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Growing Up: Four Stories
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People Use Religion, Too

Because the child is not forever isolated within the family unit, and because of the complexity of modern society with its wealth of opportunities for distraction and corruption, children are exposed to influences that the pious family and the devout instructor can neither approve nor anticipate. Sometimes family standards even conflict with the moral vision of the school, but most busy parents, as concerned as they might be, lack the time to monitor the specifics of their children's school experience, trusting that their own models of adab will suffice, and that personal and family moral commitments will transcend the specific political biases of the state curriculum. Samia ‘Abd al-Rahman told me,

I've never read any of [Nadia's] textbooks, but I do try to correct misunderstandings that she gets from them. Like she might come to me and say, Mama, is it true that the Ottoman empire, or the Mamluk period was bad? I would correct these impressions, saying that the authors were biased in favor of nationalism or secularism, or so on. These two periods of our history are a target of those who want to attack Islam, but instead of attacking the religion of Islam, the rule of the shari‘a and so on, they attack the Ottoman Empire for the mistakes that it made. But we defend it as a frame for Islamic government [al-hukm al-islami]. [Nadia] would hear things here, and she would read In the Shadow of the Qur’an,[23] and other things by Sayyid Qutb, and she was brought up with discussions of Islam and the Islamic Republic and its revolution, and so on.

She tried to teach Nadia to be a critical reader and to focus her thoughts on a career. In 1993 Nadia was studying English and journalism at Cairo University in order, her mother said, “to serve Islam through the medium of English, and through writing.”

Samia herself came late to Islam, having been a socialist and Arab nationalist throughout her marriage to Nadia's father, and discovering only during the 1970s the spiritual significance of religion. On a January 1972 pilgrimage to Mecca she “ higabed” (the Egyptian word is “ithaggab” ), and

felt that it was khisara [loss, waste, pity] to lose it, to take off the Islamic cover. During the Hajj there's something that works inside of you, developing you, making progress in your feelings, making you really aware of the real things in life. And so I decided that for God I should be more obedient. Nothing is worth disobeying Him. Before this I didn't realize that not wearing Islamic garb is disobedient.[24]

During the late 1970s as Iran struggled to find its way around the sterile Cold War choices of capitalism and communism, she discovered the political significance of Islam as well, joining many more prominent Egyptian leftist and secularist intellectuals who made this journey and accrued the label “turathiyun judud ” (new adherents to the Islamic heritage), for their apparent “return” to an acknowledgment of the unique qualities of “Eastern” values as against “Western” cultural imperialism.[25] Personal journeys, while in many ways patterned systematically by the intersections of gender, class, and historical change, can be enormously unpredictable. With respect to religious commitment, both the bland universal truisms of formal instruction and the deeply personal images of the divine developed in the heart of the family can form a personal image of the sacred, which, “if it loses its meaning…can be set aside without being forgotten,” [26] and then regain its salience at another point in life. During periods in life when religious stories have no hold, their meanings are very different.

Muhammad Sulayman, like Samia, is a writer constantly struggling to maintain his standard of living despite holding a full-time job. An assistant editor for a small leftist publishing house in downtown Cairo, he published his first book—a slim black-and-purple volume of modernist poetry—at age thirty-six. Married, but with no children (“they need so much money to raise them. It's just too much to be responsible for”), he is from a town in the delta, where his father was one of the leaders of the local Muslim Brotherhood.

I grew up in a town in Minufiyya with 160,000 people, where the climate [manakh] was very religious. I used to pray [he holds his hands up beside his face and leans forward slightly to indicate prostration], and fast, and all that. Then when I was fifteen or so, my friends and I would go to the theater, and I started reading the work of a playwright named [Bertolt] Brecht, who was a socialist. And it was then that I learned that socialism was not just a book, a monolithic thing with only one idea to it, like there's a God and that's that. Socialism was wide [wasi‘], and it talked about poverty and solutions for poverty and the causes of poverty. Poverty wasn't caused by God, but by people, and people use religion, too. Brecht was full of ideas; tough, difficult ideas.

I wanted to be a director, and I read all of Brecht's plays, and when I understood them I became a leftist. Before that—this was around 1972 or 1973, when I was twenty years old, I was very religious [mutadayyin], but then I just left it altogether. Now, my father taught us everything about religion. He made me memorize the Qur’an. And I've really benefitted from knowing the Qur’an, especially out in the streets.

I was embarrassed when my father found out about my socialism. He said it was forbidden (muharram), and as soon as he learned of it there was a big argument and he kicked me out of the house, just like that, because he was convinced I was an atheist. I saw him just once after that, when he came to visit me in prison in 1977. Just that one time, and then afterwards he died. I have one brother, but he's gone; moved to Canada. And one sister, who's 28 now. She used to be a socialist, but now she's a religious muhaggaba. She's married to a businessman with a lot of money, and is concentrated on her work and on raising her kids. She's an assistant professor at the college of engineering, and is also getting her Ph.D there. My sister, we talk on the phone about once a year, but otherwise have no contact. You know how it is, we have relations of love because we're brother and sister, but not relations of friendship. She had taken on higab during the time I was in prison, because she was living in the house of my father.

In prison I met all kinds of people, including the religious ones, but they all thought I was a heathen [kafir] so although we had lots of discussions of things all the time, in terms of personal relations things never went beyond greetings. It's the same with my religious friends from childhood. They don't like to talk to me, because there's a verse in the Qur’an [he recites the verse] that says you're not supposed to associate with the kuffar.[27]

Muhammad's depressing story of estrangement from family and friends illustrates the suspicion with which different portions of the religious and political spectra view each other both then and now, as well as the paranoid politics of Sadat's regime, which imprisoned at one time or another nearly every dissenting voice in the country. The year during which Muhammad was imprisoned, 1977, was the year in which Sadat issued his call for a renewal of religious education in response to the January food riots, a call that underscored the importance accorded to this activity as a foundation of social and political stability. In the religion curricula of preparatory and secondary schools, political and economic concerns play a substantial role. In particular, there is a sustained emphasis on the role Islamic values and conduct play in the solution of problems like those that drove Muhammad Sulayman to socialism: the causes and effects of poverty. More than one-third of the eleventh grade textbook, in fact, is devoted to the presentation of Islamic prescriptions on lawful and unlawful gain, interest, usury, business practices, and spending on righteous causes. (This is also where the excerpts on Islam and work, quoted at the beginning of the chapter, are to be found.)

Religious studies textbooks for the preparatory school (roughly an American junior high or middle school, grades seven through nine) and secondary school (equivalent to grades ten through twelve in high school) are far more consistent in a formal sense than those in the primary curriculum. Each section of text regularly consists of a selection of Qur’anic verses or a Prophetic saying, followed directly by definitions of difficult vocabulary, an exposition of the meaning and intent of the passage, and a set of questions for discussion. Gone are the hymns, pictures, and matching exercises of the earlier grades. In their place are logical and legal arguments, beginning with ontological and teleological proofs of God's existence and power, based on two carefully distinguished sorts of evidence: rational and traditional (al-‘aql wa al-naql).[28]

Consistently emphasizing natural theology, books elaborate themes introduced in earlier grades, developing logical proofs from natural models of the necessity for the division of labor and the orderliness of society. So just as communities of ants, bees, and humans have leaders, the cosmos must have a supreme authority in God.[29] Expanding on the theme of authority and discipline, the requirement of prayer is adduced as traditional evidence for the necessity of order in society. Prayer is incumbent upon Muslims not only because God ordered it as a link between the divine and the created, but

because in prayer there is rising and bowing and prostration, all actions that invigorate the body, and the Muslim devotes himself to work with zeal and energy, and increases production and spreads the good, and promotes [the progress of] the nation.…[P]rayer accustoms us to order, and the keeping of appointments, and the binding together of Muslims with cooperative ties and love and harmony.…[C]ollective prayer binds society with ties of brotherhood and equality, as it acquaints every Muslim with the condition of his brothers.[30]

Moral behavior is closely linked not only with public order, but with economic development. The Ramadan fast, the books explain, reduces friction between the rich and poor by letting the wealthy experience the hunger and privation of the needy, prompting generous alms. This produces serenity in the hearts of the poor so that “everybody applies themselves to their work, and production increases, society becomes happy, and its economy develops.” [31] The fast also works indirectly by giving Muslims practice in willpower, helping to free them of “ugly habits like smoking, which takes its evil toll on the person's health, and then he can't do his work, and it reduces his productivity and reduces family income and causes the country's economy to slump.” [32]

Although humans are responsible for cooperating with each other to build and reform society, the process is still guided by God, who can override human effort as he pleases. Children are taught that the fulfillment of their own desires is secondary to the good of the society of believers, which God's wisdom safeguards. In the eighth grade children read the story of Ahmad, who

had wanted, after taking the General Secondary examination, to enroll in the College of Medicine, but his scores didn't enable him to realize his hope, and he enrolled in the War College. Emerging an officer, he had the honor of participating in the 10th of Ramadan War, whose heroes became eligible to be decorated because of their participation. He was most happy for this honor, as were his father and his family. Ahmad had wanted, and his father had wanted, and his family had wanted, but God does what he wants, and it was to the greatest good what He decided and willed.[33]

Elementary and preparatory schooling, a fictive teacher explains, provide technical education for every Egyptian so that he will have a vocation that will help him in “satisfying his needs and gratifying his desires.” Love for Egypt and for Islam requires everyone to seek responsible employment, which will promote “the honor of the nation and its citizens,” [34] but those who avoid honest labor are “weeds that suck up their nutrients to destroy useful plants and living things.” [35] A hadith of the Prophet condemning the destruction of shade trees in the desert is extended to all kinds of contemporary public facilities: means of transport such as buses and trains; means of communication such as telegraph, telephone, and mail offices; and public services such as schools, hospitals, libraries, museums, gardens and public restrooms. Students are warned against vandalizing or interfering with them, promising “those who would destroy them of a painful punishment on the Day of Resurrection.” [36]

Such discussions of work show how far the functionalization of religion can go toward wholly transforming religion's symbolic import. In its simplest form, the connection between Islam and labor may be expressed in a phrase from one of Safir's coloring books: “al-islam din al-‘amal” (Islam is a religion of work). More than the concrete notion that “Islam is a religion of cleanliness,” or the abstract one that “Islam is a religion of order and discipline,” the idea that “Islam is a religion of work” brings the whole weight of the religious heritage down behind a political program. It not only marks labor with divine intent, but marks the religious system with sociopolitical intent, and in so doing changes that system into something new. Function is a self-fulfilling prophecy, for once religion is perceived as useful in achieving given ends, it becomes used in prosecuting those ends (whether or not it does in fact achieve them), and that imputed functionality becomes in turn one of its empirical features.

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Growing Up: Four Stories
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