As I watched the never-ending first session of the new People's Assembly yesterday, the overwhelming presence of Islamists got me questioning a notion that has now become our reality; what is so bad with Islamists rule anyway?
It took me back to my years as a student at the American University in Cairo (AUC) — you would think it doesn’t get any more liberal in Egypt than AUC. Only this is where the dramatic contrast was most apparent in my life. Yes, there were the cool kids, the hippies, the Goths and the designer enthusiasts hanging out in what we called ‘Gucci Corner.’ But there were also the Salafis, face-veiled women in niqab and men wearing short galabeyas and heavy beards. Now this dichotomy would have worked great if only each side kept their beliefs to themselves.
I am not veiled. This apparently gave the more conservative-looking girls in the campus prayer area carte blanche to give me religious advice. They apparently decided it was their role in life to guide me to the light.
I will not begin to describe how excruciating it was putting up with girls who approached me after prayer with all sorts of religious clichés such as “You look angelic in the veil, why don’t you keep it on?” Or the more insulting, “Oh, you pray?” Yes, I do; surprisingly prayer isn’t only the duty of the pious-looking. And my all-time favorite: ‘So since you pray, why aren’t you veiled?’ At which point, I normally would be gobsmacked and walk away.
But it wasn’t the ‘Come to the good side’ comments that got to me. What was worse than the never-ending advice on veiling and how to pray — I learned how to pray when I was seven, thank you very much —was that fact that every single tip I got was about my posture, how close I should be to the person standing next to me or how I held my fingers while praying. Really?
You’re standing before God saying a prayer and trying hard to focus on the holiness of the moment while attempting not to hit the person next to you who keeps pulling you closer because we shouldn’t “leave room for the devil to get inside the prayer ranks.” Yes, the devil is apparently a physical being who can’t squeeze in if we stand stiflingly close to each other. I desperately try to tell the person tugging on my arms that there is no need to pretend to be Siamese twins, because the whole point of standing close to the person next to you is to leave room for others to pray while looking united. There is only her and I standing there praying anyway — there’s plenty of room for others.
More entertaining still were the constant comments on my posture: “Hold your hands crossed over your chest.” “No, hold them crossed over your belly. “No, don’t hold your left pointer up; it’s the devil’s hand.” The devil’s hand? I thought it was mine.
Best of all was the “acceptable” jewelry advice. Apparently, a Muslim is not to wear a ring on the right pointer finger because you use it for prayer — I never figured out the logic behind that one. And we’re not to wear jewelry with Qur’an verses or the name of God on it if we’re going into the bathroom. This last one is supposedly a sunna, a tradition practiced by Prophet Mohamed (PBUH). I wasted my breath for four years telling my self-appointed preachers that during his time there wasn’t even a place called a ‘bathroom.’
All this I could have swallowed, albeit bitterly, but I would have if only someone ever bothered speak about the spirituality of prayers, the sacredness of standing before God and the complete focus I should have when I am praying. If only someone realized that trying to pull me closer to her would definitely break my concentration and possibly ruin my whole prayer.
Nobody ever bothered to preach about the actual prayer itself; apparently, as long as we looked right, stood properly and stuck close, we were fine. You could be daydreaming about lunch, or routinely and quickly going through all the rituals, but it’s all right just as long as you do not wear a ring on your pointer finger.
And it apparently never occurred to my preachers that this is a private moment between God and I that nobody should interfere in.
This is exactly why I, for one, am rather worried with an Islamist rule. The problem isn’t with the Islamists themselves but with what an Islamist rule represents. It represents taking religion out of an individual’s private life and bringing it into the public sphere, and even worse, politics.
It represents excess attention given to appearances and how pious others should look as opposed to a focus on the true spirit of religion and what’s inside a person.
It is about the notion that someone might preach to me, even in the nicest of tones, when they don’t know the first thing about who I am or my relationship with God. And they shouldn’t know — it is, to me at least, a relationship even more private than matrimony. Who is to say that he is in a position to preach to a fellow Muslim about a private matter because he has grown a beard and the other man hasn’t?
But mostly, it is about the fact that despite all what religion — be it Islam, Christianity or any other faith — teaches us about how one should treat others and about charity and good deeds, the only religious advice that I have ever received so far has been about my posture and proximity in prayer.
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