Cairo: An Egyptian film called “Mawlana” (The Preacher) which demonises the manipulation of religion for political gain has been making waves in the country.
The film is based on the 2012 best-selling novel of the same name by journalist Ebrahim Issa known for anti-Islamist views.
It traces the meteoric rise of a moderate, persuasive preacher to fame. The preacher, played by celebrated Egyptian actor Amr Sa’ad, generates a big following attracted by his moderate Islamic fatwas (religious edicts).
‘Mawlana’ touches on sensitive themes such as prejudice against Egypt’s Christians, divide between Sunnis, Shiites.
Sa’ad is also the star of a popular TV show and is well-connected to senior state officials.
The film is directed by Majdi Ahmad Ali, a veteran Egyptian filmmaker, who is also an outspoken critic of political Islam.
“The Preacher” touches on a host of sensitive themes such as Islamist extremists’ prejudice against Egypt’s Christian minority, police abuses and the age-old divide between Sunnis and Shiites, Islam’s two main sects.
The film also features the conversion of a Muslim to Christianity, an issue rarely dealt with in Egyptian dramas.
“The film is a call for a genuine change,” the director of “The Preacher” told audience at a preview of the film in Cairo. “It exposes a crippling feeling of inability for change. This feeling is the reason for spread of extremism, drug addiction and ignorance around us. The film deals with thorny issues such as Christianity, proselytism and political manipulation.”
Ali said that the state censors had not cut a single scene from his film.
“The Preacher” premiered at the Dubai Film Festival in December and is currently dominating the Egyptian box office, grossing 4.2 million Egyptian pounds (Dh823,606) in its first week of showing, according to media reports.
“’Mawlana’ is one of the important productions made by the [Egyptian] cinema industry in recent years because it throws a stone in stagnant waters,” said Olaa Al Shafaai, an entertainment critic in the private newspaper Al Youm.
“It forthrightly strikes at the political manipulation of religion and utilisation of everything to the benefit of power, or more specifically for keeping power,” Al Shaafi wrote.
“Producing such enlightening films has become a necessity in view of intellectual and social decline as well as violence that is besieging us.”
Egypt has experienced a series of militant attacks since the army’s 2013 overthrow of Islamist president Mohammad Mursi following enormous street protests against his rule.
Incumbent President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi, a Muslim, has repeatedly called on the country’s Islamic scholars to reform the religious discourse as part of the country’s confrontation of radicalism.
“I think this film is the best response to the president’s call because it presents a convincing example of an influential open-minded imam (preacher),” said Hani Mamdouh, a 23-year-old medical student.
“The film walks into minefields and breaks the long silence on certain issues such as religious conversion and exploitation of Imam’s by governments to control people,” the 23-year-old man added.
But some in Egypt say the movie “misrepresents” Muslim preachers.
“The author has presented himself as a scholar of religion and dealt with issues of which he knows nothing,” Mansour Mandur, a leading theologian at the Ministry of Waqfs in charge of religious affairs, said on his Facebook page.
Mandur called for removing “The Preacher” from theatres.
Shukri Al Guindy, a member of the Egyptian parliament, is worried the film will produce a generation of Egyptians who do not respect religion.
“The vast majority of preachers are good, moral people,” he said.
Ali, defending his work, suggests the film’s critics perhaps “misunderstand” the message, but understands why they have reacted.
“Nowadays, everyone in society feels they are being targeted by the other.”