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The Mosque in the Marketplace of Ideas

April 15, 2011

Salafis would do better to exhort from the mosque than to engage in violent political action, claims Islamic Group leader Najeh Ibrahim.

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In an April 13 interview with the Palestinian-owned Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group) leader Najeh Ibrahim urged Salafis to stop trying to take political action–attacking shrines, killing accused sorcerers (or their neighbors, by accident), and mutilating Christian neighbors–and stay in the mosques.

Ibrahim is quoted by the newspaper as saying:

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I advise them to differentiate between what is religious and what is political. What is religious is based on the eternal principles, purposes, doctrine and morals of Islam, while what is political is based on constant changes… The calling is practiced in the mosques by qualified scholars, while politics are practiced within parties and political forums by experienced politicians. I thus advise the Salafis in particular not to exit the mosques, but to continue teaching the people about religion, because their involvement in political action without any qualifications will lead them to predicaments and media traps which may thwart their calling and destroy their scholars…

From a political perspective, this might come across as hypocritical and self-serving. Ibrahim, after all, was imprisoned for decades for suspected involvement in the assassination of Anwar Sadat, and he is an associate of cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman, convicted of participating in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings conspiracy.

Ibrahim swore to abandon violence as a tool when he was released from Egyptian prison in 2006, and his statement is consistent with that promise. But it is also culturally consistent with the broader Muslim piety movement in Egypt.

The Muslim piety movement seeks to re-introduce Islam into the public sphere throughout Egypt by reciting, listening to and discussing the Quran, by sermonizing, and by mutual moral exhortation and admonishment in public discourses both mediated and interpersonal.So far those describing and analyzing the movement, such as Saba Mahmood (2005), Charles Hirshkind (2006), and myself in Chapter Four of Connected in Cairo among others, have focused on the functions of such pietistic practices in identity construction and transformation.

A recent article in the journal Anthropological Theory by Paul Anderson suggests that Ibrahim’s exhortation is consistent with a fundamental aim of the Muslim piety movement: the achievement of a non-secular sociality.He writes:

For participants in the movement, virtue is constituted primarily through social exchange and interaction (mu‘aamalaat) rather than simply through worship (‘ibaadaat) or ritual practices that discipline the self.

Anderson argues that the sociality aspect of the piety movement is best understood through a metaphor borrowed from economic anthropology: the ‘gift economy’. Contemporary Egyptian piety movements operate very much like the gift economies anthropologists have described elsewhere in the world, except that it is words that circulate rather than material goods.

The advantages of the ‘words as gifts’ metaphor are threefold. First, it emphasizes the way in which virtue, for Egyptian pietists, is constituted through transaction and exchange rather than through individual worship. Second, it directs attention to the ideology of language in Egyptian piety movements, whereby ethical communities form around and through the efficacy of the Quran and language that recalls the example of Prophet Muhammad. Third, it reflects the way in which urban piety movements in Egypt constitute themselves in conscious opposition to a notion of secularism (‘almana) which is associated with a commodity economy of goods, words and images experienced as morally and socially corrosive.

This strikes me as offering a very useful context for understanding Ibrahim’s interview. According to Ibrahim, when Salafis attack Christians and destroy shrines, they allow the media to control the circulation of words in ways that denigrate and undermine the movement. But when Salafis circulate words from the mosque, they are in a position of strength in their effort to transform Egyptian society.

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