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Unified Friday sermon rings out across Egypt for first time

Many faithful say one sermon cannot work for all Egyptians, who are divided by age, gender and wealth
Muslims of different nationalities attend a lecture at al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo in April (AFP)

CAIRO – As time for the main Friday prayer approached, the streets of Cairo’s downtown came to life. Men rushed out of homes in the blistering heat and made their way to the zawyas (prayer corners) between the side streets.

The main Friday sermon began to echo through the minaret speakers, filling the city with noise.

The same sermon was heard throughout much of capital, ringing out across its suburbs and slums alike. It was also repeated in other towns and in villages, likely echoing from the shores of the Mediterranean to the southern border with Sudan. Rich, poor, young and old all listened to the same words that were spoken by many imams, but which had been written and approved by the government that decided earlier this week to impose an identical Friday sermon across Egypt.

This Friday, the first time that a unified lecture was to be enforced nationwide, Egyptians were lectured on corruption and not acquiring illegal wealth.

“Our prophet has condemned the person who gives a bribe, who receives a bribe and mediates between the two,” the sermon read.

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In Omar Makram, the mosque in the heart of Cairo's Tahrir Square, which has seen tightened security in the years since the 2011 revolution, the imam recited the official speech, reading the classical Arabic text out loud but often pausing to repeat it in colloquial Egyptian Arabic. He finished the sermon and began praying, for the police, for the judiciary and for the military.   

Unlike many of the other mosques and zawyas in central Cairo, the al-Rahma mosque had numerous women attending prayer.

Hanan, who sat quietly, moving her lips with prayer recitations, said that she was "very upset" with the sermon. "It was about wasting public money ... but it was just repeating general information about things people already know," she said.

"Yes we know there is bribery, yes we know there is theft ... but those who have, those at the top of the ladder, steal more than those who aren't. And how can you talk about this with someone who doesn't even have 10 Egyptian pounds [$1]?"

Mohanad, a graduate of al-Azhar university in Cairo, which is seen as the country’s leading religious educational institution and which has traditionally been close to the government, said the “decision is a fundamentally political one, to keep [imams] from delving into [discussions about] state policies".

He said the Ministry of Endowments, which issued Friday's oration, has been promoting the idea of a unified sermon for some time. However, since the government decided to have the sermons read directly from the issued text, he feared this would make Friday prayers boring.

"People already have a sense of boredom when listening to sermons, and this has now increased," Mohanad told MEE. "But you may find mosques that are farther away from the ministry will be more comfortable [not abiding by the decision]."

The government’s attempts to monitor and influence Friday prayers go back to the days of former president Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown by a popular uprising in 2011, but this stricter degree of enforcement is new and follows crackdowns on political opposition and public expression.

The move has seemingly divided the religious establishment.

An official at the Syndicate of Preachers who works in the ministry but preferred to remain anonymous, told MEE: “The decision to unify the sermon was a wise one … after the fall of [former president Mohammed] Morsi and the chaos that followed.”

After the military stepped removed Morsi in 2013, “radical preachers took to mosques to organise and agitate the masses," he said.

But the official also said that enforcing the same sermon “was going against the minds and creativity of its sons, the preachers who are entrusted to deliver the message of Islam to the people.

"If the current regime really fears fanatics, [then they can deal with that] by effective monitoring and by punishing the wrong-doers," he said.

Mohanad said the move may prove counterproductive and difficult to enforce, possibly pushing opponents to ditch mainstream mosques in favour of zawyas, which are seen as less affected by state censorship.  

Mohamed, a 65-year-old retired physician who used to teach at a Cairo university, said people find themselves trapped between harsher Salafist preachers and government-backed imams.

"The [Salafist preachers], when they come to the mosque, they ignore all the concerns of the people and focus on forbidding things like watching TV, sitting in cafes, talking to women and seeing their hair,” he said. “But the governmental [preachers] just copy and paste what the ministry tells them. [As a result] people have lost interest in the prayers."

Islam, a governmental preacher in a small zawya in the working-class neighborhood of Shubra, said he repeated what the ministry posted on its website because “otherwise I would be punished”. He said he knew many colleagues who did the same.

“The new phenomenon of unifying the sermon is problematic because eventually the preacher, who is supposedly working to help people with their daily needs and religious texts, will get bored. He will stop researching and entering into [religious] debate,” he said.

Mosaab, a student in the Sharia and Law Faculty in al-Azhar University, said "the unified sermon will be adopted in big mosques where officials go to pray and where the state media broadcast the prayer.

“But it will not do for thousands of preachers and clerics from al-Azhar and the Ministry of Endowments. These religious scientists refuse to be puppets in the hand of decision-makers.

"In our faculty, there was an activity to initiate scientific debates and talks where everyone in the group went to different mosques to hear the sermons and then gathered to analyze and discuss [what they heard]. This has now become irrelevant," he said.

Minister of Endowment Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, who has been spearheading the country’s counter-terrorism efforts since Morsi’s overthrow, defended unified prayers, saying the decision was made without any political goals and merely aims to counter “takfiri ideology,” which tends to classify other Muslims as non-believers and encourages violence.

Said, a worker in the Madina mosque in central Cairo, however, said dictating a single sermon for all of Egypt's mosques was a bizarre move.

"Why is the same sermon for people in a poor district of Matariyyah [in northern Cairo] repeated in a mosque in the compound city of Rehab [where many wealthy Egyptians and politicians live], for example?"

According to Said, in the 1990s surveillance on mosques was tight amid the activities of Jamaa Islamiya, an Egyptian Sunni movement that is considered a terrorist organisation by the US and EU.

However, he said preachers still managed to address the needs and questions of the people in their sermons. They preached about issues that were relevant to the local community, like telling the faithful not to throw rubbish in the alleys and to be considerate of their neighbours.

Now, he said, he fears that top-down messages will leave people less well informed and more isolated.

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