Cairo: Silence reigns over the crowd as he steps onto the stage.
Clad in his trademark turban and flowing gallabiya garment, Mahmoud Al Tohamy, one of Egypt’s most popular religious singers, waves to the audience, most of them are sitting on the ground eagerly awaiting his concert.
The 39-year-old performer has just begun his hit song, sending the audience in raptures.
“My heart tells me you are to annihilate me. My soul is for your sacrifice, whether you know or not,” continues the singer in his first ever performance at the annual Cairo Book Fair.
The lyrics are from a famous devotional poem by the 12th Sufi mystical poet Umar Ibn Al Farid.
Shaikh Yassin, as his devotees fondly call him, intonates one song after the other from his repertoire. They promote spiritual purity and tolerance.
His litany of songs draw audible sighs of admiration from the audience, gathering in front of the outdoor theatre of the book fair in the Cairo suburb of Nasr City.
Galvanised by a spiritual charge, some fans spontaneously stand up and start symmetrically moving their faces forward and backward while repeating after Al Tohamy, a scion of a family of panegyrists.
He is a frequent performer at Egyptian festivals held to mark the birthdays of Muslim saints buried in the country.
On such occasions, he sings in praise of God and the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) as several of the fans stand in rows for a Dhikr session or a devotional practice typical of Muslim Sufis.
Sufis account for about 15 million of Egypt’s population of nearly 95 million.
Al Tohamy’s performance at the Cairo Book Fair is part of what officials say an initiative to use religious songs, a genre popular in Egypt, to combat militancy.
“Extremism and terrorism spread when spiritual values dry up,” says Ahmad Bahi Al Deen, the deputy head of the state Egyptian Book Organisation, in charge of the 49-year-old fair.
“Hosting Mahmoud Al Tohamy to perform at the book fair comes to consolidate efforts to combat radicalism and promote the culture of moderation. It also highlights Egyptian folk heritage of which religious panegyrism is a strong part,” Bahi Al Deen added in media remarks.
The theme of the latest edition of the Cairo Book Fair is “soft power”, a term referring to cultural influences.
Egypt has experienced a wave of militant attacks since the army’s 2013 overthrow of Islamist president Mohammad Mursi following enormous protests against his one-year rule.
The attacks have mainly targeted security forces and Egypt’s Christian minority.
In a shift of tactics, suspected radical Islamists last November attacked a Sufi mosque in North Sinai, killing at least 310 people. Militants regard Sufis as apostates.
The surge in attacks has prompted Egypt to diversify its anti-militancy tools, invoking a big role for culture in the battle.
“The presence of Mahmoud Al Tohamy proves that the book fair is not just about books,”Bahi Al Deen of the Egyptian Book Organisation says. “He has an influential school training around 5,000 performers in religious singing.”
A graduate of Al Azhar University, which is Egypt’s prestigious Islamic seminary, Al Tohamy has built a huge following across Egypt.
In 2014, he set up Egypt’s first school of religious hymns.
Some of his fans profess obsession with his performances.
“When I know he’ll sing anywhere in the republic, I go there,” says Shaaban Idris, a schoolteacher from Qaliubia, north of Cairo.
“I come to the book fair almost every year. But when I read that Shaikh Al Tohamy will perform at the fair, I felt doubly jubilant,” the 56-year-old man, says.
“His captivating voice and songs take you away from the materialistic life and open up vast spiritual horizons that bring you closer to Allah. Having him here [in book fair] was a great idea. His songs are about true, selfless love, which is important for all people to feel.”
An estimated 4 million people have visited the two-week book fair, according to official figures. The event ends on Saturday.
“Imagine what will things be like if all these millions convey Shaikh Al Tohamy’s message of tolerance to their relatives and friends,” Idris says passionately.
“For sure, the world will be a better place.”