The Prophet's Pulpit: Islamic Preaching in Contemporary Egypt

The Prophet's Pulpit: Islamic Preaching in Contemporary Egypt

by Patrick D. Gaffney

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The Prophet's Pulpit is a study of religious authority in the contemporary Islamic world. Based on in-depth field research in Egypt, Gaffney focuses on the preacher and his Friday sermon as the single most important medium for propounding the message of Islam.

Muslim preaching has been central in forming public opinion, building grass-roots organizations, and

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The Prophet's Pulpit is a study of religious authority in the contemporary Islamic world. Based on in-depth field research in Egypt, Gaffney focuses on the preacher and his Friday sermon as the single most important medium for propounding the message of Islam.

Muslim preaching has been central in forming public opinion, building grass-roots organizations, and developing leadership cadres for the wider Islamist agenda. Gaffney draws on social history, political commentary, and theological sources to reveal the subtle connections between religious rhetoric and political dissent.

Gaffney distinguishes three types of preachers: the traditional scholar and ethical teacher, the sufi priest-magician, and the militant holy warrior. Analyzing sermons from all three, Gaffney demonstrates the authority that the preacher embodies in the larger society. Many of the sermons discussed were given during the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and through them Gaffney traces the development of this militant movement and compares it with official Islam. Finally, Gaffney presents and analyzes three actual sermons in their entirety, transcribed from recordings made in the mosques. The Prophet's Pulpit is an invaluable resource for understanding the full range of contemporary Islamic expression.

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University of California Press
Publication date:
Comparative Studies on Muslim Societies Series
Product dimensions:
6.06(w) x 9.04(h) x 1.07(d)

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The Prophet's Pulpit

Islamic Preaching in Contemporary Egypt
By Patrick D. Gaffney

University of California Press

Copyright © 1994 Patrick D. Gaffney
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520084728


In recent years anthropologists have begun lifting their voices to dispel the impression of a conspiracy of silence as to how they obtain the data they transform into scholarship. Perhaps in reaction against the old-fashioned Indiana Jones image so suspiciously predisposed to adventure, treasure, intrigue, romance, and not incidentally the Middle East, once the field researcher returned to the somber groves of academe, the inclination was to draw a curtain over the often jumbled and unseemly raw materials of the craft. So, in reporting his or her findings an air of impersonal objectivity was adopted that feigned harmony with the muses heard by their colleagues confined to libraries and laboratories. Only at a safe distance from the lecturer's rostrum and certainly off the record of the Human Interest Area Files could one hear about the peculiar, sometimes very peculiar contextual factors that inevitably accompany the collection of such information and frequently color its interpretation.

Bronislaw Malinowski's posthumous field journal,entitled A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term , is usually recognized as the great milestone that has since inspired others to attend seriously to what William Butler Yeats called the "blood and bone shop" of their ethnographies. But instead of leaving such commentaries to the discretion of literary executors, it seems preferable to incorporate at least the barest rudiments of this backstage reality within the published work itself. Otherwise questions of credibility, perhaps even of ethics, may linger and distract unnecessarily. Indeed, the unbuttoned revelations confided to his personal diary by this founding father of functionalism were at times so greatly at variance with the impressions offered in his formal expositions as to suggest grounds forreassessing the latter in this new light. Since its appearance almost thirty years ago a minor genre has emerged, first at a trickle, now approaching a rising tide, that has sought to unveil the idiosyncratic dimensions of field research. Indeed, as it continues to advance, it has gone well beyond the initial resolve to compensate for past blind spots to inaugurate a stimulating new conception of anthropology itself. Sometimes referring to it as interpretive anthropology, its advocates emphasize the acceptance of "various sorts of hybridization" as they recognize a definition of culture inspired by contemporary theories of hermeneutics which cut at odd angles across older disciplinary boundaries.1 Such efforts are directed not only to determining the role that personalities play in the process but also, and more importantly, to exploring the theoretical and applied implications of everything that used to pass without elaboration as "participant observation."

But it was not only a realization of the great impact of individuality and serendipity upon field research that has encouraged this turn toward methodological transparency. It also derives from a fertile spillover from recent advances in philosophy, theology, psychology, and literary criticism that call into question the foundations of claims to objectivity in all the social sciences. Ernst Cassirer, a pioneer in this movement and almost an exact contemporary of Malinowski, stated the problem succinctly in terms of a logical premise: "If I put out the light of my own personal experience I cannot see and cannot judge of the experience of others."2 Some, inspired by recent developments in economic and political thought, have set out to define the subtle linkages between institutions, interests, and ideologies as subterranean influences on anthropological writing. In both cases, however, the first necessary step toward overcoming the distortions that these arguments warn against is to provide a sort of travel brochure about the journey before it begins. At a minimum it should identify the point of departure, the itinerary, the destination, and any important facts about the traveler that may be relevant to understanding the angle of vision. Some such information is contained in later chapters, but the protocol requires that a few preliminaries be given here.

My interest in the ethnography of Islamic preaching was first stimulated by Richard T. Antoun, a foremost specialist in Middle East anthropology who was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago in the spring of 1977. With the help of several other teachers, notably Victor Turner and Stanley Tambiah, I was already immersed in the study of ritual systems and social structures. With the encouragement of Fazlur Rah-man, I was then attempting to fit these insights together with issues of religious authority in the Islamic tradition and particularly the Arab world.

But my ideas about how I might trace these patterns out on the ground were still embarrassingly vague. It was Antoun who guided me patiently, wisely, in the framing of the original project. In the process he also fanned an ember of curiosity about the often mentioned but virtually never examined role of the village mosque preacher into a beacon that would eventually illuminate aspects of this potentially pivotal figure at multiple levels of involvement.

All of this occurred, of course, before the Ayatollah Khomeini exploded into the world's headlines, before Islamic fundamentalism became a byword among policymakers and journalists, and shortly before Egypt sprang over a vast diplomatic abyss in a single bound by inaugurating the process that led to the separate peace with Israel. When I began preparing the project I quickly discovered that most specialists treated my concern for local Islamic preachers as a quaint, slightly irrelevant, slightly colorful choice. When I returned from the field in the fall of 1979, however, I found almost instantly that a marvelous reversal had taken place. Now all of a sudden Islamic preachers were a topic of wide interest and great vogue, counting among the matters to be reckoned with at the highest councils of responsible concern. I, of course, while I appreciated the vindication of my early inclination, only regretted the need to disclaim any part in effecting this overdue revision of priorities.

Nevertheless, having come to this issue in advance of the great rush to understand Islam as a global force, I had already come to realize how altogether overlooked these figures were in the existing literature. It both bewildered and befuddled me at the time to encounter appalling gaps and even more the gross disparity of chronological emphasis that marked the standard literature of Middle East/Islamic studies. It was far easier to find information on preachers in eighth-century Damascus or eleventh-century Baghdad, for instance, than on their successors in the pulpits of any Arab nation in the last fifty years. I was learning by default the prevailing biases of the academic world, soon to be denounced as "orientalism," with regard to this tradition which Antoun and many other pioneers were then beginning to change. It was evident that research interests tended to cluster around the two extremes of the exotic and the powerful. But my concern was to discover the structure and the character of local practice, the familiar, the current, and the representative behavior within a given society.

Later, Frederick Denny would reflect on these same liabilities and seek an explanation for this blind spot from the perspective of religious studies. He concluded, interestingly, with a recognition of the value of techniques already forged by anthropologists:The study of Islamic ritual is not a mysterious business, although the paucity of published materials on the subject in relation to its obvious central importance may seem paradoxical . . . That a now generally acknowledged oversight has been allowed to persist is a testimony to the failures of scholarship and not to any opaqueness or intractability of the subject matter. But herein lies a problem. One needs to examine both texts and contexts, and the divergences between the two.3

One component of the issue that was especially indecipherable to me as I read widely on the question of preachers before setting off for Egypt was a profound ambiguity about the category itself. Often enough I found writers insisting that Islam had no clergy or anything like it. Versions of the celebrated axiom la rahbaniyata fi Islam ("no monks in Islam") were frequently paraded forth to clinch the point that, as Snouck Hurgronje once put it, Islam is the "lay religion par excellence." And yet this blanket refutation was plainly contradicted by the existence of all manner of figures associated with mosques who unmistakably wielded variously specified types of clerical authority. It was not hard to see that around this particular issue a great and recurring controversy raged.

Perhaps no small part of my interest in this dimension of Islam stemmed from my own personal involvement in the Catholic faith. Only shortly before I took up graduate studies in anthropology I had finished a professional course in theology and was ordained a priest. Hence I was quite aware of the ambivalence surrounding the identification of a given individual with institutional religion in the Western Christian tradition and I was intrigued to explore the shape of this parallel development among Muslims. And in the course of studying preachers, I was able to do this quite effectively.

However, as I was advised by veterans and was later to comprehend more fully once I was engaged in the project, the pursuit of this or any other aspect of field research from an explicitly ecumenical viewpoint would most probably not be fruitful. In fact, in retrospect, given the situation in Upper Egypt as I experienced it, I am now convinced it would not have been possible. For historical reasons rooted in the function that religion played and largely continues to play as the basis of social identity and civil entitlement in Middle Eastern societies, it became clear to me very early that I would be unable to carry out fieldwork in Egypt if I presented myself at the start as a cleric in my own tradition. The cross-cultural static born of infelicitous, even rash presuppositions that would almost certainly arise for many Muslims would have introduced confusion of asort that would have very probably worked to the detriment, most likely to the undermining of the whole endeavor.

Indeed, it was often difficult enough to explain to ordinary people the purpose of my unaccustomed presence in their midst. What could it mean that I had come halfway around the world to their remote neighborhood to ask so many questions and hang around mosques by virtue of being an "anthropologist"? This term has no recognizable cognate in colloquial Egyptian Arabic. I should go to the Azhar, the center of Muslim learning in Cairo, they would say, if I wanted to learn about Islam. To mark myself ostentatiously as a priest inevitably, in most cases, would have so crowded out any further considerations as to throw a conversation, perhaps a whole relationship into limbo if not to invite unwelcome apologetics. Thus with only a few carefully pondered exceptions I decided at the start to divulge such autobiographical detail only in response to a direct question. But in fact, the question never arose while I was in the field. Typically, in clarifying my purpose to those with some background in academic lore I would begin by locating my enterprise within the realm of 'ulum ijtima'iya , that is, "social sciences." After that I could specify the actual nature of my research and offer further distinctions if needed. In less learned settings I found that the most easily understood preliminary description of my purpose was usually to explain that I was interested in studying al-'adat wa al-taqalid , that is, "customs and traditions."

This study is the accumulated product of several periods of field research, the longest of which was the first, an eighteen-month residence in a provincial town in Upper Egypt. This was followed by several return trips, some long, some short. The initial fieldwork was conducted between November 1977 and August 1979. I was back in Egypt again briefly in 1982. I spent another year engaged in research during 1984-1985. Once more in the summer of 1986, I was back in Egypt as a faculty fellow at the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad at the American University in Cairo. Supported by the Centre d'Etudes de Documentation, Economiques et Juridiques et Sociales, I had an opportunity to return again in December 1989. I was back once more in the summer of 1991 in conjunction with a program of the National Council of U.S.-Arab Relations.

However, in order to appreciate properly what follows, it is important to stress that these periodic revisits included ruptures as well as continuities. As will be spelled out in detail in a later chapter, the late 1970s marked the beginning of a time of exceptional socioreligious ferment in Egypt, a fact I had not anticipated. During my stay, several cities, including Minya where I was living, underwent cycles of turmoil spurred largely by religious militancy. While I was frankly oblivious to this embryonicprocess while making my preparation to depart for Egypt, I was quite aware of the popular unrest that was resulting from Sadat's jolting moves toward liberalizing the economy and, less certainly, political life. In January 1977 riots had erupted in many places in reaction to the withdrawal of long-standing government subsidies on staple foodstuffs. Street violence spread to the point that soon the army was called out to intervene. These events had been front-page news in the international press. Sadat then rescinded the order, calling it premature and blaming it on pressure from the International Monetary Fund. But only an uneasy calm was restored. Then, eleven months later, the signal event occurred that was to overshadow all else for some years to come. Sadat's sudden announcement of his peace initiative in November 1977 seized the attention of everyone. Egyptians too watched in amazement as he flew to Jerusalem and delivered his stunning speech before the Knesset.

By coincidence, having booked my ticket long in advance, I arrived in Egypt on the evening of the very day that Sadat himself had returned from Israel. I had scarcely unpacked my bags before I was carried off by a friend to hear the president speak of his journey before an excited crowd of several hundred thousand gathered in the square beneath the balcony of the Abdin Palace. It was an unforgettable display marking the birth of a new configuration of political and religious forces in Egypt that still remain in contention.

Upon my arrival I was told by those with experience of the local situation that social research and especially ethnographic fieldwork would not be easy to perform. I should be prepared for long waits, disappointments, and diversions. I should also hold a few alternative strategies in reserve in case the wall of obstacles around my first goal showed no breach. Among other difficulties were official restrictions that prohibited foreigners from doing research of this kind anywhere except in the capital. However, these confinements belonged to an era of tighter controls over all aspects of Egyptian society and now things were changing, although it was not clear how far and how fast. I was determined to get out of Cairo to do my research if at all possible, and several knowledgeable scholars also there at the time, most notably the late Richard Mitchaell, encouraged me to push my luck.

My first major effort to find a route into the countryside took me to Alexandria. There I met with Dr. Ahmed Abou-Zeid, a former student of E. E. Evans-Pritchard at Oxford, who was now the Dean of the College of Arts at Alexandria University. He was most courteous and immediately receptive to my research project, in fact enthusiastic. More important, he offered to set the wheels of the bureaucracy in motion in an effort to winpermission for me to commence work in Egypt's second-largest population center and its major port on the Mediterranean. I was buoyed by this instant affirmative response and briefly entertained by the prospect of investigating Islamic preachers in the city haunted by the ghosts of Lawrence Durrell's famous quartet. But it was still too large and too cosmopolitan a setting to qualify for fulfillment of my lingering desire for a setting of manageable proportions, off the beaten trail.

I first visited Minya in December 1977, traveling together from Cairo with a student who had invited me to visit his home in a nearby village. In this much more modest city, so obviously embedded in its agricultural surroundings, I quickly discerned a possible site much closer to what I had in mind. Someone had given me the name of Dr. 'Abd al-Min'am Shawqi, the newly appointed Dean of the College of Arts at Minya University, which was itself only founded the year before, so I immediately set off to see him. He too welcomed me and expressed great interest in my project. He not only agreed to begin at once the procedures that would, I hoped, end in the permission I was seeking but also asked me at once to provide him with a number of documents to prepare the dossier that would be submitted to the appropriate powers. To make a long story short, over the next four months, I came to Minya more and more frequently, and stayed for longer periods. The train trips back and forth often seemed like rides on a roller coaster matching the invisible progress of my application. From Dr. Shawqi's always tentative but never despairing updates, I imagined it to be making its way on a slow journey resembling the phantasmagoric path of the pharaoh's soul traversing the ordeals of the netherworld, so graphically depicted on the walls of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Finally the day came, in April 1978, when Dr. Shawqi informed me that the waiting was over, my patience was rewarded, and I could move to Minya immediately and begin in earnest. The only provision, apart from all prudence and professionalism, was that I was to work together with one of the graduate students in the university's sociology department who was to accompany me especially on any visits outside the city of Minya itself.

I gratefully accepted this condition and began with the College of Arts as my base while I sought out information about local mosques and looked for introductions to local preachers. Initially, my designated assistant was of great help, as he brought me around to various mosques and explained what I was about in terms I could only approximate. But it soon became evident that it was quite unrealistic for him to spend the amount of time I myself was giving to the project, as it became a matter of him following me and not the opposite. Furthermore, he had a habit of absenting himself from Minya for days or weeks on end, and, as Dr. Shawqi readily acknowledged, it was not expected that I too would have to stop to wait upon his return. Eventually this student was replaced by another one who had a room in the university's student housing block who proved to be a helpful informant on obscure matters relating to Islamist movement on the campus. But by this time I had come to function more or less autonomously as I was able to establish good working relationships with numerous preachers. After meeting dozens of preachers and visiting a score of mosques, each of which has its own story, I came to concentrate my attention increasingly on four particular mosques, on the activities of the local jama'a Islamiya or Islamic Society, and on the functioning of the office that administered mosques supervised by the government under the Ministry of Religious Endowments.

From the start I had intended to attempt to tape-record sermons and as I become better acquainted with various preachers I broached the topic. Some were receptive and some were not and I always respected their wishes in this regard. But even when a given preacher consented, a formidable array of electronic, mechanical, acoustic, and human particulars still had to be properly arranged. I never imagined that the practicalities of obtaining these recordings would prove so difficult. At one point, I had five different tape recorders in various states of repair. When I was in full swing, every Friday I would leave one machine at home tuned to a radio station that would be broadcasting the sermon that day. Others I would have brought around earlier and left with helpers who had agreed to record sermons at certain mosques. Then I myself might go off elsewhere to hear yet another preacher, lest I miss something important. By these methods I heard hundreds of sermons over these months and got several dozen recordings that were clear and usable. Later I had a number of these sermons transcribed to facilitate my work with the Arabic text.

As with all such projects, there was a category of problems that had to do with being a stranger and, not surprisingly, some of these were tainted by the ideological coloring of the day. Overall I was shown enormous hospitality and countless acts of personal kindness. But as it became clear on the campus and around the town that I was not a transient visitor, that I spoke Arabic and had a very persistent interest in Islam and its local institutions, my presence also provoked a few unsettling and more tangled reactions. Not infrequently, despite initial efforts to explain myself straight-forwardly, I encountered various blends of confusion and presumption about who I was and what I was doing or should be doing. Sometimes exaggerated courtesy would precede as the cover for what would later surface as implacable hostility or wholesale manipulation. Furthermore, I am sure my failure to grasp the full implications of certain delicate situationsor ultimately my inability to resolve them while remaining committed to my own task only added to the debt I owe so many in Minya for their patience.

Two specific issues in this realm merit brief mention. First, the fact of being an American in Egypt at this time occasionally invited direct associations between myself and the official foreign policy maneuvers that were then in high profile. It reminded me of a remark made by that great early Victorian ethnographer of Cairo, Edward Lane, that the Egyptians of his day characteristically assumed that he must be an emissary of his monarch. Second, the fact that I as a Christian was engaged on quite friendly terms with Islamic preachers often presented what seemed indigenously an uncomfortable if not an unthinkable confounding of categories. Here, indeed, being an outsider gave me a distinct advantage. But it took constant circumspection to maintain this edge and stay aloof from an always latent and increasingly overt hornet's nest of sectarian tension.

The deterioration of civil order in Upper Egypt by the time I left in August 1979 could only nurture apprehension about its stability in the foreseeable future. However, when I returned to Minya in November 1982, the general situation at the university especially seemed to have calmed down greatly. Matters were also visibly under tighter reins. Moreover, the colleges had moved to their new campus about five kilometers north of the city center, a relocation that brought relative isolation and deterred the most disruptive forms of demonstration.

But when I came back to Egypt in 1984-1985, hoping once again to reside in Minya to follow up and elaborate on my earlier research, I found the mood had changed considerably. Within a few hours of my arrival I was summoned to "drink some tea" at the office of the Secret Police. There I was told politely but firmly to leave town first thing in the morning. When I asked for the reason, the officer advised me that it was for my own safety. I objected, arguing that Minya was like a hometown to me and after considerable discussion, plus what I suspect was a phone call to Cairo in a back room, I was told that I could reside in Minya only if I obtained permission from both the Ministry of Religious Endowments and the Azhar. So I returned immediately to Cairo and began pursuing some patron's blessing from within the Azhar and the Ministry, at both of which I had built up contacts. After jumping through bureaucratic hoops over the course of several weeks I finally discovered the cause of the delay. It turned out that the same Secret Police who had pointed my way out of Minya also had their officers overseeing the security clearance at these religious institutions. In a word, my unwillingness to accept a direct "no" in Minya was now being translated into an endless stall in Cairo with thesame effect. Hence, I shifted the focus of my research that year to mosques and preaching on the national and transnational level.

From this experience and others since that time, I have come to appreciate how exceptionally fortunate I was to have been able to accomplish what I did in Minya several years before. For several reasons, at the head of them the objections by the security forces, but also in view of a more general closure in the realm of religion, it would be impossible to do today what I managed to do then. In recognition of this remarkable opportunity I have not hesitated to give copious direct excerpts and in the appendix three complete sermons taken directly from the pulpits of Minya. I know of no source that offers for scrutiny similarly extended ethnographically derived examples of contemporary Islamic preaching.

It is also necessary at this point that I acknowledge how much the realization of this book owes to a number of scholars and institutions which have played various parts in its completion. For funding two years of field research I am indebted to the American Research Center in Egypt. Many associated with this exceptional body deserve my thanks but I single out Paul Walker for his initial inestimable assistance. While in the field I relied on many for help of all sorts, but Muhammad 'Abd al-Majid, Hamdi al-Halawani, Zakariya Sayyid al-'Abayd, and the above mentioned 'Abd al-Min'am Shawqi stand at the head of the list of the indispensables. Many colleagues have also contributed to this manuscript in their various ways; among the most significant were Richard Adams, Georges Anawati, O.P., Charles Butterworth, Juan Campo, Nazih Daher, Carol Delaney, Michael C. Dunn, Richard Frank, Jerrold Green, Mary Louise Gude, C.S.C., Yvonne Haddad, Barbara Harlow, Valerie Hoffman-Ladd, Ira M. Lapidus, Fred Lawson, Jane D. McAuliffe, Barbara Metcalf, Christiaan van Nispen, S.J., Ruud Peters, Ibrahim al-Sinjalani, Jaroslav and Susanne Stetkevych, Diana de Treville, and Jean-Claude Vatin. Earning still higher esteem, Richard T. Antoun and Dale F. Eikelman read the manuscript in earlier versions and offered much appreciated suggestions, although the finished product is my own. In addition, on a related front, I am deeply grateful to Lynne Withey of the University of California Press and her editorial co-workers, Laura Driussi and Nancy Evans. Their patient support no less than their impressive technical skills have in countless ways benefited both the book and the author.

Finally with regard to transliteration and related conventions, I have attempted to steer a middle course between a pedantic obsession with consistency and a defiant abandonment to arbitrary phonetic approximations of the sort that T. E. Lawrence justifies in the barbed and witty "Preface" to Seven Pillars of Wisdom . In general I have adopted the system of the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies although several categories of qualification are admitted. For instance, dialectical expressions are sometimes retained in their non-literary pronunciation. Arabic lexemes that have come into English as loan words are not converted back into the original idiom. Proper nouns that have their own conventional spellings in English are left in their recognized anglicization. In the case of personal names I recognize the right to orthographic self-presentation, as confusing as it may appear. Here I follow the lead of Richard Mitchaell who, in his peerless study The Society of the Muslim Brothers , gives the surname of two brothers within the space of three lines, one as Najib, the other as Neguib. This is a difference of three characters in the transcription of a word that has only four letters in the original Arabic. By the same token, diacritics are generally omitted in the case of names, although the 'ayn may be retained since it represents an Arabic letter that has no equivalent in the Roman alphabet. Also, with regard to the names of persons, I comply with the time-honored anthropological custom of giving pseudonyms to the actual preachers who comprise the main focus of this study. Place names, however, including names of local mosques, and the names of public figures are given accurately.


Excerpted from The Prophet's Pulpit by Patrick D. Gaffney Copyright © 1994 by Patrick D. Gaffney. Excerpted by permission.
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