Book Review: Firebrand preachers from the 1970s

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 1 Apr 2021

Dou’at Asr El-Sadat (The Preachers of Sadat’s Rule), by Wael Lotfy, Cairo: Dar El-Ain

The preachers of Sadat’s rule
The preachers of Sadat’s rule

What could one learn from reading a “thread” of concise biographies of some of the most remembered sheikhs of Sadat’s rule?

With the debate over the short and long of the story of political Islam in Egypt being visited and revisited over and over again, this year El-Ain Publishing House contributed a new book that is meant to shed light on some of the leading preachers of the 1970s who “helped reshape the consciousness” of the majority of Muslims in Egypt into an Islamist format with a strong Wahhabi terms of reference.

Wael Lotfy’s Dou’at Asr El-Sadat (The Preachers of Sadat’s Rule) is a relatively short book of less than 200 pages that takes the reader to meet Anwar El-Sadat’s most influential Muslim preachers. It is very easy to read – not just because of its length and unassuming writing style but also because of its content. The book is essentially offering concise histories of the most noted Muslim preachers who took over the TV waves and the loudspeakers of mosques in Cairo to promote a basically Wahhabi version of Islam that was not particularly familiar to the mainstream Muslim consciousness of Egypt.

The author, legitimately, dedicates the biggest part of his book to study the case of Mohamed Shaarawi, the most admired – almost mesmerising – preacher of the 1970s who was brought over from Saudi Arabia by late Sadat as part of a wider scheme of the head of the executive to over-accentuate the taste for Islamism that was already on the rise since the shocking defeat of 1967.

Clearly, Shaarawi’s impact in spreading the ultra-conservative reading of Islam cannot be underestimated. And his long-term impact that has truly surpassed his life is also certainly worth recognition. However, according to Lotfy’s thesis, it was particularly the growing space of TV coverage in Egypt during the 1970s that helped this gripping preacher reach out to a nationwide audience to indoctrinate his Wahhabi ideas – and consequently helped Sadat achieve his objective of Islamising the public space.

Lotfy is equally crediting the growing market of cassette tapes and cassette players for the large access that fiery Sheikh Abdel-Hamid Keshk had to promote his ideas that were perhaps a lot less subtle and a lot more aggressive than those of Shaarawi in promoting an Islam that had unkind and restrictive views on women and religious minorities.

There are two things that Lotfy is arguing in his book. The first is that all the firebrand preachers of the 1970s – the ultimate moment of Islamisation in Egypt – shared a Saudi connection. The second is that they all had a link of sorts with the Muslim Brotherhood.

However, according to Lotfy’s book, neither the Saudi influence and generous financial support, nor the organisaitonal skills of the Muslim Brotherhood could have done the job without the skills and impact of this group of preachers who somehow managed to address a wide range of socio-economic and intellectual segments of Muslims in Egypt.

To state the obvious, Sadat’s “unconditional” support was also key. Lotfy is somehow arguing that Sadat had a conservative taste that made him inevitably a lot more inclined to the promotion of Islamism – something that went beyond his political motives. The roots, or for that matter signs, of Sadat’s affinity to Islamisation are not exactly explained in the book. Sadat’s political motives for promoting Islamisation are a lot better explained.

This said, Lotfy is arguing that the state’s wish to allow for the rise of Islamist groups and views had already started in the last few years of the rule of Nasser who had decided to slowly reverse his atrocious persecution of Islamist groups in the pursuit of their support while preparing for the war to regain the land lost to Israel in June 1967. In his pursuit of national cohesion, Lotfy argued, Nasser started to release over 1,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood that he had put in prison since the mid-1950s.

Indeed, while acknowledging the close association between Sadat and the Saudi rulers as a key factor in the decision of the president of Egypt to accommodate Wahhabi ideas, the author is also arguing that the moment of rapprochement that Nasser himself had with the Saudis after his military defeat opened the door for the later strong wave of Islamisation.

The book is clearly not claiming to be a thorough historic or analytical read of the role of those famous preachers. Nor does it claim to offer an in-depth context of their relation with Al-Azhar, Egypt’s most influential Islamic establishment. The book is not in fact claiming to dissect the layered connection that these preachers had – at times love and hate relationship – with either Egypt’s oldest political Islam group, the Muslim Brotherhood, or with the younger Islamist entities like El-Gamaa El-Islamiya – not much beyond registering the incidental association of a particular preacher with a particular group.

What the book does is what it seems set to offer: concise biographies of seven prominent preachers: Shaarawi, Keshk, Mahmoud, Mohamed El-Ghazali, Ibrahim Ezzat, Sayed Sabek and El-Mahallawi. As such it becomes purposeful.  

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