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Egypt and North Africa

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Peter von Sivers

From The History of Islam in Africa
© 2000 Ohio University Press


 In May 1989, an eighteen-year-old woolcarder set fire to the Husayn Mosque in Cairo. The incident was written up in an Islamic newspaper by a journalist who deplored the act. The article began by asking why this young man would travel from his northern suburb all the way downtown to pray in a mausoleum-mosque--a place where, because of his stance on saint veneration, he believed prayer would be invalid; could he not instead have gone to any of the many mosques of Cairo that did not have tombs? In the remainder of the article, the journalist presents authoritative opinions by establishment figures on the specific requirements of order and decorum during mausoleum visits and on ordinary Muslims wrongly taking the law into their own hands. The article concluded that the woolcarder's act was indefensible. 1

 This incident illustrates a typically modern conflict in northern Africa. A Muslim accepting the teaching of absolute separation between God and his creation literally takes drastic action to end the deeply rooted popular tradition of saint veneration in Egypt. And a believer in the traditionally broad Sunni orthodoxy defends saint veneration, provided it occurs in an orderly fashion according to accepted custom ( adab ). The conflict is not without precedent in earlier centuries, but it is only today that the two positions are seen as irreconcilable.

 This chapter deals with, first, the formation (700-1250 C.E.) and dominance (1250-1800 C.E.) of a broad Sunni orthodoxy as the religion of the majority of the inhabitants of northern Africa; and second, modern efforts at political centralization and a narrowing of orthodox Sunnism, both of which have contributed to the rise of contemporary Islamism (1800 to the present).

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