Practicing Islam in Egypt

Print Media and Islamic Revival

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Aaron Rock-Singer
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , January
     2019.
     216 pages.
     $99.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781108492058.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In the decades following the War of 1967, Egypt witnessed an upswing in expressions of Islamic piety. Although long approached through the prism of Islamist movements as public opposition to state power, Aaron Rock-Singer, in his new book Practicing Islam in Egypt: Print Media and Islamic Revival, provides an important addition to the narrative by integrating the role of the state. In his view, the Egyptian Islamic revival “emerged out of intellectual cross-pollination between Statist and Islamist visions and a competition to reform society by reshaping state institutions” (6). This intersection between alternative visions of the role of Islam in Egyptian society would shape the contours of the country’s Islamic revival, developing a post-colonial Egyptian identity that negotiated between the fundamentals of religious tradition and the demands of the modern nation-state. 

In the first chapter, Rock-Singer charts the background of the Islamic revival by focusing on the post-colonial narrative of religious reform used in the writings of both state and non-state actors alike, with terms such as “revival” (baʿth, saḥwa), “awakening” (yaqaa), and “the Islamic wave” (al-mudd al-islā). Beginning with the nationalist focus of the (Gamal Abdel) Nasser period [1956-1970], Islam took a backseat to calls for the independence of the nation, with only a limited number of writers speaking of a broader religious movement. During the reign of Anwar al-Sadat [1970-1981]—the “Believing President”—and particularly following the War of 1973, the rhetoric of Islamic revival came to play a larger role. Muslim writers saw themselves as part of a global project of Islamic revival, eventually emboldened by the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and movements in South Asia. At home, the Sadat regime gave Islamist organizations more independence to work freely in the public sphere.

It is here, and in chapter 2, where Rock-Singer presents the core data of his research: articles and letters (with responses from the editorial staff) written to leading Islamic periodicals including The Call (al-Daʿwa)Adherence (al-Iʿtiṣām), Monolatry (al-Tawḥīd), and The Pulpit of Islam (Minbar al-Islām). These publications represent two important facets of his argument. First, these periodicals are representative of the popular viewpoints of each of their representative factions: the Muslim Brotherhood, the Jamāʿa Islāmiyya, the Salafis, and the state Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs. Second, and more importantly, these periodicals “enabled middle-class Egyptians to supplement local projects and institutions and to form themselves as pious Muslims in concert with elite-led projects emanating from Cairo” (53). For Rock-Singer, it was these individuals—literate, educated, and non-Cairo based Muslims—that would become both the subjects and shapers of the Egyptian Islamic revival. 

In the following chapters, Rock-Singer elucidates the complexities of Islamic revival through three case studies. Chapter 3 focuses on the project of education reform—the “motor of comprehensive social transformation” (105)—and here, the emphasis is placed on the centrality of the state. As a top-down effort to integrate religious education into state institutions the chapter emphasizes that, although Islamist movements helped to shape the debate on religious education, it was always on the model of the state’s civil education system, reproducing “the Ministry of Education’s guiding assumption that education could transform society” (94). 

Chapter 4 then turns to the performance of public prayer, particularly the noon prayer (uhr), which became an issue that both crossed class boundaries and highlighted the public centrality of the revival project. It is here where Rock-Singer’s analysis and research shines and shows how the public performance of prayer—rather than acting as a site of contestation or opposition to state power—actually cemented state visions of control and order. By developing specific times for group prayer according to bureaucratic schedules, the State and Islamists together “claimed ritual space within state institutions,” and cultivated “pious subjectivities in Egypt’s Islamic Revival” (108).

Continuing on the same path of intersection, chapters 5 and 6 deal with the perception of women. By the 1970s, women had become more visible in public spaces regulated and dominated by men—by receiving advanced degrees from universities, participating in greater numbers in the workforce, and even regularly taking public transportation around the country. Rock-Singer argues that, in response to this development, state and non-state revivalists tapped into the traditional Islamic rules of comportment (adab). These rules, and their modern adaptations, created an environment where the sexes could interact with a degree of Islamic legitimacy (such as gender-separated cars on the Cairo metro). Women were, therefore, made the barometers of piety through their decision to participate in these new regulations, or through outward expressions of Islam by wearing head or face coverings (ijābor niqāb). 

In the conclusion, Rock-Singer provides us with a telling visual: both the Muslim Brotherhood President Muhammad Morsi, and the military general who removed him, Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, pray regularly in public, and use the language of Islamic revival in their discourse. The question is no longer whetherthe President and state are Islamic, presenting the Islamic nature of Egypt as a fait accompli

It is through the integration of the state, and his use of bottom-up as well as top-down notions of reform and discourse, that makes the work of Rock-Singer a critically needed and welcome addition to the narrative of Islam in Egypt during the second half of the 20th century. It is an interesting read for both those interested in the question of Islam in modern societies, as well as researchers interested in problematizing the issue of secularism.

One element that is lacking in Rock-Singer’s discussion is Egypt’s Christian community, which is only mentioned in passing in a few sections of the work. Their reaction to, and participation in, this process of reform would give a much clearer picture of the complexities of the transforming identities in Egypt’s Islamic revival. For example, how did the discourse of Islamic reform coincide with the language of the nation, which included non-Muslims? Were Christians seen by writers to the periodicals surveyed as obstacles, partners, or merely passive subjects in this project? When new policies were enacted, such as organized prayer in government institutions, did Christians support these moves, make demands of their own, or stay silent?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brian C. Wright received his doctorate from the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University.

Date of Review: 
July 31, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Aaron Rock-Singer is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University.

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