Nogoum FM radio plays over the speakers in the Shohadaa Metro Station, which previously bore the Mubarak name but was changed to commemorate the martyrs of the 2011 revolution. There are few passengers this early in the day. On the Giza-bound side of the platform is a small metallic kiosk, in which there is barely enough room for a desk. Instead, it houses four chairs, a small fan and shelves packed with books on religion.
Three sheikhs sit inside the booth, registering the personal information of fatwa-seekers in a large notebook. One gives the fatwa, which the other two record in detail. Each person seeking advice is asked to sign and give their phone number. To ensure privacy, only one person at a time is allowed in the kiosk.
“This place needs a bench where the elderly can sit and wait their turn,” an old man leaning on his cane comments.
Last May, the Al-Azhar-affiliated Islamic Research Academy published that they would provide a fatwa service in Cairo’s metro stations, staffed by Al-Azhar clerics available to answer people’s questions. Other religious services, such as sermons, would also be provided through the metro’s broadcasting system, as per an agreement between the religious institution and the metro authority.
Aware of sheikhs’ reluctance to speak with the media, and knowing that recording a conversation would require a permit, I decided to seek a fatwa as a citizen and not a reporter.
Sheikh Mohamed shut out the noise from the radio by closing the kiosk window. Now he can better hear my question: Are Muslims permitted to donate zakat (compulsory alms-giving) money to the poor without asking about their religion? I explain that, as a Christian, I am curious as to whether the religion of the receiver affects Muslims’ approach to charity.
Sheikh Mohamed smiles, commenting that he can relate to a Christian fatwa-seeker as he is from Mit Damsis, the Delta town that houses the famous Coptic St. George Monastery.
“You have to understand the difference between zakat and sadaqa [charity],” he says. “Zakat is only given to the poor and cannot be donated to hospitals or other public entities as there is a possibility the rich may benefit from it. Therefore, it is best that zakat is given by a Muslim to those they feel are the most in need. However, sadaqa is available for everyone and it is forbidden to discriminate based on religion when providing assistance.”
While he hasn’t exactly answered my question, Sheikh Mohamed elaborates on his vague answer by recounting an anecdote about Amr Ibn al-As, the 7th century Muslim military commander, who encountered a Christian beggar while walking in the street. Displeased with what he saw, he told one of his companions: “We took the jizyah [tax paid by non-Muslims] from him when he was young, and today, in his old age, we leave him to beg?” He then asked for a stipend to be paid to him and others like him from the treasury.
As I wonder whether or not to tell him that I am a journalist, he starts talking about the importance of the booth.
“People do not understand the significance of this place and that’s why they may make fun of it. It is important for us to talk to people face to face and address their simple, sometimes obvious, questions. Some people may not know the answers to even the simplest of questions.”
“Some might think those who are killing Christians today will continue to target Christians, but things might be different tomorrow. It could very well become our turn. After all, we worship the same god. The hadith [records of Prophet Muhammad’s sayings] states that people are the work of God and cursed is the one who destroys the work of God. Do you think, for example, that if the Kaaba, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, or Al-Aqsa Mosque were destroyed, we would not be able to rebuild them? Of course we would. But how can you compensate for the killing of a person? The hadith refers to all people, not just Muslims.”
He concludes by also citing verses from the bible: “‘Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.’ This is what Jesus said. Both the Quran and the Bible talk about love and peace, so how can anyone think we do not worship the same god?”
The sheikh seated next to him nods in agreement. I smile and thank them both. I leave after signing my name and adding my phone number to their notebook. In the question column, the word “zakat” was written.
The conveniently located booth has its regular visitors. A 60-year-old woman at the station tells me, “I used to go to Dar al-Ifta almost once a month where it is more pleasant. There are separate offices where you can sit and talk comfortably with a sheikh. It is true that here, in the metro, there is not as much privacy, but it is also less out of the way. You know, when you get old, you need to make sure you nurture your relationship with God by always seeking answers.”
Soon after the booths were installed they became a subject of mockery, with some accusing them of proselytizing, prompting a response from the Islamic Research Academy. Affiliated with Al-Azhar, it performs a similar role to the independent Dar al-Ifta, tasked with making religious decisions concerning fatwas and Islamic issues.
Mohie Eddin Afify, the secretary-general of the academy, insisted that the fatwa booth is a step toward countering extremist thought and questioned the legitimacy of the criticism leveled at the initiative, asking: “Do they want to destabilize the country and undermine the efforts that are being carried out to counter extremist thought?”
In an interview in July, following negative public response to the initiative, Transport Minister Hesham Arafat said that the initiative was intended as a response to demands made by citizens and that it is scheduled to be closed after the Eid al-Adha holiday in September.
In statements published on the Islamic Research Academy website, Afify asserted that “the experiment will be evaluated on a monthly basis and the preliminary results will be declared after the pilgrimage season.”
However, the secretary-general declined to comment on claims that the booth will close by September. “I refuse to comment, especially as the experiment is still in its infancy and its success cannot be judged yet,” he tells Mada Masr.
Meanwhile, Sheikh Sayed Tawfiq, who supervises the fatwa committee at the Shohadaa metro station, insisted in a televised interview that the booth is not “just an experiment, but a reality.” He claimed that other booths will be set in the Marg and Helwan stations, as soon as resources become available. He explained that the metro authority had borne the cost of setting up the Shohadaa booth.
But Ahmed Abdel Hady, the spokesman for the metro authority, tells Mada Masr that they “did not contribute one cent to setting up the booth. It was a donation from the company that constructs booths for the station.”
He adds, “the metro authority signed a protocol with the Islamic Research Academy providing for the presentation of religious programs, including sermons, through the metro’s internal broadcast system and a fatwa booth at the Shohadaa station.”
Hady asserts that, according to the protocol, the contract will end after Eid al-Adha. However, in a previous interview, he had spoken to the importance and permanence of the booth: “[it] is an accessible means by which citizens can ask their questions without having to make a trip to Dar al-Ifta … The sheikhs will be in the booth for years to come.”