EGYPT'S BEST-KNOWN Islamic cleric, Sheikh Mohamed Mutwali Sharawi, got his chance of stardom at the age of 59, in the last year of President Nasser's rule, when he took part in the country's first ever Islamic television religious discussion programme. Nour ala Nour ("Light upon Light") was presented by Ahmad Farrag, a handsome but failed cinema actor who had gone on to make a career in religious programmes. Within a few years Sharawi had upstaged Farrag and become the Billy Graham of the Islamic world to an estimated 70 million Arabic-speaking viewers.
The Sheikh's evangelist mission via television screens and millions of audio cassettes was made possible by lavish subsidies from conservative oil sheikhs and wealthy Islamic fundamentalists. They played a vital role in transforming public opinion in Egyptian society from liberalism to medieval repression, as the Egyptian writer Ibrahim Issa put it in his book Turbans and Daggers (1994), which examines the dual effect of the fundamentalists' campaign of terror and equally effective "terrorising of the collective mind".
Born in 1911 in village of Daqadous in the Nile Delta, Sharawi's primary education was confined to kuttab, the Koran teaching schools for peasant children where the emphasis was on learning verses of Koran by heart and believing every word without question. The syidna, as the children referred to the cleric- teacher, used his cane liberally to lash those who did not recite the verse verbatim, or those who dared to "think" and interpret what they learnt.
In the 1920s Al-Azhar, the official church and the seat of Islamic learning and Arabic literature, condemned Ataturk's modernisation of Turkey and his revolution in education as he replaced Arabic letters with Latin ones, making books easy to print and accessible to the public. Al-Azhar, controlled by men whose intellectual training came from kuttab, forbade Egypt - which had broken ties with the Ottoman Empire in 1922 - from going the same way.
Sharawi graduated from Al-Azhar in 1941, and received his teacher's qualification in 1943. His view of the world was very much influenced by his village outlook. In fact Sharawi did not break from the early kuttab taboo of daring to interpret the Koran until his mid-sixties. Last year he boasted that he hadn't read a single book since 1943 except for the Koran.
In the 1940s Sharawi raised King Farouk to a near divine status in a poem linking him to the founder of Islam, Prophet Mohamed. He also wrote a religious poem glorifying the late dictator President Nasser.
As minister of religious endowments in 1978, Sharawi defended President Sadat in parliament, quoting a verse from the Koran - which Muslims believe to be the word of Allah revealed to Mohamed: "you are accountable to him but he is accountable to no one". The original seventh-century verse referred to Allah.
From the 1970s Sharawi used his populist status to mount media attacks on intellectual giants like the late Youssef Idriss, Egypt's great modern philosophers the late Tawfiq el-Hakim and Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, and the novelist Naguib Mahfouz. Their sin was to question some of the sheikh's reactionary fatwas and opinions. They warned that placing him above the possibility of making errors would be damaging to the nation's intellectual health.
But state-controlled media came to the defence of the sheikh. The government of President Hosni Mubarak wanted to appear more Islamic than the Islamic terrorists, so gave Sharawi primetime for his "interpretation of the Koran" open lessons, while cutting time given to the secular debating programmes that had flourished from the 1950s to the late 1970s.
On his death, sources in Saudi Arabia, where Sharawi was seconded from Al-Azhar in the 1950s and again in the late 1970s to teach in the King Abdel Azziz University, poured praise on the sheikh and lamented "the great loss of the Islamic nations".
Moustafa Mashhour, the leader of Egypt's largest fundamentalist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which introduced terrorism into the political scene in the late 1940s, stated, "Sharawi's fingerprints on Islamic teaching were matchless". Sharawi was a founder member of the group with Sheikh Hassan el Banna in 1937, but later criticised their "impatience: they started violence before they were ready to take over", he told me in a 1987 interview.
Human rights activists and feminists remember him in a rather different light. Sharawi issued fatwas supporting the mutilation of female genitalia (female circumcision) and ruled that women should not be appointed to top government positions or become judges as women "have incomplete minds and faith".
Doctors were perplexed by his fatwa banning organ transplants and donating organs after death as blasphemy: "you have no right to donate your organs because you are only a keeper of that body which belongs to Allah".
In the early 1990s Sharawi apparently influenced several of Egypt's top belly dancers and female film stars who announced that they had seen the light and were going to take up the veil, all thanks to the sheikh's teachings. Press reports claimed however, that they had been given large sums of money from rich oil sheikhs - and that some tore the veil away after discovering that the money was less than the agreed sum. Sharawi and his followers attacked the reports, but neither he nor they demanded correction from the editors.
Some of Sharawi's fatwas were either contradictory or applied double standards. He ruled against paying interest on bank deposits, yet he was the religious adviser to one of Egypt's top Islamic banking finance institutions which used pyramid savings schemes that started off paying inflated returns and collapsed in 1988 robbing thousands of poor Egyptians of an estimated pounds 3 billion of their savings.
When I interviewed Sheikh Sharawi in 1987 in London, he was staying at the Hampstead house of the chairman of Al-Huda Islamic bank. He savaged the Iranians' call to "internationalise" the holy Islamic sites in Mecca after Saudi police had clashed with Iranian pilgrims and killed over 200 of them - Saudi Arabia was footing the bill for his London trip for medical treatment. But he refused to condemn Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.
His preaching played a pivotal role in moving Egyptian society from its position 20 years ago as an open liberal, secular, pluralistic, debating culture - a lighthouse for the whole of the Middle East - into a conservative, Islamic, closed and often xenophobic society, displaying hatred to the country's Coptic (Christian Orthodox) minority of 10 million who predate Islam in Egypt by seven centuries. He called them ahl-dzthyma or second- class citizens who should either convert to Islam or pay jizyah, a poll tax.
Terror attacks by Islamic extremists against Copts in upper Egypt have increased in the past few years. Although Sharawi several times parroted the Egyptian government's official line condemning the Islamists' violence, he emphasised that Egypt should be a Muslim nation - the declared goal of the terrorist groups.
While other Islamic intellectuals left a wealth of books and essays which scholars can study for generations to come, Sharawi's legacy is the cassettes and video tapes of his preaching.
He even attacked electricity as being against human nature because it turned night into day and made people "active at night". But after consultation with the government he then issued a fatwa stating that men who had to work at night could sleep during the day "as long as they get up to pray".
There has, however, been a minority of Egyptian intellectuals horrified that the national display of mourning surrounding Sharawi's death has proven what they feared years ago: the official and popular endorsement of preaching the message of bigotry and non-tolerance.
Like his life, the death of Sharawi is yet another proof that little has changed in the structure of power which ensured the supremacy of the Egyptian State for almost 6,000 years. The official religion might have changed twice before Christ, and three times after his death, but the triangle of power remains more or less the same.
The state deploys its two powerful wings to guarantee an overall tight rule over the population and possibly over the region: the priestly class has always remained faithfully subordinated to the Pharaoh, as the head of state, and the army.
The difference now is that the priestly class is no longer dependent on the state for its massive wealth.
Mohamed Mutwali Sharawi, Islamic preacher: born Daqadous, Egypt 15 April 1911; married (three sons, two daughters); died Giza, Egypt 17 June 1998.
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