2. Islamic fundamentalist influence on entertainment


Since the 1970s, there has been a growing influence of religious fundamentalism on many facets of Egyptian society. Religious agitation against public entertainment is not a recent phenomenon. The beginning of the last century, the early 1930s, and the late 1940s of this century also witnessed a religious revival unfavorable to entertainment. Whereas the Muslim Brotherhood was repressed during the reign of Nasser, Sadat initially employed them to combat the left. After Sadat's decision to make peace with Israel, they turned against him. Under current President, President Mubarak, a multiple strategy is followed. The extremists are repressed and imprisoned, while the moderates are given the possibility to voice their opinion. The government attempts to islamicize its policy in order to take the wind out of the sails of Islamic fundamentalists (Rubin 1990; Esposito 1992; Abu Lughod 1997). Consequently, the effect of religious pressure is discernable in all fields of art and entertainment.

The three main contexts in Egyptian entertainment are firstly weddings and saint's day celebration which can be named the popular circuit; secondly,  nightclubs  ranging from five-stars nightclubs to very cheap clubs; and finally, the performing arts circuit, which encompasses performances in orchestras, theaters, on radio and television etc. I mainly studied the circuit of weddings and saint's day celebrations and that of nightclubs.

slide2.jpg (15817 byte)

A female wedding party at home

According to Islamic fundamentalists, celebrants at a proper wedding should segregated. Only religious songs should be sung, accompanied by the tambourine or the duff (frame-drum without cymbals), one of the few lawful instruments according to strict opinion. Religious influence on wedding celebrations is most strongly felt in the South, particularly in Minya and Asiyut the Islamicist strongholds. In these regions, Islamists have succeeded in banning female entertainment and alcohol from the weddings. Consequently, parties are held in clubs and young men provide music and songs. Occasionally a dancer is brought all the way from Cairo, but then refused entrance to the city. In Cairo, a few neighborhoods are effectively controlled by Islamic fundamentalists. They manage to keep unwanted female entertainers out of their area. Islamic fundamentalists occasionally disturb weddings, break the musicians' instruments and chase the female performers from the stage. This sometimes leads to fights with the partygoers, who defend the entertainers and their right to merriment. 

Example of music played at weddings and wedding processions "`Arusa halawa" by Khamis Henkish (wav file: 313 kb)

The saint's day celebrations are affected as well. The Sufi brotherhoods are used by the State to counterbalance Islamic fundamentalism and are thus free to execute their zikrs and to listen to religious singers.

Secular entertainment, however, is restricted and belly-dancing is sometimes forbidden. The amount of light-hearted entertainment largely depends on the presence of government supervision, which is usually confined to the larger saint's day celebrations. At the time of my research, entertainment at the large mulid of Tanta was restricted to three days and dance had been banned for several years. Whereas in Helwan, a suburb of Cairo, I witnessed belly-dancing in open costumes along with gambling.

slide4.jpg (15244 byte)

A saint's day celebration

slide5.jpg (11646 byte)

A nightclub performer

Nightclubs are even more strongly opposed by Islamic fundamentalists. In 1977, nightclubs were attacked, and twelve of the fourteen nightclubs of Pyramid Street were burnt. The corruption and wealth represented by nightclub culture again provoked anger on the 25th and 26th of February 1986. Poorly paid soldiers were quartered nearby, sent several nightclubs up in flames. In the 1990s the closure or replacement of the Pyramid nightclubs was debated. When the street became an entertainment area in the forties, it was at the margins of the city. Nowadays, due to the overpopulation, the city has expanded enormously and the nightclubs are situated amidst a new residential quarter. The governor of the area therefore has begun to relocate nightclubs far off in the desert (al-Wafd 10-9-1989).

The theaters and media are under stricter religious censorship as well. Belly-dancing is banned from TV, although old films, invariably with scenes from nightclubs and wedding parties featuring dancers with the open costumes of the early days, are allowed.

Video tapes with belly-dancing are available. Due to religious influence the legal status of dancers is weakened and for new dancers it is difficult to obtain a license. A song by Muhammad `Abd al-Wahhab with the line: "We come to the world not knowing why," was called blasphemous and Islamic fundamentalists attempted to ban the record. Yet, the Azhar ruled that the song did not clash with Islamic law (Middle East Times 19-12-1989).

sound03.gif (1036 byte) "Min gher leh" by Muhammed `Abd al-Wahhab (wav file 292 kb)

From the last example it is clear that although Islamicist pressure is strong, there are forces counterbalancing its effect. Although religious ideology affects peoples' ideas about the entertainment profession it usually does not affect their behaviour.

This is aptly illustrated by the following interview I had with an Egyptian tailor: "Those jobs are shameful and destable. .. but I do like to watch it. Once in a lifetime we invite them; it is haram, but the fault is theirs." Most people still enjoy art and entertainment and invite performers on the occasion of their weddings. If they forego these pleasures it is mostly for economic rather than religious reasons. A popular actor challenged the Islamic fundamentalists and went on tour through the South performing in a farce with many puns. He drew a large audience. Islamic fundamentalist influence, although strong in the South and in some Cairene neighborhoods, should not be overestimated.

What is the reason for the religious condemnation of art and entertainment? In the following section, I will present the debates among religious scholars about the permissibility of music, singing and dancing.

Forward | Back | Main page | References