What have the Wahabis Added to Egypt?

What have the Wahabis Added to Egypt?

The caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab chose Egypt to have the honour of making the kiswa or covering
for the Kaaba in Mecca. and every year it was sewn out of Egyptian cloth of a unique kind made in
Fayoum and known as Qibati. From the time of Shagar al-Durr to that of Gamal Abdel Nasser, that
is over a period of seven centuries (1250 to 1962), the Egyptian-made kiswa set off every year in a
great procession known as the Egyptian mahmal, taking the new kiswa and the Egyptian pilgrims to
Mecca, guarded by an armed contingent from the Egyptian army led by a senior officer called the
Commander of the Pilgrimage. The mahmal would also be accompanied by a military band which
played the Mahmal march and a famous song which began “Mahmal, go and come back safely”.

Besides the mahmal Egypt opened an Egyptian lodge in the Hijaz where poor and needy Hijazis
could eat and drink, and receive medical care and medicines free at the expense of their Egyptian
brethren. My purpose in recalling this aspect of history is not to boast, because what Egypt did was
a duty which it always fulfilled towards other Arab countries. But it is the background to reading
what the great Egyptian author Yahya Haqqi wrote in his book “Sweeping the Shop”. Haqqi was
appointed as a civil servant in the Egyptian consulate in Jeddah in 1929 and had an interesting and
significant experience there. Writing of it, he said: “I have to inform you firstly that the new Wahabi
government at that time had strictly banned music. No record player or gramophone record was
allowed into the country. Even the tin whistles that children play were confiscated at customs, let
alone pipes or drums.” In the light of this fanaticism, Yahya Haqqi tells us of an extraordinary
historical incident – the Egyptian mahmal arrived in the Hijaz as usual, with the kiswa, the pilgrims,
the military escort and the music, when suddenly a group of armed Wahabis attacked the mahmal,
grabbed the musical instruments out of the hands of the musicians and smashed them to the ground.

Had not the Egyptian troops maintained their self-control, they would have opened fire and a
massacre would have taken place. But this attack did create great tension between Egypt and the
Kingdom of Nejd and Hijaz, which late became the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. For two years in
succession Egypt decided against sending the mahmal, then it resumed and continued to send it
until Saudi Arabia refused to receive it in 1962. Yahya Haqqi tells us how in this puritanical climate
young Hijazis found every devious way to smuggle gramophone records into the country and how
he himself attended a secret music party. A large number of Hijazis were there, crammed into a
small room. They put the gramophone under the sofa to listen to Abdel Wahab’s masterpiece “Jarat
al-Wadi”, and although the record had been scratched during the smuggling process this did not
detract from the great pleasure of the Hijazis. The question here is: since Yahya Haqqi was a great
expert on Islam and vigorous in its defence, why did he consider what he saw in the Hijaz as just an
amusing incident and why did he not discuss the Wahabi ban on music? The answer is that Yahya
Haqqi was the product of the Egyptian Age of Enlightenment which was started by Mohamed Ali
and outlined by the reformist imam Mohamed Abduh (1849-1905), who offered an Egyptian
reading of Islam – a reading which was tolerant and progressive and which made Islam an incentive
to Egyptians rather than a burden. Innovative Egyptians at the time rose to the heights in music,
theatre, cinema, literature and all the arts. The difference here, between the great artist Yahya Haqqi
and the Wahabis who smashed children’s whistles on the grounds that they were a sacrilegious
innovation, is exactly the difference between the Egyptian reading of Islam and Wahabi ideas. The
puritanical nature of the Wahabi ideology is a fact which I do not think needs to be stated. One need
only refer to the Wahabi fatwas against women driving, against giving flowers to people who are
sick, against clapping and against allowing women to surf the Internet without male supervision and
so on. In fact one famous fatwa by the late Sheikh Ibn Baz (1976) asserted that the planet Earth is
not round as Western scientists claim, but flat.

 The saddening thing is that, instead of propagating its own correct and open-minded reading of Islam in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and helping to develop thinking there, just the opposite has happened: the Wahabi ideology has spread in Egypt, backed by oil money, bringing about a real setback to Egyptian culture. This is not to find fault with Saudi Arabia, for which we wish only the best, and we do not reproach our Saudi brothers, who have produced generations of educated and cultured people fighting to develop their country. But it is simply what has happened, and after 30 years of Wahabi ideology spreading in Egypt we have a right to ask what it has brought us. The reality is that is has added nothing, but in fact has led to a
deterioration in Egyptian culture. After Mohamed Abduh ruled that music was permissible as long
as it does not lead to sin – a factor which helped Egyptian art flourish, Wahabi thinking spread in
Egypt with the message that music and the arts were banned. After Mohamed Abduh ruled that
Islam did not ban making statues but only the worship of idols, the decorative arts took off in Egypt
and the Faculty of Fine Arts was set up in 1908. In fact thousands of Egyptians contributed from
their own pockets to the cost of the Egypt’s Renaissance statue by the great Egyptian sculptor
Mahmoud Mukhtar. The statue was unveiled in a lavish ceremony in 1928 and it never entered the
heads of those who took part that they were committing any sin. Then the Wahabi ideology came
along to argue in favour of banning statues and last year we discovered that only a single student
had enrolled in the sculpture department in the Faculty of Fine Arts. The damage inflicted by
Wahabi ideology is not confined to obstructing art but has extended to inciting sectarian strife. After
the 1919 revolution established the principle of citizenship, such that Egyptians are equal regardless
of their religion, Wahabi thinking came along and viewed Copts as infidels or in the best of
circumstances as dhimmis ineligible for high state office such as the army command or the
presidency. In fact, in my opinion, Wahabi thinking was helped to confine religion to the formalities
of worship and to the disconnect between belief and conduct. Millions of Egyptians went to work in
Saudi Arabia and what did they find? The first thing an Egyptian discovers there is that religion is
not a personal choice as it is in Egypt but rather an obligation imposed by the authorities by force.

Then the Egyptian soon after discovers that the strict imposition of religion is not necessarily
connected with achieving equity, for the authorities who are rigorous about forcing the Egyptian to
pray and show no lenience if a little of his wife’s hair is visible in the street often turn a blind eye if
a Saudi sponsor mistreats Egyptians or insults them and appropriates their salaries without good
cause. Wahabi thinking has also taken us backwards with regard to women, in that after Egyptian
women broke free from the bonds of the hareem and won the right to education and employment,
Wahabi thinking came along to argue that women should be segregated from society behind the
niqab on the grounds that they are a source of temptation and should be an instrument for pleasure,
a factory for producing children and servants for their husbands, on the assumption that women are
too weak to control their desires (as many Wahabi fatwas claim). But the worst thing that Wahabi
thinking has done is prepare Egyptian religiously to accept injustice and despotism, because the
Wahabis believe that a Muslim ruler must be obeyed and even if he treats them unjustly it is
impermissible to disobey as long as he pronounces the Muslim declaration of faith and performs the
basic religious obligations. Even if the ruler renounces Islam openly (a hypothetical possibility),
they say that disobeying him is tied to one’s ability to replace him, and otherwise obedience remains
obligatory until God replaces him.

 In this way the Wahabi ideology completely usurps people’s political rights and makes them accept despotism and become more ready to tolerate injustice. In short, Egypt has all the makings of a great power but its potential is impeded and neutralized by two factors: the political authoritarianism that brings us down in every field of endeavour, and the prevalence of salafi Wahabi thinking which in the end works to the advantage of despotic rulers.

The future will never begin in Egypt unless we restore the open-minded Egyptian reading of Islam
and we all work to bring an end to the despotism that has humiliated, ravaged and exhausted
Egyptians. Democracy is the solution.