Prior to Napoleon's invasion, almost all of Egypt's educational, legal, public health, and social welfare issues were in the hands of religious functionaries. Ottoman rule reinforced the public and political roles of the ulama (religious scholars) because Islam was the state religion and because political divisions in the country were based on religious divisions. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, successive governments made extensive efforts to limit the role of the ulama in public life and to bring religious institutions under closer state control. The secular transformation of public life in Egypt depended on the development of a civil bureaucracy that would absorb many of the ulama's responsibilities in the country.
After the 1952 Revolution, the government assumed responsibility for appointing officials to mosques and religious schools. The government mandated reform of Al Azhar University beginning in 1961. These reforms permitted department heads to be drawn from outside the ranks of the traditionally trained orthodox ulama. At the same time, the government established a number of modern faculties, including medicine, engineering, and commerce. The media periodically campaigned against the ulama as old-fashioned members of a "priestly caste."
Egyptian Islam was a complex and diverse religion. Although Muslims agreed on the faith's basic tenets, the country's various social groups and classes applied Islam differently in their daily lives. The literate theologians of Al Azhar University generally rejected the version of Islam practiced by illiterate religious preachers and peasants in the countryside. Most upper- and middle-class Muslims believed either that religious expression was a private matter for each individual or that Islam should play a more dominant role in public life. Islamic religious revival movements, whose appeal cut across class lines, were present in most cities and in many villages.
Today devout Muslims believe that Islam defines one's relationship to God, to other Muslims, and to non-Muslims. They also believe that there can be no dichotomy between the sacred and the secular. Many devout Muslims say that Egypt's governments have been secularist and even antireligious since the early 1920s. Politically organized Muslims who seek to purge the country of its secular policies are referred to as "Islamists."
Orthodox ulama found themselves in a difficult position during the wave of Islamic activism that swept through Egypt in the 1970s and 1980s. Radical Islamists viewed the ulama as puppets of the status quo. To maintain their influence in the country, the ulama espoused more conservative stances. After 1974, for example, many Al Azhar ulama, who had acquiesced to family planning initiatives in the 1960s, openly criticized government efforts at population control. The ulama also supported moves to reform the country's legal code to conform to Islamic teaching. They remained, nonetheless, comparatively moderate; they were largely loyal to the government and condemned the violence of radical Islamist groups.
Egypt's largely uneducated urban and rural lower classes were intensely devoted to Islam, but they lacked a thorough knowledge of the religion. Even village religious leaders had only a rudimentary knowledge of Islam. The typical village imam or prayer leader had at most a few years of schooling; his scholarly work was limited to reading prayers and sermons prepared by others and to learning passages from the Quran. Popular religion included a variety of unorthodox practices, such as veneration of saints, recourse to charms and amulets, and belief in the influence of evil spirits.
Popular Islam is based mostly on oral tradition. Imams with virtually no formal education commonly memorize the entire Quran and recite appropriate verses on religious occasions. They also tell religious stories at village festivals and commemorations marking an individual's rites of passage. Predestination plays an important role in popular Islam. This concept includes the belief that everything that happens in life is the will of God and the belief that trying to avoid misfortune is useless and invites worse affliction. Monotheism merges with a belief in magic and spirits (jinns) who are believed to inhabit the mountains.
Popular Islam ranges from informal prayer sessions or Quran study to organized cults or orders. Because of the pervasive sexual segregation of Egypt's Islamic society, men and women often practice their religion in different ways. A specifically female religious custom is the zar, a ceremony for helping women placate spirits who are believed to have possessed them. Women specially trained by their mothers or other women in zar lore organize the ceremonies. A zar organizer holds weekly meetings and employs music and dance to induce ecstatic trances in possessed women. Wealthy women sometimes pay to have private zars conducted in their homes; these zars are more elaborate than public ones, last for several days, and sometimes involve efforts to exorcise spirits.
A primarily male spiritual manifestation is Sufism, an Islamic mystical tradition. Sufism has existed since the early days of Islam and is found in all Islamic countries. The name derives from the Arabic word suf (wool), referring to the rough garb of the early mystics. Sufism exists in a number of forms, most of which represent an original tariqa (discipline or way; pl., turuq) developed by an inspired founder, or shaykh. These shaykhs gradually gathered about themselves murids, or disciples, whom they initiated into the tariqa. Gradually the murids formed orders, also known as turuq, which were loyal to the shaykh or his successors. The devotions of many Sufi orders center on various forms of the dhikr, a ceremony at which music, body movements, and chants induce a state of ecstatic trance in the disciples. Since the early 1970s, there has been a revival of interest in Sufism. Egypt's contemporary Sufis tend to be young, college-educated men in professional careers.
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