“Let’s leave religion aside; trade has nothing to do with religion,” said one Egyptian salesman when I asked him whether our transaction abided by Islamic principles.
I had seen a large prayer mark, a zebibah, on his forehead and thought that our deal could be better endorsed by religion, but apparently I was mistaken. If we dig deeper than religious rituals, we will realise that the vast majority of Egyptian Muslims lacks a basic understanding of religion.
The growing number of Egyptian Muslims who pray regularly at work, the substantial number of religious TV programmes, and the abundance of Quranic verses shared on social media may lead us to conclude that Egyptian society is genuinely religious. However, we often practice our religion at the expense of our work. We may fast while proudly underperforming or pray in groups at workplaces but rarely pray in mosques during leisure time, as if the purpose of religious rituals was to give us a break from working.
Egyptians deal with religion like people carrying a barrel full of sins that they need to balance with another filled with righteousness. They are increasingly engaged in wrongdoings, which they attempt to atone for by more praying, fasting, and reading of the Holy Quran —a behavioural pattern which may religiously benefit individuals, but which intensifies society’s immorality. Meanwhile, this extreme devotion to religious rituals has not necessarily prompted people to consider curbing their sinful deeds.
Human development is best realised in circles in which an essential core of knowledgeable citizens works to influence an outer and less-informed circle and so on until the entire community is enlightened. However, in Egypt, many have become eager to acquire the social status accorded by preaching, which stems from an ability to reach a large network of citizens, but they may lack credentials or qualifications. This behaviour is widely practiced by preachers who are ignorant of religion and do not even practice what they preach.
Meanwhile, Egyptian society has taken as a symbol of religion the single act of women wearing the hijab, or headscarf, a form of behaviour that male Muslims may force on their spouses to immunise them against male misbehaviour. Aside from the debate on whether the wearing of the hijab is a religious obligation or a matter of personal choice, it has managed to satisfy our narrow-minded understanding of religion that limits righteousness to covering women’s hair, a practice that the majority abides by at the cost of adhering to more fundamental religious behaviour.
Moreover, Islam requires us to wash before prayer and to line up when praying, which we do perfectly, but then we leave washrooms messy and block the streets with vehicles to make up for our late arrival at mosques, as though our religion inspires us to live a messy life and to be disciplined only during prayers. Furthermore, our society tends not to recognise that working hard is a part of being religious. Sadly, many of us are happy to be paid without having offered much input.
Depriving female Muslims of their fair inheritance according to Islamic law is another cultural behaviour commonly practiced in rural Egypt that manipulates our religion. Many Egyptian families decline to share the inheritance of their agriculture land with their female members, arguing that their property should not pass into the possession of an “outsider” (meaning a brother-in-law). Neither brothers nor husbands often want to empower their womenfolk by allowing them to keep their land.
The ultimate dilemma of our false spirituality is demonstrated by the spread of the “Political Islamists” — a group of people that wants to manipulate religion to serve their political ends while falsely claiming to be founding an “Islamic state”. “Moderate” Political Islamists tend to use religious phrases to cruelly mobilise their fellow citizens in order to achieve political goals, while extremists lead terrorist groups whose aim is to kill innocent citizens. Of course, both claim to be advocating for Islam.
Is the religion of Islam meant to bring about a peaceful and merciful society or to empower us individually to access heaven? The current intense practice of religious rituals and the sharing of religious texts that we do not necessarily personally abide by have neither helped us individually to evolve intellectually or religiously nor transformed our society into a religious one. Extensive religious knowledge is of no value if we tend to apply very little of it.
People will progress when they are able sincerely to substantiate their lives by being able to notice their faults and to work to fix them. Sadly, we have become a shallow society that practices rituals removed from our religion’s context and purpose. This kind of spirituality does not aim to offer us a “good society”. Instead, it offers a selfish life-path meant to serve each individual separately at the expense of living in a peaceful and merciful society.
The shaping and perfecting of the role of religion in our lives is one of the missions of the state, not of any given religious institution. Spirituality is a fundamental part of Egyptian life, and it is a positive social attribute. But we need to understand our religion better and to practice it correctly. By living two separate lives, a righteous one and a sinful one, we end up expanding our sinful behaviour while continuing to claim that we are a spiritual society.
Abiding by knowledge, the rule of law, ethical business principles, and the ground rules of productivity will certainly advance our religious understanding.
The writer is a liberal politician.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Advancing Egyptian spirituality