An 'ask an imam' booth set up for commuters in a Cairo metro

An 'ask an imam' booth set up for commuters in a Cairo metro August 13, 2017

A fatwa kiosk set up in Cairo’s al-Shohada metro station is reportedly proving a huge success, with people queuing up to get advice from a group of religious scholars inside a green patterned booth.
According to the Guardian, it’s the brainchild of sheikhs from Egypt’s highest Islamic authority, al-Azhar al-Sharif. Said one sheikh staffing the booth:

We usually talk about the issues of daily life, and what religion says about such things. The topics we mostly discuss are marriage, divorce and inheritance.

Al-Azhar al-Sharif says the project is intended to correct misinterpretations of Islam.
Sheikh Tamer Mattar, the coordinator of the authority’s International Centre for Electronic Fatwas, said that the booth was designed to direct citizens to seek advice from al-Azhar, instead of extremist groups.

The experiment was successful so far and we hope that it will expand. We can say it was successful, as in the eight days of the initiative, we received 1,500 questions. At any moment you can find tens of people waiting to present theirs.

The booth operates two shifts daily, welcoming visitors from 9am until 8pm.
Yet few seemed convinced that the project would attract those with pre-existing extremist tendencies to seek guidance, especially as those staffing the booth are recording the identity card number of those visiting along with their complaints.
Said the sheikh staffing the booth for its morning shift:

Extremists won’t come to us to seek advice. We’re targeting people on the street who are ignorant of religious matters – they come to us and we try to put them on the right track of moderation.

Mohamed Abu-Hamed, an Egyptian MP who has sparred frequently with al-Azhar over a desire for greater government regulation of the religious body and its teachings, poo-pooed the booths.

The whole project is absurd.

Other critics, according to The Times of Israel, argue that rooting out extremist ideology will not happen in metro stations. Many have used social media to slam 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.
Said Beshoy Mikhail, a 24-year-old Coptic Christian:

This is not its place at all. 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. Activist Sherif Azer said:

We see the government feeding more religious education and interference of religion in the day-to-day life.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-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 “modernisation 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 standardised 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.

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 el-Din Afifi said plans for more booths are continuing.

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  • Broga

    Set up Christian booths. Then we can discover how Noah got all those animals into the Ark and who Cain and Abel found as breeding partners. And much, much more, including some questions about sexual identity.

  • remigius

    I think these ‘Ask an Imam’ things are a godsend. I have whiled away many hours in shocked fascination at the sort of queries that need a religious ruling.
    Such as this one from a chap who suffers ‘seepage’ every time he talks to his wife on the telephone (several times a day) and asks whether he needs to change his underpants between ‘leaks’.

  • Barry Duke

    Mazi? MAZI? I justed seeped myself laughing Remigius.

  • Broga

    remigius: There are some really complex religious issues on the seepage problem. I can see that the enquirer would want an authoritative answer on this. These Imam’s earn their money.

  • barriejohn

    I well remember that episode of The Hairy Bikers where they made wadu for salah, and very good it was, too. I WAS going to say that I sincerely hope that no mischievous individuals go along to this booth with spurious questions that might cause confusion, but how could you possibly beat the sort of thing that Remigius has highlighted above? The following, I take it, must be from a Muslim comedy show called The Two Ranis, as it is also very funny:

  • remigius

    ‘…that episode of The Hairy Bikers where they made wadu for salah…’
    It wasn’t the Hairy Bikers – it was Basil Fawlty. And it’s pronounced ‘Waldorf Salad’. Have you just had a stroke, barriejohn?

  • StephenJP

    I am bewildered, remigius. If the Madhi has already soaked into a person’s underpants how can he tell whether there is enough to fit into the palm of a hand 2.75cm across or less? Should he take his underpants off and hold the palm of his hand in readiness for the next phone call? Truly the ways of Allah are mysterious.

  • remigius

    StephenJP. Be careful when capitalising the word ‘madhi’. The word translates from Arabic as ‘a semen like discharge’, but also, when capitalised it refers to the Islamic messiah who is about to come (hence the confusion!).
    I think the word ‘mazi’ also works – as Barry has pointed out. In the Southern African Bantu languages (Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho etc) it means water. And in Basque and Catalan it means ‘seed’.

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  • Barry Duke

    I bristle at the word “Bantu” Remigius: “The word Bantu became a strongly offensive term under the old apartheid regime in South Africa, especially when used to refer to a single individual. In standard current use in South Africa the term black or African is used as a collective or non-specific term for African peoples. The term Bantu has, however, continued to be accepted as a neutral ‘scientific’ term outside South Africa used to refer to the group of languages and their speakers collectively”. (

  • remigius

    My apologies, Barry. No offence was intended. I did not know that it had undesirable connotations outside of the linguistic field. Again, sorry.

  • Barry Duke

    No problem, Remigius. I guess you’d need to be a South African of a certain age to know that this arcane bit of lingo was a source of great irritation to blacks in SA. Hendrik Verwoerd’s Great Plan was to de-South Africanise non-whites by relocating them to special areas called Bantustans.

  • remigius

    Cheers, Barry. It is interesting to note that science uses words objectively for reasons of taxonomy with no thought to a ‘value judgement’, whereas in politics the very same word can be used subjectively with the aim to discriminate.
    I shall have a read of the Bantustan link – and make a mental note to be more careful in future.

  • L.Long

    It should be labeled…
    I am a lying ahole, come get some bad advice based on our BS!

  • barriejohn

    I don’t think this is a Schultz line, but I like it:

  • Anthony Baker

    “We’re targeting people on the street who are ignorant of religious matters”.
    Enough said.

  • Broga

    ” they come to us and we try to put them on the right track of moderation.”
    Give them a bit of credit, they have a sense of humour. Moderation and Islam: I had to laugh.

  • barriejohn

    It was particularly disappointing to note, on that YouTube clip to which I linked, that the featured question was sent in by an eleven-year-old. Youngsters should not be worrying themselves over whether the minutiae of daily behaviour might possibly be “offending” some bogeyman in the sky, and leading to their eternal damnation. If only we could prevent these idiots from infecting the minds of children we would be going a long way towards eradicating the curse of religion from human life, but I fear that that is just a pipe dream of mine!