As soon as journalist Asma Sherif Mounir described the much-revered Sheikh Al-Sharawi as “extremist”, I knew she unleashed huge debate accusing her of blasphemy and even declaring her an apostate. I also predicted that she would apologize and that also happened.
The storm started when Asma asked for recommendations of Sheikhs whose teachings she could benefit from and one of her followers on Facebook suggested Sheikh Al Sharawi and she responded to him that she had followed him when she was young but after a while it became apparent to her that he held “extremist” opinions, and so the huge storm broke out and ended with the broadcaster’s apology.
My prediction was not some sort of prognostication but rather a repetition of what happens whenever anyone approaches Al Sharawi. A year ago, I talked with a friend about the Sheikh and I told him in an attempt to soften my words that “I disagree with some of his opinions”. My friend attacked me and accused me of not understanding anything and that I was not qualified to pass judgement on the “reviver of religion” and he ended his attack with “that’s atheist talk”. I cursed myself then because I had not said that Al Sharawi held extremist opinions that he deserved to be punished for and from that time on I decided not to make an effort to soften my words since the accusations are always at the ready on the other side.
Before explaining the attacks and accusations of apostasy flung at anyone who mentions Al Sharawi, we must ask how the man became a "legend" and turned into a "Saint"? The Sheikh was born in 1911 and rose in the ranks until he became the Minister of Awqaf (religious endowments) in 1976 and his great accomplishment in explaining the meanings of Al Quran was not any different from anyone else’s but what set him apart was how he simplified things and explained them in vernacular Arabic which made him extremely popular. The question is, did he ever cross the red line with government?
In fact, Sharawi didn’t come close to the red lines his entire life and in many cases supported the authorities. The same man who criticized Sadat for the Camp David agreement later stood in Parliament in 1978 and said: "Sadat should not be questioned” which is something that should only be said about God almighty.
In Egypt, it has become difficult to object to the bogus Islamic Banking that Sharawi prided himself for pioneering, or even question his agenda when he urged citizens to deposit their money in companies he just happened to preside over!
Sheikh Al Sharawy, the legend of #Egypt, ordered the killing of anyone leaving Islam and also for those skipping prayers. He issued a Fatwa against those too lazy to pray and ordered women not leave the house except for necessary matters.
During the Mubarak era there was only the famous incident in which Sharawi told Mubarak “if you are our fate then may God make you successful, and if we are your fate then may God help you to endure us” this sentence is often brought up by Sharawi admirers as being an example of championing truth before a ruler despite the fact that it isn’t at all out of the ordinary.
Not approaching the red lines and supporting the regime was enough for the regime to return the favour to Sharawi. The regime hosted Sharawi’s show on its channels when none other existed and in prime time slots. Like for example his Quran explanation program that was broadcast just before iftar during Ramadan, so he entered all homes and became a household name and from there the sanctification of the man began which lasted until his death in 1998.
in 2003 the TV series “Imam of preachers” transformed Al Sharawi into an infallible prophet. The show also saw the return of actor Hassan Youssef to the screen which doubled viewing rates and the moniker “Imam of preachers” was endowed on Al Sharawi and thus the legend began.
Since then the phrase “Sharawi said” has become the final say in any controversial debate. So when the authorities wanted to emphasize Egyptian identity on television after the 30 June coup, they began screening a famous clip of Sharawi speaking about Egypt, with full knowledge that no-one would contest it.
Once a legend is born, it’s difficult to get rid of it and when sanctification occurs, criticism becomes difficult. And this is what happened, we could no longer object to Sharawi’s joy when the Naksa occurred in 1967 (Israel’s victory in the Six-day war) because had Egypt been victorious it would have been a victory for communism. The Sheikh believed that the death of thousands and the loss of land is less disastrous than the embrace of a political doctrine.
It has also become difficult to object to the bogus Islamic banking that Sharawi prided himself for pioneering or even question his agenda when he urged citizens to deposit their money in companies he just happened to preside over!
Sharawy, the legend of Egypt, ordered the killing of anyone leaving Islam and also for those skipping prayers. He issued a Fatwa saying that those who do not pray due to laziness should be chided for three days then killed. Should we not hold this man accountable and place him side by side historically with takfiri sheikhs? The words that issued from him could slay millions in a matter of minutes.
You should also agree to his directions for women not go out unless for necessities, so it’s not permissible for them to go out for a walk for example and this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ideas of Sheikh Al Sharawi.
Even though it’s easy to access these opinions but because of the sanctification of the man, no-one dares say that these are extremist opinions. Many people fear Sharawi’s followers and extremism has taken roots in our country, so for that reason touching upon this is like playing with fire. There are those who dare expose the falsity of the legend and return him to human status. This happened during the early ’90s with the publication of journalist Ibrahim Eissa’s book “Thoughts threatened with death” which has warned against the man and his dangerous ideas which do not differ a great deal from the ideas of any Islamist. The book was widely critiqued by writers and thinkers.
Now we have learned how the legend came to be and how dangerous it is to question it. Which leads us to ask, Did Sharawi err? Yes, he erred. Did he sin? Yes, he sinned. Is he a Saint? We can say confidently he is not. Did he hold dangerous extremist opinions with an easy conscience? Yes, and if his followers ask why do you constantly criticize the man if you concede he erred and sinned? Then we have agreed that he is just a man, so why be angered by his critics? And therein lies the crux of the matter.
The issue is not the well-deserved criticism of Sharawi, but the criticism of everything resembling him that has been sanctified and rendered untouchable. This cult-like reverence and sanctification of certain figures hurts us. And the list includes Sheikhs, idealogues, princes, sultans and even serial killers. These figures are sacred cows that cannot be criticized and this puts us in the dilemma we are in now. For that reason, it is wrong if we stand by as more sanctification occurs. When someone becomes a sacred cow everything they say is right even if it is wrong and all their fatwas are halal even if they go against the religion itself.
Therefore, those who refuse to criticize Al Sharawi are those who refuse to criticize others like him, they will accuse you of thought terrorism and plague you with questions like “what did you study” or statements like “you are not fit to discuss the sheikh” or “this is the age of deceit” but you cannot stop with these battles for a moment because after each one the halo cracks a little more.
In the middle of these battles, there are those who do not fall into the trap of sanctification and realize that the person who is the subject of debate whether Sharawi or others is just a person who has supporters and detractors.
Imagine how things would be if we stayed silent if we did not speak up and say there are ideas that promote terrorism and are antithetical to the Quran if all lips stayed silent- what would the situation be like? The sacred cows would remain intact, the legends would grow. With these critiques, we point out that these personages are just human and we don’t have to study every aspect of theology to be able to say that there are opinions that we do not like and we don’t have to have certificates in religious studies to criticize a sheikh and finally we will not feel ashamed when we point out fundamentalism. We are here and constantly developing.