Shaykh Dr H. A. Hellyer remembers Shaykh Emad Effat seven years on from his death
Seven years ago today, Shaykh Emad Effat died of a gunshot wound when Egyptian soldiers clashed with demonstrators – of which Shaykh Emad was one – protesting against the country’s military leaders in downtown Cairo. He became known as “Shaykh al-Thawra” (the shaykh of the revolution) and “Shaheed al-Azhar” (the martyr of the Azhar). Seven years on, I still ponder a great deal about Shaykh Emad, what he represented, what lessons he taught those of us who believed in the January 25th revolution of Egypt, and the roles that religious leaders play today in the region from whence he came.
Shaykh Emad was an Azhari shaykh, in the old mold of what it meant to be an Azhari ‘alim (scholar). He earned several degrees: the first in Arabic language from Ain Shams University, the second in Shari‘a at the Azhar University, and then a diploma in Islamic jurisprudence, also from al-Azhar University. Before his more extensive studies in the Islamic tradition, he was more sympathetic to an ultra-conservative form of Salafism – but in his 20s, shifted to a more mainstream Sunnism.
He taught in the old rooms of the Azhar mosque, in a very traditional manner – and upheld the traditional methodology (minhaj) of the Azhari collective of learning. That meant, as Imam al-Saffarini describes it in his Lawami’ al-Anwar, the two major schools of theology (the Ash‘aris and the Maturidis), the minor school (the Athari or Hanbali) of theology, the Sunni schools of law, and Sufism. That is historically normative Sunnism, and the largest body of Muslims historically have followed precisely that. I’m not aware if Shaykh Emad was a member of a specific tariqa (Sufi order) – I do know that he taught texts from the orders, including the famous Hikam (Aphorisms) of Ibn Ata’illah, a luminary of the Shadhuli order of Sufis.
And at the same time, he was a deep believer in contextualization, in the finest tradition of his Azhari upbringing. As his student, Ibrahim al-Houdaiby mentioned of him, “The shaykh greatly respected expertise and listened closely to experts in all fields and gladly sought the advice of social studies specialists before expressing his opinion on something in their field. He criticized “preachers” and “shaykhs” who talk about God’s religion without being qualified.” How few, it seems, that pay genuine attention to this important note today, despite it resonating through the ages from various ‘ulama.
The Hasani and the Husayni
Shaykh Emad was also a member of the official Azhari establishment. By that, I mean he engaged in a rather direct fashion with officialdom writ large. From 2003 until his death, Shaykh Emad held the position of “amin al-fatwa,” or the “director of religious verdicts” at Egypt’s Dar al-‘Ifta – a part of the state’s Ministry of Justice, which issued religious verdicts to citizens and state departments that requested them. One of his most beloved teachers was the then grand mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa’.
But there was another aspect to Shaykh Emad Effat – and it was the aspect that led him to protest against the military leaders of Egypt in late 2011.
Ironically, one of the most vivid testimonies to that came from the grand mufti, who was immensely critical of that aspect of him. As Dr Waleed Almusharaf recalls, in a piece that deserves to be read again and again: “He never asked my opinion on going down to [Tahrir] square,” said the Grand Mufti, “He blamed me for not going there myself. He would say of it: ‘the air around Tahrir now, is purer to me than the air around the Kaaba.’ I criticized him for the statement.”
His widow, Nashwa Abdel-Tawab, said, “During sit-ins at Tahrir Square [in January and February of 2011, when the revolutionary uprising broke out], he would go to work in the morning and spend the night in the square.” Shaykh Emad believed in that revolution – as a way to “enjoin the good and forbid the evil,” as the Qur’anic verse stipulates. During the day, he would continue his work, as an ‘alim that was part of the official state apparatus. And at night, he went to Tahrir Square, and called for accountability of that same state apparatus. He saw no contradiction in that – but he did so on the basis of principle.
A dear friend of mine, bore witness to the fact that at one time he was in Shaykh Emad’s office, a policeman called Shaykh Emad on the telephone to ask about the permissibility of shooting unarmed protesters. Shaykh Emad was absolutely categorical – from within that same state institution – that this was absolutely forbidden (haram). Engagement with that state authority structure was something he did – certainly – but he did so on the basis of principle, and that principle included speaking truth to that same structure. As Dr Waleed Almusharaf reminded us, in what I describe as the “Husayni” aspect of Shaykh Emad Effat: “When the time for elections [in 2011] came, he declared, without fear of blame, his opinion that to vote for ex-members of the [Mubarak] regime is a sin outright, as it is to vote for anyone who has been proven to be corrupt, whether from the past regime or not.”
There was a sense of Shaykh Emad Effat bringing together what I would call the “Hasani” and the “Husayni” approaches to power. The former being an engagement with it, to minimize damage and lessen conflict. The latter being an opposition to it, through open declarations. For Shaykh Emad, they were intertwined – by consistency, by persistent adherence to principle, by a refusal to bow to authoritarianism of any type.
When it came to the clashes in late 2011, his wife said, “He wasn’t able to join the Cabinet sit-in, but when he saw [the violence], he couldn’t just stand and watch people dying, so he went down to the protest.” “He didn’t advocate violence,” she added. “He was there to show solidarity with the protesters.”
It might be too easy to say “different strokes for different folks” – because the implication is that there isn’t a consistent principle at play here. But the reality is that the Husayni way of open opposition is appropriate in some situations – and the Hasani way of minimizing damage in another – and they are both Prophetic. And they both revert back to that age old set of prescriptions for the duty of “forbidding the wrong and enjoining the good.” Is such engagement effective? What about those who suffer from that engagement? What about those who would suffer without such engagement? What is the extent of that engagement that is necessary? Can it be limited? Should it be?
And if one cannot do it right and properly – then the option of staying out of it is not a bad option in the slightest. But then we apply the principles consistently. If I learned anything from Shaykh Emad’s example, it was that just because one bad power is not as bad as another bad power, it does not give that lesser bad power immunity from justifiable critique. In the world of the good, the bad and the ugly, the existence of the bad doesn’t give the ugly a free pass. And even when it seems unrealistic and difficult, striving to be of the good is its own recompense, in his world and the next – even if it means you’re damned by both the bad and ugly in response.
But there were other nuances to Shaykh Emad’s life and witness, which were subtle, while immensely important. When Shaykh Emad went on protests, for example, he didn’t do so wearing his traditional Azhari garb. He purposely went almost incognito. His students knew he went on protests – and respected him for it – but he did not leverage his religious authority identity when he did so. He went as a son of Egypt, and even as a man of religion. Indeed, because he was a man of religion. He loathed the usage of religious imagery and language for unethical purposes. To one of his students, he said that he didn’t wear his Azhari garb, as he didn’t intend to represent the Azhari institution, nor Dar al-Ifta’, when he went on protests – he sought only to be there as an Egyptian concerned for his country’s future. “Love of one’s homeland is from faith” – a Prophetic narration that is questioned in terms of authenticity, but not in terms of meaning.
Ibrahim al-Houdaiby, also my friend, once tweeted about the massacre of the Copts in Maspero, which took place a couple of months earlier in Cairo. He declared that any talk which does not begin with the condemnation of the massacre, was “an affront to humanity and patriotism.” Shaykh Emad, who tweeted nine times in his life, added, “And to religion.”
That was the place of religious vocabulary in Shaykh Emad’s lexicon – to stand for truth against power, not in trying to explain away the abuses of power through verbal gymnastics. He was clear about that when it came to the Egyptian state – even though he worked in one of its institutions – and he was clear about it when it came to sectarianism. The Maspero massacre was nothing if not a sectarian outrage – perpetrated by state institutions, and defended by religious populists in the Brotherhood and others. Not Shaykh Emad.
I found that condemnation of the Maspero massacre doubly interesting, because it signified something very clear. It indicated to me – then, as it does now – that a man of religion like Shaykh Emad rejected authoritarianism and the use of power against the vulnerable by the powerful. Whether in the name of religion or otherwise; whether by the state, or by non-state actors. This, irrespective of his commitment to traditional Sunnism – or, I think he would say, because of that commitment. Shaykh Emad didn’t advocate complete disassociation from the corridors of power, though I believe he also respected this as a legitimate choice. But he was consistent.
In the years running up to the outbreak of the revolutionary uprising in Egypt in 2011, Effat wrote to al-Houdaiby, when he mentioned something about respect for shaykhs. The answering is telling:
“There are all these good words about respect for shaykhs, giving them leeway and excuses, but where is God’s right to His own religion? Where is the right of the public who are confused about the truth because shaykhs are silent, and your own silence out of respect for senior shaykhs? What is this new idol that you call pressure? How does this measure to Ahmed ibn Hanbal’s tolerance of jail and refusing to bend and say what would comfort the unjust rulers?”
“What is this new idol you invented? The idol of pressure! If we submit to these new rituals, to this new idol, we would then tolerate everyone who lies, commits sins and great evils under the pretext of easing pressure and escaping it. Oh people, these pressures are only in your head and not in reality. Is there a new opinion in jurisprudence that coercion can be by illusion? Have we come to use religious terms to circumvent religion and justify the greater sins we commit? So we use legitimate phrases such as pros and cons, the lesser of two evils, and pressure to make excuses for not speaking up for what is right and surrendering to what is wrong!”
“Shaykhs of Al-Azhar used to leave their resignations in the drawers of their secretaries and told them: if you see us submitting to pressure then hand over the resignation to the press. When they are honest to God, He makes them victorious and cherishes them.”
If there were two sentences I think summed up his life, it would be this one by his widow, followed by one of his students. The first was written about his life during the uprising – the second about his life, and his death, during the revolutionary period.
[Shaykh Emad] would go to work [in Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyya] in the morning and spend the night in the square. – Nashwa El-Tawwab
[Shaykh Emad] stood before the bullets and the rest of it. – Dr Waleed Almusharaf
But if I were given a chance to repeat something longer, perhaps it would be this – a recollection of his first lesson after Mubarak’s ouster in 2011, recalled by al-Houdaiby. Shaykh Emad was an exemplar of the inheritors of the Prophets – may we benefit from him, and may God perfume his resting place.
“I urge everyone, especially my students, to pause and reflect. The gauge is not the success of the revolution but taking a stand. Revolutions can be aborted, and sincere calls can be defeated. Some prophets, peace be upon them, will come alone on the Day of Judgment, some were killed, and that is not a measure of failure. Not at all; the gauge is one’s stand.
“Do not look at the consequence of what has happened but look at its nature and what it was. What was your position? Where were you? Why were some of us present in classes and at prayers, but absent at these blessed moments? We must reassess and hold ourselves accountable because God, with His mercy, extended our lives, and so this is an opportunity to re-evaluate. As long as we breathe there is room for repentance and revision. The end is the gauge. It is not too late. Perhaps what is coming is harder than what has passed.”
Shaykh Dr Hisham A. Hellyer
Born to an English father and to an Egyptian mother of ʿAbbāsī-Sudanese & Ḥasanī-Moroccan heritage, Shaykh Dr Hisham A. Hellyer was raised between England and different parts of the Arab world, before becoming educated at Sheffield and Warwick universities to post-doctoral levels in law and the social sciences.
Shaykh Hisham studied – and studies – the Islamic tradition in the UK, Egypt, South Africa, the Gambia, Malaysia, Singapore, and elsewhere, keeping the company of traditionally trained scholars. These included the contemporary polymath, Tan Sri Professor Sayyid M. Naquib al-Attas, who mentored him in Malaysia, and Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, the South African sage and khalifa of the Makkan exemplar, Sayyid Muhammad b. Alawi al-Maliki.
This was alongside Dr Hellyer’s research and academic career in institutions including the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Brookings Institution, the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Islamic Studies, Harvard University, and the Royal Institute (RUSI). His published books include “A Sublime Way: the Sufi Path of the Makkan Sages”, “A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond Revolt”, “The Islamic Tradition and the Human Rights Discourse”, and “Muslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans”.
A member of the Council of the British Board of Scholars and Imams, he was appointed as the only Senior Scholar of Azzawia Institute in South Africa by Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, and the first professorial fellow in Islamic Studies at Cambridge Muslim College of Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad/Dr. Timothy J. Winter. In 2020, he was selected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in recognition of achievements to social change. @hahellyer