I was not very enthused when this book was recommended to me by a friend. एक तो फ़िक्शन, ऊपर से 500 पेज प्लस! But when I picked it, the book turned out to be unputdownable.
The book revolves around Sheik Hatem is a highly popular televangelist of a popular TV show based in Cairo. His popularity and his simple but persuasive style of explaining Islamic precepts and concepts, catches the eye of the all powerful President’s son who assigns him the secret mission of dissuading his brother in law from converting to Christianity. His conversion would cause a scandal in the Muslim majority country and would weaken his hold on power.
Full of unexpected twists and turns, the book provides an excellent glimpse into how Islam operates in authoritarian states like Egypt (and much of the middle east), how it is commodified and also instrumentalised by the state for their own ends. I fell in in love with the character of Sheik Hatem, who starts his life as a preacher in a local mosque and then gradually catches the eye of the establishment. He gets projected, signs contract for his TV programmes and earns his missions. The Faustian bargain is that he stay within the limits of officially sanctioned Islam. So he argues that as an officially sanctioned/approved Mawlana while he does not lie about Islam on TV, he does not delve into the whole truth/analyse the issue in all its ramifications, lest he upset the State or even bore his audience who basically love their ‘rhetorical’ Islam.
However, the dialogue that he mouths in the book are is full of acerbic wit and slapstick humour. For example; ‘President Sadat, may he rest in peace, used to say, ‘No politics in religion, and no religion in politics,”.. but my motto is ‘No politics in politics, and no religion in religion.’ At one place he teases an Egyptian Islamist that they prefer Crusader medicines (Western medicines) over Quran-approved medications. ‘So Dr. Gamal, why don’t you make us some effective medicines instead of sitting reading the Quran in your pharmacy day and night. You ought to be doing research and inventing better medicines.’
Ibrahim Essa is a popular media personality in Egypt, who has had his own run-inns with the govt. The book was converted into a movie last year (if I remember correctly) called “Maulana” and it did pretty well at the box office. The ending of the book however is pretty abrupt! Looks like the writer has a sequel in mind. Will surely wait for it.
A thoroughly enjoyable read!