Irreverence and the Islamic Legal Tradition in Egyptian Arabic

Irreverence and the Islamic Legal Tradition in Egyptian Arabic

Devin Stewart writes on expressions of irreverence towards religious authorities, on many Egyptians' aversion to saying "I don't know", and on the wit and inventiveness of those who seek to avoid saying it, all related to Islamic legal terminology.

The expression Lā yā shēkh! literally means “No, oh learned master!”. Egyptians may tell you this to suggest that you have exhibited the utmost of your cleverness by discovering something that was obvious to begin with. In other words, it is equivalent to the American teenagers’ compact interjection “duh!” or its more literary equivalent, “No sh-t, Sherlock!”. Lā yā shēkh exhibits a typical feature of Egyptian speech, its tendency to express irreverence, including irreverence toward symbols of religious authority. The shaykh, a master or teacher of the religious sciences, who in this expression is demoted to the status of a halfwit, must share this derogatory space with a host of other revered figures of Islamic religious history and religious authorities generally.

When Egyptians want to express the hoary age and dilapidated state of a thing, they say that it is min ayyām sayyidna Nūḥ “from the days of the prophet Noah”. They may substitute for Noah prophets whom you will not find mentioned in the Qur’an, as in min ayyām sayyidna khashaba “from the days of the prophet Plank” or min ayyām sayyidna ´akrūt “from the days of the prophet Rascal”.

When Egyptians explain that some effort has been in vain and we have come up empty-handed, they say kisibna ṣ-ṣalāt `an-nabi “We have gained blessings on the Prophet [Muḥammad]”. While it is certainly virtuous to bless the Prophet, the expression suggests that they gained nothing else besides that, nothing that might actually be useful for the issue at hand, such as correct directions to the bus station.

As with the shaykh mentioned above, the titles of authorities are subject to shattering demotions in common speech. The term faqīh is commonly used in religious discourse to designate a “jurist”—a scholar learned in Islamic law in particular. In Egyptian Arabic, this word has become fi’i, which most often means a Qur’an reciter for hire, a profession traditionally associated with the blind. This meaning is seen in the proverb il-ḥaẓẓ lamma yi’āti yikhalli l-fi’i sa`āti “When good fortune comes, it can make the [blind] Qur’an reciter a watchmaker”—in other words, it can work miracles. Religious authorities are regularly portrayed as greedy and gluttonous in popular speech, and this has given rise to the names of dishes such as lu’mit il-‘āḍi (from qāḍī) “the morsel of the judge”—a variety of fried dough balls drenched in honey—or the originally Turkish imām bāyildi “the imam fainted”—a stuffed eggplant dish.

But perhaps the most devastating demotion of Islamic religious discourse in Egyptian Arabic is the fate of the verb aftā, yuftī, which originally means for a muftī “expert on Islamic law” to issue a fatwā “Islamic legal opinion”. Islamic legal discourse insists that anyone who serves in this role is taking on a grave responsibility, because he is relating what is intended to be God’s view on a legal question to the public. Only scholars who have completed rigorous training in the law should even contemplate undertaking the task. If they do, each question requires concentration and an exhaustive investigation.

In Egyptian Arabic, the verb fata, yifti refers to a different operation altogether, meaning roughly “to give a baseless opinion”. The act itself is termed fatw or faty; someone who indulges in the genre frequently is termed a fattāy. It means to grant an opinion on a subject one actually knows nothing about on the basis of no significant expertise and without any significant consideration, deliberation, or profound thought. It is a shot in the dark, created on the spot either to impress or to mislead the audience. Many visitors, tourists, and native Egyptians have suffered from performances of fatw while asking for directions. The basic problem, critics suggest, is that many Egyptians have a visceral or even innate aversion to making the simple statement ma a`rafsh “I don’t know”. It is viewed demeaning—an act of self-humiliation (ihānat al-nafs) on a par with calling oneself a donkey. It is therefore preferable to invent an answer on the basis of no actual knowledge.

It has also been proved that such experiences are not simply flukes caused by faulty memories. American students got many sets of directions to the “Mickey Mouse Hotel” that they invented for the purpose of testing the hypothesis that fatw was a reality, as did some Egyptian friends who were told the best way to get to the Square of the Martyr Tamr al-Sawi in al-Muhandiseen, when said martyr, Tamr al-Sawi, was sitting in the back seat of their car. Not to mention the episode of al-Kamira al-Khafiyya (Hidden Camera) in which the hosts went to Zamalek, the island in the middle of Cairo that is home to many of the foreign embassies, and were told by passersby how to find the Egyptian Embassy.

“You have heard, sir, of course, about the dinosaur that escaped from the zoo?” — “Of course.” — “Where did you hear about it?” — “On the evening news.” — “And you’re not scared?” — “No, not really.” — “Why not?” — “You know, he’s still small—he hasn’t grown into a monster or anything yet. …”

Foreign visitors should not think they have been unfairly singled out for this sort of misinformation and the resultant wild goose chases. In response to this recurring feature of Egyptian public life, Egyptian television ran a series of 28 episodes in 2011 called Argūk ma-tiftīsh “Please do not do fatw”, which exposed the workings of the genre. The young female announcer, Riham al-Shaykh, would approach people in the street and say, “You know sir, of course, about X?”, phrasing the question in such a way as to put the interlocutor in a position in which admission of ignorance would have been difficult or embarrassing. The nature of X in the question was surprising: in one episode a new day of the week was going to be added to the regular seven, in another Egypt had just been named number one internationally in the macaroni harvest, and in another the peanut-roasting carts were creating a hole in the ozone layer. Yet another episode explored reactions to the tragic erasure of the equator line. But perhaps the most memorable was the exchange about dinosaurs on the right.

The show proves a number of things: that the average Egyptian would rather not say, “I don’t know” when there is another, more attractive alternative; that you can often spot when someone is indulging in fatw by noting a tell-tale delay in answering; and that Egyptians are rather more tolerant and understanding of dinosaurs than their fellow humans in Jurassic Park. The performers of fatw are often very inventive, and the general public, even if they suffer from the peddling of incorrect information, nevertheless appreciate fatw when it involves flourishes of wit and creativity. So, this particularly Egyptian genre, notwithstanding its negative effects, and despite the fact that it drags Islamic legal terminology through the mud, has a certain positive valence based on an appreciation of spontaneous ingenuity.