Last year a wave of anti-government protests spread through most parts of the Arab world. Better known as the Arab Spring, massive revolts and demonstrations erupted against the regimes in an attempt to oust the dictators and move towards equality, democracy, and freedom. The successful attempt of the protestors in Tunisia to oust their dictator inspired the people of Egypt to stand up against their oppressive and unjust regime. What followed was a long but successful struggle by the Egyptians to overthrow Hossni Mubarak, the then premier of Egypt. January 28th to February 11th marked the climax of the Egyptian struggle and revolution.1 During these days there were massive revolts and demonstrations across the Egyptian streets and in Tahrir Square, a square in Cairo that became an iconic symbol of the revolution and accommodated thousands of protestors. Since the protests and clashes usually lasted for several hours, there were many occasions when the protestors offered “Salah”2 in congregation during the protests. Although the Egyptian revolution cannot be framed as a completely non-violent struggle, there were many non-violent aspects to it. In particular, the performance of the rite of “Salah” was a completely non-violent act performed during these protests. The merits of non-violent protest can thus be applied to it and congregational prayers can be analyzed as a non- violent way to protest. Notwithstanding the original intentions of the protestors to pray during the protests, congregational prayers did become an integral part of the protests in the Egyptian revolution. Along with uniting the religiously, culturally and socially diverse protestors, the rite of congregational prayers strengthened the faith of the protestors, and demonstrated the determination and resilience of the protestors against the security forces. Congregational prayers were an effective means to protest as they united and regrouped the protestors, enabled the protestors to undermine the threat posed by the security forces by challenging their fundamental beliefs, and demonstrated the resilience of the protestors to stand for the objectives of the Egyptian revolution.
“Salah” and Congregational Prayers
Since “Salah” was often performed in congregation on the streets and city squares during the numerous protests that constituted the Egyptian revolution, it is essential to discuss the importance of congregational prayers and “Salah” in Islam before analyzing its impact on the Egyptian revolution. There are five essential duties that form the essence of Islam and are obligatory upon every Muslim. Commonly referred to as the “Five Pillars of Islam,” these five duties were instructed by the Prophet Muhammad himself. 3 Ruqaiyya Waris Maqsood explains how “ritual prayer five times per day (“Salah”)”4 is one of these five pillars. “Salah” is unanimously accepted by all the Muslims as an obligatory duty as Muslims are instructed by God in the Quran to “Observe the Salat."5 This is one of the many instances in the Quran where God has explicitly and directly commanded Muslims to establish prayers.6 Although it is permissible for the Muslims to pray alone, there is a lot of stress on praying “Salah” in congregation in Islam. Prophet Muhammad exemplified the merits of congregational prayers in the following words, “The prayer offered in congregation is twenty seven times superior to the one offered on one’s own.”7 Regarding the number of people praying together, it is deemed even better if there are more people praying together as a “Hadith”8 explains, “The more their number the more lovely their prayer is to Allah.”9 Hence, “Salah” is an obligatory duty for the believing Muslims and its merits are greater if Muslims offer it together in congregation.
Congregational prayers united the culturally, economically and religiously diverse protestors. As mentioned earlier, Muslims believe that God has explicitly ordered them to perform “Salah” in the Holy Quran and hence all the Muslims unanimously and incontrovertibly consider “Salah” as an obligatory duty. The protestors who took part in the revolution against the oppressive regime were from many diverse backgrounds representing different ethnic, cultural, social and political backgrounds. Ahmed Abd Eltawab Elsisi, an Egyptian I interviewed who participated in the protests from 28th December to 11th February, explained that although there were “socialists, capitalists and secular people” in the protests, “at the end of the day we all stood shoulder to shoulder during the prayers.” When asked how it promoted unity, Elsisi explained by saying, “everyone is doing the same thing at the same time.” Elsisi’s observation is supported by Khaled Abou El Fadl’s research as Fadl describes congregational prayers as “vehicles for moral and social solidarity, collective aspirations, and mobilization.”10 The protestors might differ on their political aspirations and ideas, or with the next strategy for the revolution; however, the call of prayers united the socially diverse protestors as everyone stood together and performed the actions together.
Apart from consolidating protestors from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, congregational prayers also united the economically diverse protestors. Elsisi explained how protestors constituted of “poor, middle and rich” class of the society, and that there was a general perception amongst the poor and the middle class before the revolution that the “elites are not giving hell about what poor people are doing.” According to Elsisi, the poor perceived the rich as a sector of the society who “are not caring much and they are just living their lives.” Elsisi explained that contrary to the general perception, some elites were indeed among the forerunners of the revolution. When it comes to congregational prayers Kamāl al-Dīn explains, “not the least distinction of caste, color or rank, or wealth is tolerated in a Muslim congregation.”11 Congregational prayers made these efforts by some elites in the revolution visible as during the congregational prayers the middle and poor class protestors “saw all those [rich] people lined up praying together [with them].”12 Fadl explains this aspect of the congregational prayers as he says, “These congregational performances affirmed a sense of solidarity that transcended the disparate economic statuses and divergent educational and cultural backgrounds of the revolutionaries.”13 Hence, congregational prayers also consolidated the protestors from different economic classes during the Egyptian revolution.
“Salah” performed in congregation also provided non-Muslims protestors with an opportunity to express solidarity with their Muslim counterparts, and united the protestors along the religious lines. Although a majority of the protestors were indeed Muslims, there were many non-Muslims who also protested against the oppressive regime. Although congregational prayers united the Muslim protestors who prayed together, the impact on non-Muslims is also crucial because they were an integral part of the protests. Elsisi claims that congregational prayers during the protests did not cause disunity along the lines of religion. Elsisi solved this apparent paradox by explaining that usually the space was not sufficient for everyone to pray at the same time. Hence, multiple congregational prayers were held in the Tahrir Square and also during the protests successively. Consequently, even during the congregational prayers, there were many people, Muslims and non-Muslims, who were not praying. Hence, the non-Muslims never felt secluded from the Muslims. Non-Muslims also took the responsibility to organize these congregational prayers in the Tahrir Square, and protected the Muslim worshippers during the prayers on the streets. Figure 1 captures one of the many occasions when the Coptic Christians formed a ring around the worshippers to protect them from the police forces. Elsisi explained how the non-Muslims also took the responsibility of “keeping the space between the worshippers and drawing the line” necessary for the prayers. In return, the Muslim protestors protected the Christians by protecting the Cathedrals in Cairo.14 Hence Muslims and Christians displayed solidarity by protecting each other’s religious ceremonies and sites and this sense of solidarity united the religiously diverse protestors and strengthened them.
Faith and Perseverance
The words spoken and actions performed during the congregational prayers provided the protestors with the faith and energy to overcome the challenges posed by the police forces, and displayed the resilience and determination of the protestors towards their cause. In the Egyptian revolution, the protestors revolted against a regime that had been ruling Egypt for more than thirty years. The Mubarak regime had developed a strong police force and military, and it enjoyed great foreign relations with its Western allies. The oppressive regime demonstrated a blatant use of force and tried to suppress the protest using the most violent means of mass arrests, baton charges, tear gas, water cannon and even live ammunition.15 Elsisi explained how the protestors had to face “hard times” because of the violent measures taken by the police force. In spite of all these violent attempts to suppress the protestors, “Salah” gave the protestors a tool to undermine the threats. Maqsood explains that “Salah” starts with the “takbir” or the announcement “‘Allahu akbar!’ – ‘Allah is the Most High.”’16 “Allahu Akbar” is an Arabic phrase and is literally translated as “God the greater” or “God the greatest.” The “Takbir” is repeated 18 to 24 times during the prayers, and this phrase is what marks the transition between different movements in the prayer. The constant reminder that although the task at hand is great but God is greater is what, according to Elsisi, gave the protestors the “power to continue.” ”Takbir” also became a prominent slogan that was chanted during the demonstrations. As Fadl explains, “[during protests] protestors incessantly yelled out “Allahu Akbar” (God is greater).”17 This phrase taken from “Salah” became a prominent rallying cry for all the protests during difficult times and undermined the threat posed by the regime.
In the anti-government protests and demonstrations in the Egyptian revolution, “Salah” served as a source of moral support for the protestors. During “Salah” a person is closest to God and it is the one of the best times to supplicate, as Prophet Muhammad said, “The nearest a servant comes to his Lord is when he (or she) is prostrating,18 so make supplication (in this way).”19 “Salah” is an opportunity to ask for God’s help in any matter as the Prophet emphasized, “Truly you are not praying to One Who is deaf or far away.”20 This concept is evident when the worshipper seeks refuge with God during “Salah” as Constance Padwick Evelyn explains, “‘I take refuge with God from Satan the accursed!’ This cry of fear breaks into the praise and adoration of the prayer rite.”21 Elsisi explained that the protestors felt “the need of God” during many occasions and “Salah” provided the protestors with an opportunity to seek this help for their cause, and to seek refuge in God from the regime and its actions. These prayers were what, according to Elsisi, made the “impossible happen” and provided the necessary energy and strength to the protestors.
The structure of the congregational prayers and the way they were performed on the streets demonstrated the determination and resilience of the protestors. Along with the stress on the importance of congregational prayers, “Hadith” also offers guidelines on how these prayers should be structured. While praying in congregation, Muslims are required to stand close to each other. Prophet described the faithful believers as “bricks in a wall, supporting each other.”22 Bricks in a wall have to be close to one another otherwise they won’t support each other and the building will collapse. Similarly during the congregational prayers, Prophet guided the Muslims to stand “close together”23, “neck to neck”24 and “shoulder to shoulder.”25 Pictures like Figure 2 and Figure 3 testify that the protestors during the congregational prayers stood like a firm wall against the police forces. These human walls demonstrated the determination and persistence of the protestors. Often this human wall constituted of many injured protestors who appeared to have received first aid. These scenes expressed the resilience of the protestors and their unwillingness to back down against the regime. Such a display of strength is always deemed necessary in protests as Sharp highlights, “By words, symbols, and actions, the democratic forces can inform the troops that the liberation struggle will be vigorous, determined, and persistent.”26 In Egypt, these scenes of congregational prayers resonated through the minds of the police forces and army officers and demonstrated the might of the protesters. Hence, congregational prayers helped undermine the threat from the security forces, served as a source of moral support, and demonstrated the determination and resilience of the protestors.
Impact on Security Forces
During the anti-government protests in Egypt, “Salah” served as a symbolic act that challenged the ideological beliefs of the security forces and became instrumental in gaining their sympathies. Gene Sharp, a very popular writer about civil disobedience, lists “Prayer and Worship”27 as one of the many possible acts of civil disobedience under the heading of “Symbolic Public Acts.”28 Sharp explains how ‘symbolic acts’ can be pivotal to the success of civil disobedience by delivering a “tremendous moral and psychological impact.”29 Along with being an essential method of civil disobedience, these symbolic acts are also a non-violent way to protest. Gandhi was one of the greatest advocates of a non-violent struggle and he demonstrated the power of a non-violent struggle in India. Adam Roberts and Timothy Carton explain that “public demonstrations of ritualized non-violence were one of his [Gandhi’s] strategies.”30 According to Roberts and Carton, Gandhi’s realization of the importance of “using symbolic issues in different contexts”31 was what made it effective. Moreover, Roberts and Carton explain that non-violent protest and the use of symbolic issues might “challenge on ideological grounds”32 by tapping the “vulnerabilities of the opponent.”33 This is further supported by Sharp as he advocates psychological weapons as one of the three possible weapons to fight a non violent struggle, as he claims, “Instead, the [non-violent] struggle is fought by psychological, social, economic, and political weapons applied by the population and the institutions of the society.”34 Hence, public demonstration of symbolic acts and rituals are an effective means to protest non-violently and this strategy psychologically challenges the opponents on ideological grounds.
“Salah” served the need for a symbolic act during the Egyptian revolution. Sharp, and Robert and Carton all explained the importance of using symbolic acts to fuel non violent struggles. According to Robert and Carton, the choice of symbolic acts should be such that it probes the “vulnerabilities of the opponent.”35 Hence it should be an act that everyone involved with the movement should be very familiar with and an act that has the potential of delivering a psychological blow to the opponents. Egypt is a country with a population of more than 80 million people, and according to the census 2010, it is estimated that 94.7% of those 80 million people are Muslims.36 With such an overwhelming majority of Muslims in the country, all the departments including the police force and the army are well represented by the Muslims. As mentioned earlier, “Salah” is indisputably deemed as an obligatory rite by all the Muslims. In these circumstances, “Salah” is probably the most appropriate rite that can be used as a “symbolic act” that is very near and dear to everyone in the Egyptian society.
“Salah” was instrumental in gaining the sympathies of the security forces and at many occasions security forces allowed the protestors to perform “Salah”. During the revolution, the police forces blatantly used even the most violent means, including teargas, batons, water-cannon and even live ammunition to suppress the protestors.37 However, congregational prayers posed a great challenge to the police forces. The Holy Quran itself addresses the situation when the worshippers are in danger as God reveals in the verse, “When you travel, during war, you commit no error by shortening your Prayers (salat), if you fear that the disbelievers may attack you. Surely, the disbelievers are your ardent enemies.”38 It may be inferred from this verse that those who attack the worshippers are referred to as “disbelievers” and “ardent enemies” of the Muslims. Such symbolic acts, according to Sharp, “undermine the regime’s moral and political authority — its legitimacy.”39 There were many occasions when the protestors held fire and allowed protestors to perform “Salah” in congregation to uphold the sanctity of “Salah”. One such instance was recorded by the international news channel AlJazeera and the video40 is available online. In the beginning it shows violent clashes between the police forces and the protestors as the police fire canisters of tear gas and rubber bullets and the protestors retaliate by throwing stones. However, as soon as the time for the evening prayers starts, the protestors signal that they need to pray. The police forces hold fire and allow the protestors to pray “Salah” in congregation. This incidence clearly shows how the protestors gained the sympathies of the police. Sharp explains the importance of sympathetic officers as he says, “Sympathetic officers can play vital roles in the democratic struggle, such as spreading disaffection and noncooperation in the military forces, encouraging deliberate inefficiencies and the quiet ignoring of orders, and supporting the refusal to carry out repression.”41 “Salah” thus was instrumental in gaining these sympathies.
Although “Salah” did gain the sympathies of the police forces, there were still some occasions when the protestors who were praying in congregation were attacked by the police forces. However, even in these situations the police forces used less severe measures to suppress the worshippers than they did to suppress the non-praying protestors. One widely known instance is the attack on the worshippers on the Al Kasr Nile bridge on the 28th December 2011. An amateur video42 was broadcasted on the media around the world and received wide spread condemnation. This clip captures a scene from one of the many protests that took place that day. Elsisi explained that the protestors wanted to reach “Tahrir Square” and the police forces tried to prevent the protestors from reaching the square by blocking their path. The clip shows police officers attacking the protestors with tear gas, water cannon, batons and even trying to run them over with armored vehicles. The clip then shows that the protestors begin to pray the afternoon prayers on the bridge in congregation and the police forces attempt to disperse the worshippers using the water cannon. Although the police did use the water cannon, they did not fire tear gas on the worshippers or attack them with armored vehicles or batons. This shows that the police tried to tackle the worshippers cautiously with the limited use of violent force. The clip then exhibits that the use of water cannon was not sufficient to disperse the worshippers and “Salah” was successful in this situation too by limiting the choices of the police forces.
Throughout the Egyptian revolution, violent assaults on the protestors who were non-violently performing congregational prayers often resulted in a stronger rhetoric against the police forces. Another amateur video43 captures such an incident where the protestors are being attacked during the prayers as other Muslims and Non-Muslims try to protect them. This video shows the frustration of the non-praying protestors as they see that the worshippers are being attacked. Unlike the situations when the protestors were pushing ahead or retaliating with stones, the police forces had no pretext to violently engage the non-violent and peaceful worshippers. Attacks like these on worshippers convinced many protestors that they were engaged in a righteous struggle against the tyrannical regime. Fadl explains this belief as he says, “the idea of being engaged in a jihad44 against injustice and for liberation from despotism and corruption became a central part of the ethos guiding the Egyptian Revolution.”45 The mistreatment of the non-violent protests proved to be more detrimental to the regime. Roberts and Carton explain how Gandhi exploited the fact that the mistreatment of the non-violent protests could “cause embarrassment.”46 According to Sharp, this “embarrassment” bears fruit “when members of the opponent group are emotionally moved by the suffering of repression imposed on courageous nonviolent resisters.”47 This is illustrated during the instances when the soldiers prayed with the protestors. Figure 5 captures one such intricate moment during the revolution. Hence, the congregational prayers appeared to have a tremendous psychological impact on the police officers and partially immobilized them by challenging their ideological beliefs.
Opportunity to Regroup
“Salah” when performed in congregation is performed in a very structured and disciplined way. While performing the “Salah”, all the worshippers must face the Holy Kaabah in Makkah. This is called the “qibla” and “Salah” that is offered when facing a direction other than the qibla is deemed invalid. Turning away from the qibla during the prayers also invalidates the prayers.48 Since the worshippers have to face the same direction, they stand in straight horizontal rows during the congregational prayers. Prophet Muhammad instructed the Muslims to “set the rows in order.”49 When the row cannot accommodate more worshippers, the worshippers must start another row behind the previous one. These worshippers are then led by one “imam (leader), who when leading the prayers stands alone in the front row.”50 Hence before praying in congregation, Muslims need to organize themselves and make proper rows. According to Ayatollah Seestani, a leading Islamic scholar, “it is haraam51 [forbidden], as an obligatory precaution,52 to break obligatory prayer purposely.”53 Hence, once a believer has started to offer “Salah”, he/she has to complete them and cannot do anything else in between and “break” it. According to Seestani, it is only permissible to break the prayers if “it is not possible for a person to protect, without breaking the prayers, his own life, or the life of the person whose protection is obligatory upon him, or to protect a property the protection of which is obligatory on him.”54 Consequently, when the Muslims start praying in congregation they organize themselves in a proper disciplined order and they must remain in that way until the end of prayers.
Congregational prayers enabled the protestors to reorganize and regroup themselves. The section on the security forces discussed how the police forces usually restrained to use very violent measures to disperse the protestors while they were praying in congregation. Since the protestors had to organize themselves in a particular way to pray congregational prayers, it was a great opportunity for the protestors to regroup themselves. This can be illustrated through the video that captured the moment when the protestors were allowed to pray by the security forces. Due to the use of force by the police, the street was sporadically filled with protestors before the prayers; however, after the call of the prayers, the protestors regrouped and completely filled the street. The fact that the protestors would break their prayers, an act that is deemed forbidden in the Islamic law,55 if they moved, gave an added incentive for the protestors to stay firm on their feet. This can be witnessed in the Nile bridge protest video when in spite of the water-cannon, the worshippers remained resilient and kept on praying unmoved. Hence, congregational prayers inadvertently regrouped the protestors and provided them with the incentive to remain grouped till the end of the prayers.
After the conclusion of the congregational prayers, the transformation of congregational prayers back into the conventional ways to protest was always full of energy and passion. Ordered and disciplined in rows and rejuvenated with a heightened sense of passion and vigor, these protestors were ever-ready to take the next step against the regime. Rowan El Shimi, a prominent protestor and a tweeter during the Egyptian revolution, encapsulates her excitement in a tweet as she says, “As soon as prayer finished everyone starts chanting “down with mubarak” can’t get over it.”56 Ahmed described that the prayers “motivated” him and “provoked” him to “continue the whole thing.” Thus “Salah” helped to organize the protestors and energized them to engage in the conventional forms of protest after the congregational prayers.
During the Egyptian revolution, congregational prayers strengthened the revolution by uniting the socially, politically and religiously diverse protestors. Additionally, congregational prayers were a symbolic way to protest that not only displayed the resilience and determination of the protestors to stand up for their demands against the regime, but also ideologically challenged the security forces and appeared to have delivered a psychological impact on them. This psychological impact on the security forces made them hesitant to use very violent measures against the protestors, giving a chance to the protestors to regroup and reorganize themselves.
Although the Egyptians were successful in ousting their dictator and managed to put an end to the 30 years of oppression and injustice, the citizens of many other Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are still struggling against their oppressive regimes. Similar to the situation in Egypt, these Arab states are Muslim majority areas and a large fraction of the security forces and the protestors in these countries are Muslims. By performing “Salah” in congregation while protesting in the streets, these protestors could possibly benefit from the merits of performing congregational prayers in protests that are discussed in this paper and use congregational prayers as an added platform to protest against their respective regimes.
Inteview with Ahmed Abd Eltawab Elsisi, a protestor who took part in the Egyptian Revolution. ↩︎
Muslim prayers ↩︎
“Islam has been built upon five things - on testifying that there is no god save Allah, and that Muhammad is His Messenger; on performing “salah;” on giving the “zakah;” on Hajj to the House; and on fasting during Ramadhan.” (Sahih Bukhari Book 2, Chapter 7) ↩︎
Maqsood, Ruqaiyyah Waris. “The Muslim Prayer Encyclopedia: A Complete Guide to Prayers As Taught by the Prophet Muhammad.” New Delhi, India: Goodword Books, 1998, 17. ↩︎
Quran [29:45]. Salat is a different spelling of “Salah” ↩︎
See also [2:3-5], [2:43], [2:45], [2:153], [2:43] and many other verses ↩︎
Saying of the Prophet Muhammad ↩︎
Abu Dawud, Nasai, Imamat 45 ↩︎
Khaled Abou El Fadl, “The Language of the Age: Shari’a and Natural Justice in the Egyptian Revolution.” Harvard International Law journal, Volume 52 (2011): 311-321,312I2ON ↩︎
Kamāl al-Dīn, “Islam and the Muslim Prayer.” [6th ed.] Woking, Eng.: The Woking Muslim Mission and Literary Trust, 1948, 69 ↩︎
Elsisi’s interview ↩︎
Fadl, “language of the age,” 312 ↩︎
Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed, “The Egyptian Revolution: A participant’s account from Tahrir Square, January and February 2011.” Anthropology Today Volume 27 No 2 (2011): 22-27. ↩︎
Maqsood. “The Muslim Prayer Encyclopedia,” 26. ↩︎
Fadl, language of the age,313 ↩︎
An act performed during Salah ↩︎
Muslim 979 ↩︎
Muslim 6498 ↩︎
Padwick, Constance Evelyn, “Muslim Devotions: A Study of Prayer-Manuals In Common Use.” London: SPCK, 1961, 83 ↩︎
Sahih Bukhari 8.88.468 ↩︎
Sahih Abi Dawud, 616 ↩︎
Sahih Muslim 875 ↩︎
Sharp, “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” 63. ↩︎
Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy: A conceptual framework for liberation. Albert Einstein Institution, Fourth Edition, 2010, 80 ↩︎
Sharp, “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” 79. ↩︎
Ibid., 61. ↩︎
Roberts, Adam, and Timothy Garton Ash. “Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-Violent Action From Gandhi to the Present.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, 51. ↩︎
Roberts and Carton, “Civil Resistance and Power Politics,” 53 ↩︎
Roberts and Carton, “Civil Resistance and Power Politics,” 51 ↩︎
Sharp, “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” 32. ↩︎
Roberts and Carton, “Civil Resistance and Power Politics,” 51 ↩︎
Rashed, “The Egyptian Revolution.” Anthropology Today Volume 27 No 2 (2011): 22-27.IONAL ↩︎
Sharp, “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” 61. ↩︎
Sharp, “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” 63. ↩︎
Islamic term literally means “to strive.” External “Jihad,” as used in this context, is often referred to against the oppressive unbelievers. ↩︎
Fadl, “language of the age,” 313 ↩︎
Roberts and Carton, “Civil Resistance and Power Politics,” 52 ↩︎
Sharp, “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” 35. ↩︎
Ayatullah al Uzama Syed Ali al Husaini Seestani. “Islamic Laws: English Version of Taudhihul Masae’l.” World Federation of Ksi Muslim Communities, Stanmore, UK, 214 ↩︎
Muslim 875 ↩︎
Kamāl al-Dīn, “Islam and the Muslim Prayer,” 69. ↩︎
something that is deemed as unlawful and sinful. ↩︎
A term used by Islamic scholars about matters that are not directly found through the Quran or Hadis explicitly. ↩︎
Seestani, “Islamic Laws,” 220. ↩︎
Seestani, “Islamic Laws,” 220. ↩︎