Fifteen years ago, it was relatively uncommon to see the kinds of young crowds at mosques that are there today. The credit - or blame for this spreading wave of religiosity amongst the nation's young goes to a new generation of preachers, whose message is far more accessible than their predecessors seemed to be.
"During Ramadan," said one 29-year- old woman, "I spend more of my time praying and reciting the Quran. The only things I watch on television are religious programmes, particularly those presented by preachers like Amr Khaled, Khaled El-Guindi and Nawwarrah Hashem."
While her views are representative of a generation becoming more religious by the day, the new trend is a far cry from the fundamentalist, or even militant, image that prior mass shifts towards piety have seen. The preachers she's talking about offer a tolerant and comfortable discourse.
Pop star-like figures
No longer is the turbaned Azharite the trademark Muslim image; Islam is now available in a far more accessible format, open to everyone. With a handful of exceptions like Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa and Sheikh Youssef El-Qaradawi, the 'alim (religious scholar) has been replaced by the da'ia (preacher) across the public sphere.
Perhaps Hazem Ahmed, a 40-year-old accountant, sums up the underlying cause of this shift in perspective when he confides, "I want to listen to someone who is like me, who speaks my language and understands my problems - not someone who dresses differently, arguably compromises with the regime and offers only the most noncommittal answers."
Socially-rooted, the phenomenon has brought to the fore a professional, almost executive image whose exemplars - Amr Khaled, Safwat Hegazi, Khaled El-Guindi, Mahmoud El-Masri - are pop star-like figures with secular educations, privileged backgrounds and charismas to match.
Making their debuts at gatherings in private homes in the 1990s, they have gained phenomenal followings through a readily digestible mixture of colloquial and classical Arabic with which they perform intimate retellings of stories from Quran and Hadith (Prophet Mohamed's teachings), as well as impassioned, collective appeals for divine redemption.
They often attempt to integrate traditional teachings into a range of existing intellectual moulds - the discourse of self-help, for example - declaring themselves independent of both official and political Islam. They will balk at domestic politics, however, turning down a request for a fatwa (religious edict) as often as stating, again, that improving the moral character of society is a prerequisite for reform.
Their appeal - and danger - is that they tackle the day-to-day head on, with topics like dating and summer vacations forming some of Khaled's most popular sermons (though the Prophet's biography remains by far these new- wave preachers' most popular topic).
Return to conservatism through an illusion of modernism
They have acquired such weight across the Arab world that they now figure in sociological research.
Asef Bayat, for one scholar, argues that the emergence of lay preachers using a Western-style idiom to promote personal piety and salvation signals a shift away from the political within Islamism - a development variously interpreted as a wooing away from secular and extremist dangers (according to Islamist columnist Fahmi Howeidi), and a lamentable return to conservatism through an illusion of modernism (in the eyes of Al-Ahram Political and Strategic Studies Centre's Hala Mustafa).
For its part Al-Azhar, perhaps typically, has had nothing to say about the new preachers, though individual members of the establishment have condemned them as unsafe impostors.
Hussein Mahmoud Khedr, deputy of the Ministry of Religious Endowments, told Al-Arabi newspaper that the preachers' tapes are superficial; Abdullah Barakat, dean of Al-Azhar's faculty of Islamic advocacy, was even more expansive: "A preacher is a pivot of life, guiding people away from vice, towards virtue.
It is a hefty vocation - preaching must be clear, deep and whole. Not anybody who appears on TV can be called a preacher. Most are counsellors, few are preachers, and fewer still scholars."
Barakat took issue, in particular, with the notion that new-wave preachers constitute a revival of religious discourse. "A preacher must be able to speak the language of the age," Hegazi countered, stressing the importance of relevant topics, and the fact that a preacher must have a job, lest preaching should devolve into a moneymaking activity. Hegazi himself is a successful engineer.
"Diet da'wa" and "Air- conditioned Islam"
Informed Muslims like Lamia Adel, a 30-year-old teacher, call for a combination of old and new: "The new preachers help fill the gaps my secular education has left me with, but 10 years on you feel the need to listen to scholars expound on the more complex issues. Perhaps the new preachers bait us, get us hooked; but I think it's the traditional scholars who will guide and nourish us."
New-wave preaching has been derogatorily dubbed "diet da'wa" (advocacy of the faith), and "air- conditioned Islam". But according to Mohamed Ibrahim El-Geushi, a former Al-Azhar dean, advocacy in the original sense remains, technically speaking, the responsibility of every Muslim: "The concept of da'wa has various theological, political and historical implications, but its primary use in the Quran refers to God's will that Muslims should spread His message."
Like it or not, the new da'wa is an obvious aspect of religious reality - perhaps the most obvious. As long as the preachers in question refrain from issuing fatwas or promoting extremism - for which read opposition to the regime - they are not to be feared. As an antidote to fundamentalism and so-called governmental Islam, it remains to be seen, however, whether they will endure as Islam's clearest and most popular voice.
© Al Ahram weekly