Between “Public” Islam and “Private” Sufism: Producing a National Icon through Mass Mediated Hagiography


in Die Welt des Islams
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To what extent can a national hero be a Sufi? This article examines the much contested yet still underexplored relationship between the public discourse of modernity and Sufism by looking at how television producers dealt with Sufi elements in ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm Maḥmūd’s (1910–78) biography. The Egyptian public remembers ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm Maḥ­mūd as a Shaykh al-Azhar and a distinguished scholar of Sufism of the 1970s. His biopic series broadcast on national television during the Ramadan of 2008 showed the delicate nature of exposing Sufi practices in public Islam. ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm’s career path leading up to the level of a high-ranking scholar of al-Azhar was celebrated as the result of strong faith in God. However, his Sufi practices were modified to correspond to the television producers’ understanding of correct Sufism and to show how “private” spiritual pursuits would not hinder one from being an economically productive individual in the public sphere.


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  • 2

     See Th. Emil Homerin“Ibn Arabi in the People’s Assembly: Religion, Press, and Politics in Sadat’s Egypt” in MEJ 40 (1986) pp. 462–77; Elizabeth Sirriyeh Sufi and Anti-Sufis: The Defence Rethinking and Rejection of Sufism in the Modern World (Surrey UK: Curzon 1999) pp. 86–102 and pp. 140–72. For a notable exception see Michael Gilsenan Recognizing Islam: Religion and Society in the Modern Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris 2000 [1982]).

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  • 9

     See Michael Ezekiel GasperThe Power of Representation: Publics Peasants and Islam in Egypt (Stanford: California University Press2009); Timothy Mitchell Rule of Experts: Egypt Techno-Politics Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press 2002).

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  • 12

     Maḥmūdal-Ḥamdu pp. 169–78. For the biographical details on Massignon see Jacques Waardenburg “Louis Massignon (1883–1962) as a Student of Islam” in WI 45 (2005) pp. 312–42.

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  • 13

     Maḥmūdal-Madrasa pp. 363–9.

  • 15

     Walter Armbrust“Synchronizing Watches: The State, the Consumer, and Sacred Time in Ramadan Television” in Religion Media and the Public Sphereed. Birgit Meyer and Annelies Moors (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2006) pp. 207–26. A similar ­phenomenon is also observed in Syria. See Christa Salamandra A New Old Damascus: Authenticity and Distinction in Urban Syria (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2004) pp. 102–24.

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  • 20

     Christa Salamandra“Creative Compromise: Syrian Television Makers between Secularism and Islamism” in Contemporary Islam 2 (2008) p. 178.

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  • 22

     Abu-Lughod“Finding a Place” p. 501.

  • 24

     Aḥmad Yāsīn“Al-Shaykh ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm Maḥmūd yuʿīd Ḥasan Yūsūf ilā tilifizyūn”Dār al-Ḥayāt15 January 2008 http://www.daralhayat.com/archivearticle/192197 (ac­­cessed 13 October 2009).

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  • 33

     Maḥmūdal-Madrasa pp. 363–9.

  • 38

     GilsenanRecognizing Islam p. 231. Frederick De Jong’s account of the relationship between the Nasser regime and the Supreme Council of Sufi Orders partially confirms this view. Sufi orders flourished during the Nasser era (1954–70) because the government attempted to use the authority of Sufi shaykhs to subdue the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. Government involvement with Sufi orders was visible to the public; people saw officials delivering speeches at mawlids and Nasser’s portraits often appeared in al-Islām wa-l-Taṣawwuf the official magazine of the Supreme Council. Frederick de Jong “Opposition to Sufism in Twentieth-Century Egypt (1900–1970): A Preliminary Survey” in Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics ed. ­Frederick de Jong and Berndt Ratdke (Leiden: E.J. Brill 1999) pp. 319f.

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  • 39

     JohansenSufism and Islamic Reform in Egypt p. 4.

  • 45

     Charles HirschkindThe Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (New York: Columbia University Press2006) pp. 126f.

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  • 46

     StarrettPutting Islam p. 62.

  • 47

     Maḥmūdal-Madrasa pp. 363–414.

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