I was already 17 when the 1952 Revolution took place so I am in a position to compare the role played by religion in the life of Egyptians before the revolution with the role religion plays today. The story is a rather sad one but it has to be told, and an explanation has to be found.
To be very brief: Before 1952 religion was regarded as only a part of life, even a small part. Today, it looks as if it has become our whole life. The idea of religion being only a small part of life was not just the view of one social class. I can confidently assert that it was the view of all classes.
I was raised in a middle class family, may be upper-middle class. My father was a university professor and a historian of Islamic civilization. However, I will confess, he was not a strict observer of the Islamic ordinance of praying five times a day. He was a deeply religious man where faith and morals were concerned, but not when it came to performing religious rituals.
In this respect, my father was a typical educated man of Egypt’s middle class. The upper class may have been even less strict in observing Islamic duties and rules of behavior. For example, many drank alcohol, which my father never touched and could not imagine. Nor did he tolerate seeing any of his children drink. Women of the upper class may also have been more permissive in their attire than those of the middle or lower classes. Still, the middle class never felt that it was necessary for their women to cover their hair (let alone their faces), and both the middle and lower classes were amazingly tolerant towards many acts of deviance from Islamic duties. I call this attitude “amazing in comparison with the attitude of intolerance that prevails today.
Religious rituals and formalities seemed to matter much less 50 or 60 years ago than they do today. The kind of clothes you wore was of much less importance, and growing a beard was of no importance whatsoever. It was objectionable, of course, to not perform the five daily prayers; but it was not considered important to do so immediately after the call to prayer.
It was indeed a ritual for every mosque to call people to prayer, but only once for every prayer and not through loudspeakers. Today, it has become customary to call for each prayer twice: once when it is due and again when the praying at the mosque is about to start – and almost always using a loudspeaker.
The correct place to pray used to be anywhere at all – either privately or with people. Nowadays, to pray alone at home is regarded as considerably inferior to praying collectively or in a mosque. The black mark on the forehead (commonly referred to today as “zebiba or “raisin ) that was rarely seen 50 years ago is common today. It is generally regarded as a sign of piety and, hence, is widely condoned.
When did all this change start, and what could have brought it about?
Dr. Gala Aminis chairman of the economics and political science department at the American University in Cairo. He is also author of the acclaimed “Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?