Aaron Rock-Singer, Practicing Islam in Egypt: Print Media and Islamic Revival (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Aaron Rock-Singer (ARS): Prior to graduate school, I spent two years living in Cairo while studying Arabic. This was a period in which the main question that animated debates over Islam related to the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in the political system. When I looked around, though, claimants to define the relationship between religion and politics far exceeded the ranks of the Brotherhood and included not only Islamic movements but also state institutions. What I did not understand at the time was how this had come to be the case.
Just as interesting to me, however, was the broader cultural reach of lay religious figures. My first year in Cairo, while I was a study abroad student at the American University in Cairo, I attended a lecture by the Egyptian Muslim preacher and televangelist, Amr Khaled. A graduate of Cairo University who had used accounting as a pathway to significant socioeconomic mobility, Khaled had found his way to religious preaching in the 1990s at private clubs in Egypt. In due time, he turned to satellite television and the internet as a way of both expanding his reach as well as dealing with an inconvenient reality for any aspiring religious figure: restrictions on his activities in Egypt. As I looked around at some five hundred AUC students that day, I was impressed not merely by the size of the crowd but also by its intensity; as Khaled spoke, these students looked on with rapt attention. Like in the case of political debates over religion, I wanted to understand the roots of this phenomenon.
As I began graduate school and read every book that I could find on Islam in Egypt, my questions remained. While historians had done a masterful job of tracing the intellectual debates of twentieth-century Egypt, anthropologists and political scientists had produced a body of scholarship that taught me a great deal about contemporary piety and Islamist activism, respectively. Yet, I came away with a sense that a crucial part of the story was missing. Intellectual histories of Islamic contestation in Egypt told me little about local practice, anthropological research on the Islamic Revival rarely engaged with the historical roots of this shift, and political science research acknowledged the role of state institutions alongside Islamic movements to only a limited degree. It was a desire to satisfy my curiosity—and to complete this picture—that drove me to write the dissertation on which Practicing Islam in Egypt is based.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
ARS: This book tells a story of the rise of what is known in both academic and popular circles as the “Islamic Revival” (al-Ṣaḥwa al-Islāmiyya) in Egypt over the past four decades, with a particular focus on the 1970s. To do so, it traces competing projects of religious mobilization in al-Sadat’s Egypt (1970-81), highlighting the role not only of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi activists, but also that of scholars and bureaucrats working within state institutions.
This story, in turn, casts light on two key debates, the first of which is the roots of piety in contemporary Egypt. Historical studies of the Islamic Revival foreground the revitalization of longstanding models of Islamic thought, while the anthropological literature on piety in post-1970s Egypt argues that these projects emerged mechanically out of a diachronic Islamic tradition of ethical cultivation. This study, by contrast, argues that it is the fusion of a longer Islamic tradition with modernist notions of social change and order, alongside Islamist visions of mobilization, that undergird the key projects of the Islamic Revival.
Just as importantly, it sketches the sociological boundaries of Islamist activism. Scholars of Islamist movements in Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, and Jordan have focused exclusively on Islamist sites of cultivation, rightfully highlighting the importance of local networks formed around mosques and college campuses. By contrast, examining the rise of the Islamic Revival as a story of state institutions, Islamist organizations, and the mobilization of those who frequented state institutions on a daily basis reveals the intellectual and social ties that bind these projects with state-allied religious elites and the institutions under their control. Far from marginal sites of religious practice, state institutions—along with their particular ideological missions—continue to shape the performance of piety in Egypt as elsewhere.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
ARS: I began by my research on Egypt with an article on Amr Khaled and the growing prominence of lay religious authority among a group known as the “New Preachers” (al-Duʿāt al-Judud) in the early 2000s. While I was tempted to take this focus on lay preachers further—I wrote my MPhil thesis on the Egyptian medical doctor-turned-lay Islamic intellectual Mustafa Mahmud and his use of television and print media—I soon realized that I needed to understand the history of this phenomenon better. This book is an effort to better understand the world in which this movement that fused media and lay knowledge arose.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
ARS: It is my hope that scholars of Islamic movements and Egyptian history alike will read it. Beyond Egypt and Islam, however, I seek to speak to historians and anthropologists studying varied movements, religious and non-religious, in the twentieth century. For scholars of Islamic movements, I hope that it will challenge them to think of these movements as deeply enmeshed within state institutions, both socially and intellectually, while for historians of Egypt, my goal is to further integrate the study of Islamic change in Egypt within broader social and intellectual shifts of twentieth-century Egypt. And finally, for those with little interest in either Egypt or Islam, my goal would be to contribute to a broader global history of religious change in the twentieth century.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
ARS: I am currently at work on a second book, which traces the spread of Salafism as a mass movement in the twentieth-century Middle East. Moving beyond a focus on specific organizations or commitment to the boundaries of particular nation states, it traces the emergence and consolidation of distinctly Salafi social practices between 1926 and present. To do so, it draws on over 150,000 pages of Salafi print media found in traditional archives, used-book markets and contemporary Salafi websites. Based on these sources, it explores the development of particular practices as a lens to understanding Salafism’s internal dynamics of authority, its relationship to Secularism and Islamism, and the unacknowledged reinvention of the Sunna by pious Muslims in the modern period. Threaded throughout the project is an argument that Purist Salafism’s defining practices can only be understood within a global story of the distinctly performative demands of modern visions of gender, communal membership, and piety. Alongside careful analysis of the texts that Salafis hold dear, the project tells a story of how and why precise religious practice becomes a measure of faith and of how the signifying purpose of particular practices to other Muslims and non-Muslims alike comes to exceed and even overshadow their ethical function.
J: How do your projects respond to the post-2013 challenges of research in Egypt specifically and the Arab world more broadly?
ARS: When I lived in Cairo for two years during the first decade of the 2000s, the question was not whether the Muslim Brotherhood would be banned but rather the political opportunities that would arise for it when Husni Mubarak passed away. This conversation anticipated neither the Arab Spring, nor the post-2013 repression of Egypt’s leading organization. More broadly, scholars from disciplines that assumed some level of local access—whether archival or fieldwork—were able to do research in a fairly diverse set of spots, from Egypt to Syria to Yemen. Though there were restrictions and the ability to work freely could vary significantly, the possibility of some form of local research was a given. Since 2013, however, this situation has changed significantly and, as a result, anthropologists and political scientists in particular have flocked to Tunisia and Jordan, two countries in which it is still possible to do significant fieldwork. For historians, whose bread and butter is the archive, challenges have also multiplied, with increasingly restrictive policies of archival access.
My hope is that my focus on media has something to offer in the face of these challenges. Historically, historians have used media as a way of understanding broader intellectual and cultural trends—and particularly representations—but less frequently to understand social history. While historians have previously used this approach, its relative value has grown with the narrowing of research opportunities both within and beyond archives.
Excerpt from the Book
Prayer and the Islamic Revival: A Timely Challenge (from chapter four)
On 2 August 1981 a reported 250,000 Egyptians flocked to ʿAbdin Square in the center of Cairo to perform the Eid al-Fitr prayers, celebrating the end of Ramadan. This square was a central site of political authority: it stood in front of a palace of the same name, built by the Khedive Ismail between 1863 and 1874 as a replacement for Cairo’s Citadel, to serve as an official home and workplace for Egypt’s ruler. These prayers, by contrast, were organized by groups that sought to challenge the existing political order: In an event convened by the Jamaʿa Islamiyya, and aided by the Muslim Brotherhood, Brotherhood theorist Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (b. 1926) gave an hour-long holiday sermon (khuṭba) analyzing the landmark events of the previous century of the Islamic calendar. Following Qaradawi, the Commander (amīr) of the Jamaʿa Islamiyya, Muhammad al-Rawi, questioned the recent crackdowns on the Brotherhood mouthpiece, al-Daʿwa magazine, and mocked calls for “national unity” (al-waḥda al-waṭaniyya).
The gathering in ʿAbdin Square was the latest in a series of holiday prayers-turned-political-rallies. The Jamaʿa Islamiyya had organized mass prayers for both Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha in this square and at an athletics stadium in Alexandria since 1976 and, in the absence of access to the ballot box, used the growing attendance to index their support within Egyptian society. The pious masses of ʿAbdin Square on Eid al-Fitr served as a visual reminder to both ruler and ruled of the contrast between the state-sponsored political order and the Islamist opposition.
Yet the central site of ritual competition in al-Sadat’s Egypt was neither the annual Eid prayers, nor even the weekly Friday prayer. Instead, as Egyptian men and women participated in rival projects of religious change, competition revolved around the daily early-afternoon ẓuhr prayer. Though ostensibly “merely” one of five daily prayers – which could be performed between roughly noon and three in the afternoon – the ẓuhr was the only prayer to fall directly in the middle of both the official work and school days, thus offering Islamists a novel means by which to insert their vision of religious piety into the clocks and corridors of Egyptian state institutions. In parallel, readers in both Islamist periodicals took advantage of the letters to the editor and fatwa sections to assert their right to pray at certain times together with their pious peers, and to challenge the claim of bureaucratic and educational institutions to temporal and spatial primacy over religious ritual. Leading Islamists, student activists, and sympathizers within state institutions thus spearheaded a project whose legacy has endured even as the Brotherhood has been driven underground.
This chapter begins by contextualizing the Islamist transformation of the ẓuhr prayer within a longer history of state efforts to form industrious and loyal citizens through governmental institutions and mass media alike. In doing so, it highlights the models of spatial and temporal order by which these elites sought to organize Egyptians, and demonstrates both how state planners framed religious practice within nationalist political objectives, and how theory and practice frequently diverged. It then turns to previous conceptions of prayer as a temporally defined act, examining the history of “religious” time in Egypt and previous twentieth-century interpretations of Surat al-Nisa 4:103, the key Quranic verse which commands prayer at defined times. The second half of the chapter, in turn, shows how Egyptian Islamists reconstructed the ẓuhr prayer as a means of political challenge that, far from simply asserting the centrality of a longstanding Islamic temporality, melded it with a state-sponsored concept of order. On this basis, leading figures within the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya, and Jamaʿa Islamiyya, alongside the middle-class readers of Islamic magazines, established prayer within bureaucratic schedules and claimed ritual space within state institutions to facilitate its collective performance.
The Prayer Project: Statist Claims and Islamist Counterclaims
As al-Sadat drew on the state’s religious and educational institutions to transmit a nationalist vision in which religious piety and political loyalty went hand in hand, he could not simply silence Islamist voices. Instead, his claim to faith depended on allowing the opposition to speak, and even mobilize. To meet the ruler’s ideological needs, Minbar al-Islam emphasized the centrality of prayer for the everyday lives of its readers. Each issue of the magazine contained a prayer chart setting out the times of the five daily prayers (mawāqīt al-ṣalāt) for the coming month.
This conception of prayer, however, was also oriented toward a broader affirmation of the existing political order. In this vein, Minbar al-Islam chronicled the President’s January 1976 visit to al-Sayyid al-Badawi mosque in Tanta, noting how the “citizens praised and hailed the life of their leader” (taḥlīl wa-takbīr al-muwaṭinīn li-ḥayāt al-qāʾid). Though Friday prayer had always involved an affirmation of the legitimacy of the current ruler, this iteration doubled as a political rally. Instead of reciting God’s praises – the usual context in which the honorific chants of taḥlīl and takbīr are used – Egyptians were to affirm the political status quo. By contrast, Egyptians appear to have attended mosque little outside the Friday sermon. As ʿAbd al-Hamid Kishk noted in a 25 March 1977 sermon, “What are we thinking of when we hear the call to prayer and we are sitting on the corner of the coffee shop (nawāṣī al-maqhā) or on the open roads (qawārīʿ al-turuqāt) … and we do not respond?” Prayer and mosque attendance would soon vault forward in importance.
Leading voices within the Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya were the first to explicitly challenge the subordination of religious ritual to bureaucratic schedules. In the December 1976 issue of al-Iʿtisam, the Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya leader, ʿAbd al-Latif Mushtahiri (d. 1995), praised Muhammad Saʿid Ahmad, a Member of Parliament from the Delta textile center of al-Mahalla al-Kubra. Ahmad had first prayed the ẓuhr prayer in the midst of an afternoon parliamentary session, and then the ʿaṣr and maghrib prayers in turn, as the day of deliberations dragged on into the evening. For Mushtahiri this was proof of the need for an alternative schedule:
The true principles of the religiously committed (mabādī al-multazimīn) do not change based on time and place … this is the first time in the history of parliament that the papers have noted that a Muslim man has announced the rituals of his religion at their appointed time (shaʿāʾir dīnihi fī mawāqītihā) in a place in which hundreds have neglected the obligation of prayer and followed their desires … we salute the member of parliament Doctor Muhammad al-Saʿid, a physician and the president of the Mahalla al-Kubra branch of the Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya … and we place no one above God (lā nuzakkī ʿalā allah aḥadan).
Yet, for reasons that are unclear, this public challenge of piety receded into the background of al-Iʿtisam.
Several months later al-Daʿwa editor and leading Muslim Brother Salih ʿAshmawi (d. 1983) revived the issue of prompt prayer. His March 1977 article “Where is Prayer Performed in the State of Science and Faith?” mocked the al-Sadat regime’s claim to piety by underlining the impossibility of full ritual practice within governmental institutions. For ʿAshmawi prayer was particularly incumbent upon rulers (al-ḥukkām wa wulāt al-umūr) so that they could serve as a model for the people. Accordingly, it must be performed five times daily at the presidential palace as well as in the parliament, cabinet, ministries, judiciary, educational institutions, and professional offices, whether private or state owned. The obligation to pray was also a social equalizer because it applied to every level of employee, whether white or blue collar, young or old, the most senior or most junior. It was this social reach that enabled the ẓuhr prayer to serve as an effective challenge to the state’s efforts to discipline the individual citizen.
As ʿAshmawi wielded prayer as a pointed instrument of religious challenge, he singled out Members of Parliament and the educational system alike. This Brotherhood leader asked rhetorically why the Speaker of the People’s Assembly – none other than the al-Sadat regime’s public proponent of the application of shariʿa, Sufi Abu Talib (d. 1981) – had not decreed that parliamentary meetings would be paused for ten minutes during prayer time. Just as dangerously, state-sponsored civil education (al-taʿlīm al-madanī) was useless without a broader moral education (tarbiya). ʿAshmawi thus called on “all university administrators and deans of faculties and of primary and secondary schools to stop lessons during prayer times and to go down from their offices to the prayer hall (muṣsallā) to join professors, teachers, white-collar workers (muwaẓẓifūn) and students, both male and female.”
Neither should practical obstacles stand in the way of this project. As ʿAshmawi explained: “There are those who claim that the timing and work that has to be performed [are incompatible] … [and thus] do not allow prayers to occur in this fashion [i.e. at the correct time] … but this is about action (al-ʿamal) and action alone is the strongest truth and most demonstrative evidence.” Indeed, the implementation of the ẓuhr prayer in all state-controlled institutions represented no less than “the serious path to the application of the Islamic shariʿa … leading to the establishment of an Islamic society (iqāmat al-mujtamaʿ al-islāmī). At stake was not only the application of Islamic law, but also the reorganization of society’s temporal rhythms to accord with piety rather than productivity.