What is Egyptian Culture? Where can we learn about it? Not on the Egyptian television. Western culture is admired and imitated in the Egyptian media, but not in the typical Egyptian home. The Egyptian TV sitcoms, serials, and movies are full of very western-styled actors and actresses portraying lives only slightly more conservative than in the West. In the United States, for example, if a foreigner wants to understand American culture, it is reasonable to study American media, because, generally speaking, it portrays American lifestyles accurately. But in Egypt, this strategy will fail completely. Perhaps only 5% of the population actually lives like what is typically portrayed on the TV. It is some kind of enjoyable National Fantasy, but definitely not a reflection of what’s really going on under the typical roof with the satellite dish. I live here! It totally doesn’t look like that! This “cultural spin” is quite shocking, so I have spent some time researching Egyptian culture, as I see it all around me here. This is the first essay in a series on the “nuts” and “bolts” of Egyptian Culture. In this essay, I am dealing primarily with the influence on daily life by Islam in general, and delving into the primary component of this influence, “Sharia Law.”
Five times a day, every day of the week, every mosque in every neighborhood in Egypt broadcasts the Call to Prayer from it’s loudspeaker. Every year, in the Holy Month of Ramadan, the entire Quran is divided into 30 segments and broadcast from those same loudspeakers, after the final prayer of every night of the month. Every Friday afternoon, loudspeakers from every mosque broadcast a Sermon for every ear to hear, willingly or not. It is physically impossible to grow up ignorant of Islam in this country, unless you are born deaf. Illiteracy may be a problem here, but it has no bearing on anyone’s ability to understand Islam. Muslim or not, like it or not, these broadcasts are inescapable. I’m not reviewing the content of the broadcast here, or the amount of attention paid to it. I’m highlighting the role Islam plays in the daily life of every Egyptian. You won’t see it portrayed this way on the TV, but like it or not, the influence of Islam in Egypt is huge, and for this reason, Islamic practices influence much of Egyptian culture.
Islamic practices are derived from guidance found in the Qur’an, the Holy Book of the Muslims. The Scriptures contained within it’s pages are the actual words spoken to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), delivered by the Archangel Gabriel at God’s Command. All of the guidance, taken as a corporate whole, forms the Islamic System of Law known as the “Sharia.” Western Media portrays Islamic Sharia Law as the root of all terror. However, if you translate “Sharia” as “Contractual,” you will understand the basic principle of this system. And if you remember the Ten Commandments, you have the basic foundation for every contract. It’s not a scary legal system, unless you enjoy breaking the Ten Commandments.
Let’s explore the familiar Commandment, “Thou shalt not lie.” Muslims are encouraged to document transactions involving money, and both parties must sign. Contracts are usually witnessed for important things, like marriage, or the sale of a house or other property. In Egypt, this is an accepted practice. What better way to sort out the liars, than writing a contract and asking for a signature? I’m not saying it reduces the ratio of liars per square meter, but it usually produces strong contracts between the signature parties. I’ve seen this culture of contractual law play out between my rural village neighbors countless times, regardless of religion, and often regardless of signature. It is a perfect example of an Islamic practice influencing the actions and behavior of every citizen in the neighborhood. There is a cultural norm expressed in the fact that a man’s word in Egypt is quite often enough to hold him accountable.
Holding someone accountable is covered within Sharia Law. Without punishment for breaking a contract, there’s not much stopping anybody from breaking his word. Punishment, in most cases, is as simple as being held accountable by all of one’s family, friends, and neighbors. For example, I have seen half the village suddenly appear at the sound of a noisy argument erupting between two people. Instantly, sides are taken, separating the “combatants.” Some semblance of order mysteriously descends on the entire group, and they then hold a makeshift “court” right there, in the street! There is usually lots of yelling, and lots of back and forth arbitration is needed to reach a “legal” decision on the matter at hand, but I’ve witnessed many of these occasions, and I can testify that this practice is quite successful. Everybody goes home satisfied, with no further yelling and commotion in the street! Big cities in Egypt are essentially conglomerations of multiple smaller communities, with each community functioning in a similar fashion as a village. Everyone in the community knows each other, and, because of this, personal accountability is usually enforceable among family, friends and neighbors. They just set up court in the street and justice is served!
Such an ingrained neighborhood culture of contractual integrity can provide only so much support, however. It’s jurisdiction is strictly limited to the neighborhood boundaries. Beyond this, the national Judicial System of Egypt is the proper place for matters needing legal review. Although based loosely on the French System of Law, it is not surprising that most laws conform to, or condone, Islamic practices. In a country with a majority of the population following the Islamic Faith, there will naturally be more Muslims represented in the halls of government offices, including the Ministry of Justice. Islamic practices form the framework of daily life, every day of the week in Egypt. Islam’s guiding principles are applied in the daily life of every individual, from the poorest soul in the smallest village, to the highest Judge in the Highest Court in the Egyptian Judicial System. For this reason, we must understand, whether the Egyptian Media reflects this fact accurately or not, the practice of Islamic Sharia Law is a primary factor in the shape and size of all facets of Egyptian Culture.