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portraits of ordinary muslims: egypt
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A Scholar's Advice: Hold Fast to Islam's Laws and Teachings
Islamic (or Sharia) law attempts to derive a comprehensive code for living from Islam's sacred text, the Quran, and from accounts of how the prophet Muhammad lived his life. Those who advise Muslims on Sharia law are scholars like Sheik Muawith Mabrook Abbas, an Egyptian who studied Sharia for 16 years at Al Azhar University in Cario. He issues fatwas--legal opinions--to Muslims seeking advice; some even call him from abroad. But Sheik Muawith is concerned; Islamic scholars have lost the influence they once had.

In this clip, the Sheik receives a phone call from a young man who, like a growing number of Egyptians, questions traditional Islamic values. The young man has married unofficially in an attempt to legitimize pre-marital sex.

Note: Video no longer available.

Explore what Muslim scholars have to say about Islamic belief and practices (excerpted from their full interviews for this program).
Radical Islam in Egypt
Egypt at a Glance
Related Links and Readings

More on Sheik Muawith Mabrook Abbas

Egypt is home to the Al Azhar mosque and university. Established in 988, the university is the oldest Islamic university in the world, and its influence stretches from America to Southeast Asia.

Sheik Muawith Mabrook Abbas first came to study at Al Azhar when he was 14 years old. After 16 years of study, he qualified as a scholar of Islamic law, known as Sharia. Sharia is the attempt to derive a comprehensive code for living from Islam's sacred text, the Quran, and from accounts of how the prophet Muhammad lived his life. It covers everything from how to pray to how to punish criminals, but there are many different ways in which Muslims interpret the text.

Now 63, Sheik Muawith uses his knowledge of the Sharia to issue fatwas -- or legal opinions -- to Muslims seeking his advice. These queries are on issues ranging from money matters to marriage, and from work ethics to political practices.

As head of the Al Azhar's fatwa committee, he is a major voice of Muslim scholarship in Egypt. However, the sheik's committee also reaches Muslims worldwide. "We get faxes from abroad," he explains. "From Australia, from America, from Europe, about business dealings, responsibilities and all sorts of things like that. And we try to answer them."

Sheik Muawith laments that many Egyptian Muslims have lost touch with the ideals of Islam. He points out economic deprivation, political disenfranchisement and overwhelming outside influences over the past century that have turned people away from their belief in Islam. "Muslims have left Islam and they don't know what God has ordered them to do, or what the prophet taught," he says.

While not all Muslims share the same interpretation of Sharia law, Sheik Muawith is troubled when people like Osama bin Laden issue fatwas of their own. "These kind of fatwas have no basis in religion," he says. "Anyone just issuing a fatwa like that should not be trusted. It should neither be considered the religion of Islam or the teachings of Islam."

Radical Islam in Egypt

Egypt was among the first places where Islam was used to legitimize a violent response to Western influence. In the 1960s, many young, educated Muslims were increasingly dissatisfied with the failure of socialism under Gamal Abdel-Nasser and capitalism under Anwar Sadat to produce social and economic gains. Some of the leaders of Al Azhar University--the world's oldest Islamic universisty--also had lost credibility after submitting to state control.

Calls for justice and reform came from a growing number of independent mosques and sheiks, who railed against the government and its Western allies, and advocated the formation of an Islamic state that returned to the ethical principles of Sharia law. Among them was the so-called "blind sheik," Omar Abdel Rahman, who preached jihad.

Sharia law condemns the killing of the young, the elderly and the innocent, but it does permit Muslims to defend the Muslim community if it comes under attack. Under the Egyptian militants' interpretation of jihad, anyone who prevented them from implementing their vision of Islam became a legitimate target.

Then-Egyptian President Sadat clamped down on the militants and in return was assassinated by members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad in October 1981. The repression of Muslim activists that followed Sadat's killing precipitated two decades of violence in Egypt. The attacks culminated in November 1997, when militants massacred 58 tourists at the ancient site of Luxor. But Egypt's Islamic militants became headlines again in 2001, when it was revealed that some of the Sept. 11 suicide hijackers were Egyptian -- including the plot's leader, Mohammed Atta. In addition, Osama bin Laden's second-in-command in the Al Qaeda terror network was Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian medical doctor. Analysis of the Islamic fundamentalists' threat to Egypt is offered below in "Links and Readings."



  • As of July 2001, the population is estimated at approximately 69,500,000.
  • Approximately 35 percent is age 0-14.
  • Approximately 62 percent is age 15-64.
  • Approximately 4 percent is age 65 and older.
  • The population growth rate is 1.69 percent.


  • 94 % of the population is Muslim (mostly Sunni).
  • 6% of the population is Coptic Christian and other.


  • Type: Republic
  • Executive Branch:
    • The president is nominated by the People's Assembly for a six-year term. The nomination must then be validated by a national, popular referendum. Hosni Mubarak has served as president since 1981.
    • The prime minister and cabinet are appointed by the president.
  • Legislative Branch:
    • People's Assembly (444 elected and 10 presidentially-appointed members); and
    • Shura (consultative) Council (176 elected members, and 88 presidentially-appointed)
  • Judicial Branch:
    • Supreme Constitutional Court
    • The legal system is based on a combination of English and French common law. Family law is primarily based on the religion of the individual concerned, which for most Egyptians is Sharia law.

(Sources: CIA World Factbook 2001; State Department Country Background Notes: Egypt;)

Related Links

· "Nowhere Man"

Fouad Ajami, a professor of Middle Eastern studies and the author of The Dream Palace of the Arabs, writes in this New York Times article: "Islam didn't produce Mohamed Atta. He was born of his country's struggle to reconcile modernity with tradition." The Egyptian-born Atta was the leader of the Sept. 11 terrorist plot against the U.S. (Note: Registration is required if you have not already registered for free for The New York Times web material.)

· Egypt: Stable, But For How Long?

This article from the Autumn 2000 issue of The Washington Quarterly traces the Egyptian government's historical reactions to surges in political Islam, and it questions the ability of Hosni Mubarak's autocratic regime to withstand future serious social and/or economic instability.

· Islam Rising

In this February 1999 interview with The Atlantic Unbound, Mary Anne Weaver, writer for The New Yorker, discusses her book A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam. "There is a growing concern," she says, "that if Egypt 'goes Islamic,' so could much of the Arab world. Egypt is the most populous and the most influential Arab state, and since the 1970s, the Islamists there --with growing vigor, in growing numbers, and with growing support -- have infiltrated the courts, the universities, the schools, the arts. A number of preeminent Egyptian thinkers and ideologues are quite convinced that an Islamic victory in Egypt is inevitable."

· Appeal of Fundamentalism Growing in Egypt

This radio documentary, "Revolutionary Islam," produced by public radio's WBUR-FM, reports on how Islamic radicalism has changed Egypt's social order. While an Islamic revolution is not at hand, Egyptian society has become 'Islamized,' according to Mona Makrana Ebeid, professor of sociology at the American University of Cairo and a former member of the Egyptian Parliament. "Secular voices are very faint," she says. "And the process has accelerated in the past decade."

· The Islamic State in Egypt is Approaching

In this 1997 interview with Nida'ul Islam magazine, Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyyah representative Sheik Rifa'ey Ahmad Taha describes the organization's aims of creating an Islamic state. He predicts that upon its establishment, "Indeed, Israel will confront us at that time, and America will besiege us, and the West will boycott us, in fact the entire world will attack us as one."

· Al Ahram Weekly

Al-Ahram Weekly is an independent English-language newspaper which provides in-depth coverage of Egyptian and Arab politics, economics, culture and society from an Egyptian perspective. The site is updated every Saturday.

· Al Azhar

Al Azhar is the oldest Islamic university in the world. Its Web site contains the history of the university, and information about the school's organizing committee.

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