The Sheikh who Perfected TV Evangelism To Islamise Egyptian Society

First Published in JUne 1998, when I wrote it then, it was three years before 9/11 and seven years before Islamists terrorist bombed London Transport System, 14 years before Muslim Brotherhood took control of Egypt and 15 years before the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant ISIL was declared a caliphate. But when I revisited this Obituary of Egypt Best known Islamic TV Evangelist, it was events foretold. The seeds of jihadism were sown by intellectual means, by changing the way of thinking and the collective mind. It was and still going on, the Islamisation of a Society by stealth.
Egypt best Known Islamic  cleric Mohammed Metawali Sharawi, who died at the age of 87 on 17th June 1998, got his chance of stardom at the age of 59, in the last year of the late autocratic President Nasser’s rule, when he took part in the country’s first ever televised Islamic religious discussion programme , nour ala nour ” Light upon Light” presented by Ahmed Farrag  a handsome news-anchor but a failed cinema actor who had gone to make a career in television religious programme.
Within few years Sharawi had upstaged Ahmed Farrag (1932-2006) and became the Billy Graham ( 1918-2018) of the Sunni Islamic world to an estimated 70 million Arabic speaking viewers ( spoken Egyptian language – containing many Arabic expression is dominant and understood by Arabic Speaking nation thanks to 80 years Egyptian Film industry spreading it among Arabs) .
The Sheikh’s evangelist mission via television screens and millions of
his audio cassettes was made possible by lavish subsidies from
conservative oil Sheikh’s from Arabia and wealthy Islamic
fundamentalists in the Middle East and North America. They played a
vital role in transforming the public opinion in Egyptian society from
liberalism to a medieval repression, as Egyptian writer Ibrahim Issa,
put it in his book ” Turbans and Daggers,’‘ (Cairo-1994), which examined
the dual effect of fundamentalists’ campaign of terror and that of ” terrorising the collective mind,” through media evangelism. The result was the Islamisation of society by stealth while the government remained complacent, to the horror of liberal intellectuals and human-rights activists. ( Some even accused successive governments of encouraging it.)
Born in 1911 in village of Daqadous in the Nile Delta, Sharawi’s
primary education was confined to Kuttab (religious madrasah) , the rural Koran teaching schools for peasant children where the emphasis was on learning the verse of Koran by heart and believing in every word without questioning. The Syidna (our-holy-master), as the children referred to the cleric-  teacher as he used his cane liberally to lash those who did not recite the verse verbatim, or those who dared to ”think” and tried interpret what they learnt.
In the 1920’s Al-Azhar, Egypt’s official Muslim church and the seat of Islamic learning condemned Ataturk’s (1881-1938) modernisation of Turkey and his revolution in education as he replaced Arabic letters with Latin letters making books easy to print and thus accessible to the public at affordable cost.
Al-Azhar, controlled by men whose intellectual training came from
Kuttab forbade Egypt – which had broken ties with the Ottoman Empire
in in 1922- from going the same way in changing the official print-letters.
Sharawi graduated from Al-Azhar in 1941, and obtained the teachers’
qualification in 1943. His view of the world was very much influenced
by his outlook. In fact Sharawi did not break from that early Kuttab 
taboo of daring to interpret the Koran until he was in his mid 60’s. 
His interpretation never went beyond the linguistic meaning of the 
Koran verse. Although most of the Koranic chapters  are full of Biblical parables for man to reflect on their spiritual meaning, Sharawi seldom attempted to examine the essence or the wisdom of the gospel verse as some contemporary Islamic scholars like Sayyed Qutb ( 1906-1966- the jihadism ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood) ,  did. Last year ( 1997) he boasted that he hadn’t read a single book since 1943 except the Koran.’
In the 1940’s Sharawi raised the late King Farouk (1920-1965) to a near divine status in poem linking him to the founder of Islam prophet Muhammad (570-632). He also wrote a religious poem glorifying the late dictator President Nasser (1918-1970).
As minister of religious endowments in 1978, Sharawi defended President Anwar Sadat (1918-1981) – in parliament quoting a verse from Koran – which Muslims believe to be the word of Allah revealed to Prophet Mohammed: ” you are accountable to him but he is accountable to no one.” The verse in its seventh century AD origin was referring to Allah.
From the 1970’s Sharawi used his populist status to mount media
attacks on intellectual giants like the late writer and dramatist Youssef Idris (1927-1991), Egypt’s great modern philosophers the late Tawfiq el-Hakim (1898-1987) and Zaki Naguib Mahmoud (1905-1933), and the Nobel Prize Winner writer Naguib Mahfouz. Their sin was to question some of the Sheikh’s reactionary fatwas and opinions as
they warned that placing him above the possibility of making errors 
would be damaging to the health of the nation’ intellectual-being. But 
the state controlled media came to the defence of the sheikh. The government of President Hosni Mubarak wanted to look  more Islamic than the Islamic terrorists against whom the regime was taking heavy-handed measures, gave Sahrawi prime time for his ” interpretation of 
Koran” open lessons, while cutting time given to secular debating 
programmes that flourished from the 1950’s to late 1970’s.
On his death, sources in Saudi Arabia, where Sharawi was seconded from Al-Azhar in 1950’s 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.” But political Islam also lamented
Moustafa Mashhour, the leader of Egypt’s largest fundamentalist group,
the Muslim Brotherhood, which introduced terrorism into the political
scene in the 1930’s and 1940’s stated, “Sharawi’s fingerprints on Islamic teaching were matchless,” . Sharawi was a founder member of the group with Sheikh Hassan el Banna in 1928, but later criticised their ” impatience as they started violence before they were ready to take
over”, he told me in an interview in 1987.
Freethinkers, human-rights’ activists and feminists remember him in a
rather different light. Sharawi issued fatwas – edicts- supporting FGM- female genital mutilation  (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 transplant and
donating organs after death as blasphemy. ”You have no right to 
donate your organ because you are only a keeper of that body which
belongs to Allah”.
In early 1990’s Sharawi apparently influenced several of Egypt’s top
belly dancers, and female film stars who announced – always during TV
chat shows – that they have seen the light and were going take up the
veil, all thanks to the Sheikh’s teaching. Press reports claimed,
however, that they had been given large sums of money from rich oil
Sheikhs from Gulf Nations – and some tore the veil away after discovering that the money was less than the agreed sum-. Sheikh Sharawi and his followers attacked the reports, but neither he, nor they demanded correction from editors.
Some of Sharawi’s fatwas were either contradictory or double
standards. He ruled against paying of 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 $5 bn 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 banking. He 
then savaged the Iranians’ call to ‘internationalise’ the holy Islāmic 
sites in Mecca after Saudi police clashed with Iranian pilgrims killed
over 200 when the Iranians held noisy demonstrations calling for
 establishing an Islamic state. 
Saudi Arabia was footing the bill of his London trip for treatment.
 But he refused to condemn Islamic fundamentalists’ terrorism during the 
interview. He was only critical of their timing, suggesting that they
 should work closely with the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and ‘
avoid confrontation with the ruler’s police’ and advised that they
 should wait until the time is right when society will be ready to
 accept the fundamentalists’ rule by preaching and by economic
His preaching was a major factor, among several, in moving his society,
from its position 20 years ago as an open liberal secular pluralistic 
debating culture that was 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 minority – Christian
 Orthodox of 10 million who predate Islam in Egypt by seven 
centuries. As he called them Ahl dzthyma or second class
citizens who can either convert to Islam or remain under the ”
protection” of the Islamic ruler if the pay Jizyah a poll tax
 which the Arab Islamic military commanders imposed on the citizens of
 the countries they conquered.
Terror attacks by Islamic extremists against Copts in upper Egypt 
increased in the past few years; although Sharawi several times 
parroted the Egyptian government official line that condemned the 
Islamists’ terror methods but emphasised that Egypt was  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 
mainly the popular cassettes and videotapes of his preaching, which 
in the view of many Egyptian intellectuals a ” a reactionary and
dangerous demagogic message,” that was in general discouraging people from thinking independently and interpreting Koran for themselves. He even attacked electricity as anti’ human nature as god intended it to be’ because electricity turned night into day and made people `’ active at night”. But after consultation with government he then issued a fatwa that men who have 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 by the national display of morning surrounding Sharawi’s
 death, has proven what they feared years ago: the official and popular
 endorsement of preaching the message of bigotry and intolerance. 
During his life they warned against the ” intellectual terrorism” 
used by Sharawi’s trend to further the Islamisation by stealth as the
 state competed with the terrorist to demonstrated to the confused 
public that their government was more muslim than the Islamic groups.
Like his life, the death of Sharawi, was yet another proof that little 
has changed in the structure of power which ensured the supremacy of 
the Egyptian State for over 6000 years. The state deploys its two 
powerful wings to guarantee an overall tight rule over the population
 and possibly over the region: The priestly class, which have always 
remained faithfully subordinated to the Pharaoh as the head of this
 state; and the army. The events of ancient past foreshadowed
 contemporary events.
Serving both god and Caesar, the high priest of Egypt in 332 BC kept
the triangular structure intact. He made the conqueror Alexander the
 Great not just a Pharaoh but a god by revealing that Alexander’s 
mother was conceived by the spirit of Egypt’s great god Amun-Ra.
For 6000 years, Pharaohs came and went, Egyptians or conquerors; with blue blood in their veins or Khaki uniform over their skin, but Egypt
 remained within the same borders and the same triangular structure of
 power: the head of the state; the Church and the Army.
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.
Sharawi’s Television evangelism mirrored this structure of power but 
the interests of the three institutions were so intractable that the 
government moved closer to the position of the clergy changing the 
nature of the secular state.
The difference now is that the priestly class is no longer dependent
 on the State for its massive wealth for survival.
Mohammed Mutwali Sharawi 
Islamic Preacher & television Evangelist 
Born Daqadous, Egypt 15 April 1911 
died Giza Egypt 17 June 1999