Reda el-Sebaay was taking the subway while on a short business trip to Cairo from a Nile Delta city when he stumbled upon clerics offering religious advice or fatwas – answers to any question a Muslim follower might have.
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The 45-year-old civil servant had been pre-occupied for weeks about how he and his sisters would settle their inheritance. He wanted it to be fair and act according to Muslim teachings, but he didn’t want to have to call a religious hotline and wait endlessly for an answer.
Now he lined up behind a handful of people standing in front of a booth set up at one of the main Cairo subway stations – and 10 minutes later he got his answer.
Fatwas are religious edicts or pronouncements, often on major issues related to Islamic teachings. But they also provide guidance on matters of everyday life, including starting up a grocery store or any other private business, who to marry and whether it is permissible under Islam to accept banks’ interest rates.
The booth in Cairo’s al-Shohada subway station was set up earlier this month by Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s foremost religious institution, with the idea to offer Muslim worshippers a way to plug in fast to Islamic teachings – even while commuting to work. More booths are planned for later, at other subway stops.
The idea, however, is also part of a broader push to correct misconceptions and misinterpretations of religious texts seen as fostering Islamic militancy in the country.
The move came after militants killed at least 28 security personnel in two separate attacks in early July in the restive Sinai Peninsula and near some of Egypt’s most famous pyramids outside of Cairo. More than 100 Copts have been killed in four separate attacks – including church suicide bombings – by Egypt’s Islamic State affiliate since December.
“It’s surely a good idea. It saves a lot of time and effort for people,” el-Sebaay told The Associated Press just before stepping into the booth, where three Al-Azhar clerics in white turbans were waiting to hear his question.
But the institute’s decision to set up the booths has sparked a wide controversy, both on social media and offline. Critics argue that rooting out extremist ideology will not happen in metro stations. Many have slammed Al-Azhar for setting up the booth in a public place, used by all sectors of the Egyptian society, to spread the teachings of Islam.
“This is not its place at all,” said Beshoy Mikhail, a 24-year-old Coptic Christian. “I am completely against the idea.”
Mikhail believes that if Muslim clerics can set up advice booths in subways, Coptic priests should be allowed to do the same.
Several human rights activists said the move is somewhat discriminatory.
“We see the government feeding more religious education and interference of religion in the day-to-day life,” activist Sherif Azer said.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi has repeatedly blamed what he says is outdated religious discourse for the rising Islamic militancy in the country that has targeted mainly security personnel and Coptic Christians.
He has called on Al-Azhar, which touts itself as the voice of moderation, to lead the “modernization of religious discourse” since he took office in 2014, following the 2013 ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi whose one-year rule proved divisive.
The Ministry of Endowments, which handles religious affairs in Egypt, has taken some measures to exert more control.
Imams have been asked to read standardized government-written sermons during Friday prayers, the high point of the Muslim week. Some small mosques across the country have been closed and any cleric labelled a hard-liner has been barred from preaching in mosques.
Al-Azhar has also tasked a number of clerics to preach in coffee and tea houses across the nation.
Amr Ezzat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said Al-Azhar is trying to “market itself in attempts to reach out to people.”
“The state is treating religion as if it is public service,” Ezzat said.
Subway booths won’t root out extremists, he said, and militants “wouldn’t visit Al-Azhar clerics” in metro stations anyway, since they vehemently oppose the institute.
But Al-Azhar’s secretary-general Mohi al-Din Afifi said plans for more booths are continuing.
“They will be everywhere, not only in the metro,” he said.