Episode 1: The Brotherhood I Know

This is the first in a series of articles about Mohammad Tolba’s personal experience over the past ten years with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Fajr Prayer, Spring 2000

This is how it all began. One of my friends passed away in a tragic car accident. I, like many people who experience this kind of loss, tried to get closer to God. I don’t know how they sensed my intentions, but I found the Muslim Brotherhood everywhere around me. I even found that the people I spent my evenings with, sharing shisha (waterpipe), were from the Brotherhood. They were all Brotherhood by blood—their fathers were in the Brotherhood, so they were too, by default. They were exempt from the traditional tests that can last up to two years, which others have to go through to join the organization.

At that time, the stigmatized image of the conservative religious movement that actor Adel Imam tried to promote—one of an uncivilized religious group who eat with their hands after playing with their toes, and wipe their hands on their beards—had failed. This was in large part due to the emergence of Amr Khaled in the late nineties as a popular preacher. The elegant, mustached, and relatively young sheikh who opted for suits instead of the traditional gallabeya, always had a smile on his face, never shouted, and taught by example. His preaching attracted a different social class, as his popularity soared particularly among young, sophisticated Egyptians, often attending his sessions as couples.

It is only fair to admit that he was a successful role model and, for that reason, the Brotherhood was very proud of him, and his example of a balanced approach that attracted many.

I began my days with the Fajr (dawn) prayer. The younger members of the Brotherhood, who had taken it upon themselves to guide me in the ways of prayer,  would pass by my house so I could go pray with them at the mosque, which incidentally, was almost entirely filled with Brotherhood members. I lived in Mohandessin, so we would pray at the Tarek bin Zaid Mosque, dominated by Brotherhood members. The men at the mosque, however, were very secretive. They claimed they merely sympathized with the Brotherhood, but were not members themselves.

At this Mosque, I met the Brotherhood’s elite, many of whom I am still on good terms with, even after an exchange of blows. I met Mohammad Ghozlan (a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau), Essam Hashish (a leading member of the Brotherhood) and their sons, with whom I later became friends. These are friendships that have lasted, and we still check on one another every once in a while. Regardless of their stands and statements, which I do not follow lest it affects our relationship, there is still a special place for them in my heart.

At the Tarek bin Ziad Mosque, everyone would arrive before the second call to prayer (Iqamah), the Cairo night still dark. Even the state security informer assigned to that Brotherhood Mosque never missed the Fajr prayer. The worshippers would receive me with morning smiles that conveyed two messages: “Welcome” and “Thank God you made it.” The first question asked among those gathered was, “Where is so-and-so? It seems he slept in.” So we would call to wake him, so he would not miss the prayer.

More often than not, the Imam leading the prayer was not a member of the Brotherhood, which is unusual in Brotherhood-affiliated mosques. He either worked for the mosque, or was a senior worshipper, but not necessarily the one who has memorized the Holy Qur’an, or who has been a Muslim for the longer time. The choice of the Imam was arbitrary.

When the prayer finished, we would start reciting athkar (supplications of the day), and if there was space, we would sit in the Fajr recital circle. It was a small circle, made up of men of all ages, and all of their names were known to the informer. They all carried a copy of the Qur’an and would read a page aloud to the group. In this circle, there was no aim to educate. Instead the only aim appeared to correct the way in which we recited. That means that anyone wihtout the basic recitation or elocution (tajwid) skills  was singled out in front of the group. And I was among those singled out. As a result, I decided to pray Fajr elsewhere in Mohandessin, settling on the Moustafa Mahmoud Mosque.

Although it was not an Brotherhood-affiliated mosque, some people from the Tarek bin Ziad Mosque decided to join me there. There, I would recite Qur’an with Sheikh Mohammad Bakhit, an old man in his sixties with a gentle smile, a sense of kindness, and an outstanding sense of humor. The first time I recited before him he was shocked at my poor skills, but  was very patient with me. The recital circle at Moustafa Mahmoud would continue until sunrise. Then worshippers would recite morning athkar together, which I later learned was bid’ah. If it was a day off, my friends from the Brotherhood and I would then go for breakfast together.

Gathering outside the Tarek bin Ziad mosque was not permitted, for fear that informers would take pictures of worshippers and file reports against them. Worshippers would greet one another and leave. Men working at the mosque would often ask us to leave so they could lock the door and prevent security informers from harassing him, especially at times of unrest. For example, Egypt witnessed an inexplicable surge in security in the wake of 9/11.

Because performing the Fajr prayer is not an easy task, especially in the winter, when you are warm under the covers, there has to be something that encourages you to go. Some suggested we pray with Sheikh Mohamed Gibril, at the CIB Mosque. An argument broke out with others saying that the CIB is a bank that deals with interest. We had to explain it’s only known as the CIB Mosque because it’s in the same building as a branch of the CIB Bank. This prompted the questions, why not call it the Maghrabi Mosque, since the eyewear store Maghrabi is in the same building? I have always known it as the CIB Mosque. The mosque takes up the entire first floor of the building, and can’t be worth more than 1 million EGP. The owner decided to turn it into a Mosque, and the architecture obviously cost a lot of money, it was air-conditioned, the carpets were new, and the bathrooms clean. Sheikh Mohamed Gibril would lead the Fajr prayer, then do Doa’a Qunut1. The mosque had a unique atmosphere, with worshippers of different backgrounds coming together from different places to listen the beautiful voice of Mohamed Gibril

After a while, I decided to assume the role of the person who wakes the group up for Fajr prayer. I was persistent and they regretted the day they decided to bring me into the group. Indeed, all their attempts to make me join their group failed, not because of my Fajr phone calls, nor because of my many questions, but simply because I did not want to be part of a secret entity with a political edge. I wanted to understand and be involved in religion, at least at that stage of my life. I cannot deny their great contribution on my commitment to the Fajr prayer, and on encouraging me to pray it at the Mosque. I cannot deny that they were kind and polite and helped me through the trauma of losing my friend.

And I cannot deny that they were very keen on steering me away from any Salafi mosque. Later I knew why..

To be continued…

1 Doa’a Qunut is an extra prayer that is only performed ocassionally, and is said at times of disaster. 

Author’s note: This is my personal experience and an account of the events paired with my personal understanding, which does not aim to be historical.

Mohamed Tolba founded the Salafyo Costa Movement in April 2011. He writes a weekly column for Egyptian daily, al-Youm al-Saba’a, and his first book is to be published in the coming months, detailing his experiences in Sudan, and the challenges he has faced as an Egyptian Salafi citizen.

Image: Photo: Ahmed ElHusseiny