get punished for it”. Is that really what the French people aspire for their government to be?

June 30, 2009 Posted by | International Affairs, Islam | 7 Comments

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