Mawlana was the title of medieval religious leaders in Central Asia. It was also a reference to the Sufi poet and scholar Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi. It can literally be translated into “Our Master”, “Our Teacher”, or “Our Preacher”. Beyond these meanings, however, what particularly interests me are the paradoxes that accompany the “our” part of the film’s title. The film narrates the story of Mawlana, Sheikh Hatem Al-Shenawy, whose piety is fragmented and dispersed among the interests of politicians, businesspeople, and family members. These political, economic, and social forces directly and indirectly claim an ownership of Sheikh Hatem’s spirituality by intervening in different ways into his opinions about the “adequate” shape of piety.
Mawlana significantly stresses the problematic relational aspect of religious lives. Sheikh Hatem is a simple employee of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. His main job is to preach and to issue fatwas (religious opinions). Nevertheless, this happens amid an irregular constellation of contradictory relationships that causes him anxieties. Although the film closes with an ultimate solution to such fears, I am not sure whether the uncertainties of faith could be solved in any manner.
The difficulties of Sheikh Hatem’s life are obvious from the very opening scene of the film. It is a bird’s eye view of the poor district in which he lives and for whose mosque he works. While observing the unpainted-unfinished buildings of the overcrowded noisy Cairene neighbourhood of Old Cairo, we can reasonably think of the concerns that tackle a young man who also wants to secure a good life besides his personal relation with God.
Wearing his uniform and introducing his handsome face and character, poor Sheikh Hatem is hiring the unlicensed tuk tuk transport before the Friday prayer. Before leaving this tri-cycled tiny vehicle, he asks the driver to pray because the relation with God gives support. The driver replies with a promise that he will do so after finishing some work first. “You need the prayer; your Creator will lose nothing if you miss it,” Sheikh Hatem critically responds.
Afterwards, we are invited on a journey with Sheikh Hatem’s fatwas. Fortunately (or unfortunately), Sheikh Hatem gets closer to the Egyptian political and economic authorities. His fatwas turn to be disciplined objects in the hands of the businessperson who finances his prestigious televised programme. Other fatwas appear to be clients of the desires of members from the ruling family. Consequently, the now married Sheikh Hatem has a Jeep to drive, a luxurious villa in a gated compound to enjoy with his family, and a popular base to be proud of.
Sheikh Hatem, however, is not comfortable with this sea of fatwas that flows over his messy and deformed society. His facial expressions, murmurings, and moments of silence tell us that he is not fully satisfied with what he achieved. Sometimes he mentions his doubts to his close friend and mentor Sheikh Husseiny. Other times, he criticises himself and his wife because, unlike the past, they become materialistic. For a while, he defends himself and argues that he is obliged to keep his state-censored programme because his son needs a big amount of money to get cured from his coma.
Despite these confessions and justifications, Sheikh Hatem is never cured. He is convinced that this is not the faith he wants to pursue. We get the feeling that there is always a missing part from his equation and definition of piety. Typically like an exhausting puzzle, Sheikh Hatem is immersed in a route that is full of opposites between his “perfect” religious view on one hand and the difficulties of his everyday life on the other hand. His needs, but also external pressures and obligations, put him in a precarious situation where every choice opens a new chapter of pains and anxieties.
Mawlana tries to preserve a balance between the state and his relationship with Sheikh Husseiny, against whom the state mobilised religious fundamentalists due to his Sufi ideas. As a result, Sheikh Hatem is abused by security agencies via sexual photos because of which his wife left him. He is also imprisoned in a room where he is watched and heard by high-ranking police officers but not vice versa. He begs to go to the toilet without an answer. After a while, he takes off his pants and pees in full view of the security officers.
The psychological torture continues, as Sheikh Hatem is also demanded to criticise Shi’a Muslims in his programme. In response, he beats the co-presenter of the programme, who is a state agent himself. After an open rejection to the orders, he appears alone on-air and cries for Sheikh Husseiny whose house was set on fire and was brutally beaten along with his family members.
The final scenes of the film show other rebellious attempts by Sheikh Hatem. The attempts turn to romanticised moments that reflect a successful breaking of his passivity. Such success, however, should be questioned when it comes to the “real” lived experiences of the people.
In other words, the whole film takes place during the ruling period of former president Hosni Mubarak’s regime that strongly institutionalised and politicised Islamic and also Christian institutions. Paving the road to Mubarak’s son to inherit his father with the turn of the 21st century, Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church were subjugated puppets of state orders and policies. Therefore, since piety is always relational and is determined by diverse societal and divine forces, it is an ironic myth to claim that any individual endeavour would end this complicated phenomenon or would result in smooth spirituality.
The case of Sheikh Hatem is the anecdote of pious people who, until this moment, are lost between state repression, social corruption, and economic fluctuations. They are the people who want to make a living and to build a family while obeying and worshiping God. In doing so, they want to become ideal Muslims and Christians. Yet, they are also “sinful” because of worldly sufferings and worries that push them to simultaneously become “good” citizens for their government and community.
Similar to piety, consequently, sinfulness and goodness should not be analysed as abstract terms. Instead, they should be depicted as interactional ambiguous processes. As anthropologists Samuli Schielke and Liza Debevec wrote in their edited volume about ordinary people’s everyday religious lives: “People develop intimate and emotional relationships with God, saints, etc., much the way they do with family and friends—[and I would add authorities]—with the same complex and strong emotions like hope, love, and consolation, but also pain, fear, and betrayal.”
Mina Ibrahim researches the everyday religious lives of Egyptians. He is now a doctoral student at Justus- Liebig University in Giessen, Germany.