Licence to preach

Hani Mustafa finds the latest big production unremarkable

Ibrahim Eissa Mawlana

Literalist and superficial readings of religious texts have made up the Pandora’s box that produced all the horrors of political Islam in Egypt over the last half century. This may have been the idea that drove the senior journalist Ibrahim Eissa to write his novel Mawlana (or The Televangelist) four years ago. In addition to his usual political-analysis articles, Eissa had been writing articles on history and religion – notably during the month of Ramadan – with the object of clarifying religious concepts. More recently director Magdi Ahmad Ali collaborated with Eissa to make Mawlana into a film which premiered at the Dubai Film Festival last December and is now being shown commercially in Egypt.

Whether they like him or not, no one can afford to ignore Eissa’s often oppositional ideas, which he has expressed for decades in Rose Al-Youssef, Al-Dustour, Al-Tahrir and, most recently, Al-Maqal, and which he has orally argued for on the television screen. At the end of December, indeed, his programme With Ibrahim Eissa was discontinued at the television channel Al-Qahira wal-Nass, reportedly following pressure on the channel owner, Egypt’s best known advertisement producer-director Tarek Nour, since Eissa had directed harsh criticism at the cabinet and the parliament as well as taking issue with President Al-Sisi personally announcing the name of the terrorist who blew himself up in the St Peter Church, saying that no president should be implicated in naming a suspect not yet convicted.
No doubt Eissa is someone who enjoys being controversial and believes this is the duty of the journalist and perhaps also the author – something that has caused him to be threatened by the powers that be all through the last decade, from Mubarak’s time to the present. Eissa’s approach to novels has been no different, whether they are political like his best-selling Maqtal Al-Ragul Al-Kabir (The Assassination of the Big Man) or historical like his latest Rihlat Al-Damm (Journey of Blood), which is set in early Islamic times. It is only natural for the film of a novel to be different from that novel but in the case of Mawlana the difference is more significant than usual.

Written and directed by Magdi Ahmad Ali with dialogue by Eissa, the film opens with the hero Sheikh Hatem Al-Shinnawi (Amr Saad), an Endowments Ministry imam, entering a building near the Citadel. The deputy minister Sheikh Fathi (Ahmad Rateb) has been taken ill, and so Sheikh Hatem replaces him at the Friday sermon given to a group of ministers, in the process becoming a regular guest at a religious talk show presented by the host Anwar Osman (Bayoumi Fouad), also instead of Sheikh Fathi. By contrast the novel opens with Sheikh Hatem feeling uncomfortable in the studio and disliking Anwar Osman, thus keeping the back story for later and focusing on the hero’s psychology.

The film moves onto the rise to fame of this new sheikh, who becomes the talk of the town as a religious reformer with charisma. But the pivot of the story is his contact with the ruling elite. Sheikh Hatem ends up meeting the president’s son Galal (a barely veiled reference to Gamal Mubarak, who prior to the January Revolution was thought to be the country’s effective ruler as well as the heir apparent). The political crisis occurs when Galal asks Sheikh Hatem for help with what’s happening to his brother-in-law Hassan (Ahmad Magdi), who has returned from studying abroad intent on converting to Christianity and calling himself Boutros.

The script moves onto points of conflict with commonplace religious ideas within Egyptian society, which seem to make up the substance of the film. And so the script generates space for direct argument led by the young sheikh, whether by answering the viewers’ questions in the course of the talk show or in conversation with various characters like Hassan or Nashwa (Reham Haggag), one of the young women who consult him. Eissa and the director try to present a direct critique of religious ideas and political positions from which Egyptian society has been suffering for years.
The result is a rather rhetorical piece of work, with only one, unclear dramatic dimension that takes up only a little screen time: the sheikh’s attachment to his hard won son (whom he has after seven years of marriage, a very long time for religious people), and the tragic turn that events take when a swimming pool accident leaves that son in a critical condition between life and death; Sheikh Hatem then stops taking care of himself and becomes a mosque recluse. But, while the son’s condition spoils his relationship with his wife Omaima (Dorra) – who prevents him from travelling along for the boy’s treatment – Hatem resumes his preaching and television appearances just as before.

Among the religious questions discussed in the film are the status of Christians in Muslim society and its connection with the modern concept of citizenship and the importance of reason in religion – the latter drawing on the Mutazali tradition – but the limits of the cinematic format makes these fleeting and superficial mentions rather than serious discussions. In addition the film tells the story of one of Hatem’s mentor Sheikh Mukhtar (Ramzi Al-Adl), a stand-in for the real life Sheikh Hassan Shehata who, having embraced the Shia faith, was briefly detained by State Security and then horribly killed by Salafis; the film implies that it was security that leaked the news about Sheikh Mukhtar.

The political side of the film relates to Hatem’s connection with the issue of Hassan – something that is potentially very embarrassing for the heir apparent – which leads to State Security attempting to take control of Hatem’s life; eventually he discovers that, rather than a religious girl interested in theology and reform, is actually a budding actress placed in his way by State Security in order to soil his reputation and blackmail him. The film draws to a close with Hassan stepping into a church, not as we have come to expect to worship but – recalling the 2011 bombing of the Saints Cathedral in Alexandria – to blow up the church; now it turns out his desire to convert to Christianity was a front to enable him to undertake this church, since he has actually become a violent fundamentalist. The last scene is of Hatem preaching to state officials during the mourning service in an extremely direct and predictable way.

At one point Hatem tells Hassan there is a difference between religion and politics: Christianity became politics once it departed Bethlehem, and Islam became politics following the death of the Prophet. This is in fact the most accurate reading of the film itself, which by departing drama turned into an audiovisual opinion piece – and not a very interesting one at that.