Friday in Egypt is the day for Muslim prayers, which throughout Islamic history have been a communal event. Around midday the faithful flock to the neighborhood mosque, listen to a sermon, and perform their prayers.
Over the last few decades in Egypt this communal event has spilled out into the street, as Muslims unfurl their prayer rugs and close off the area to traffic for about an hour. In one explanation, this is due to the increasing number of Muslim participants. In another, this is due to the desire of many to assert their religious identity on the fabric of society. In a third, it is the preferred practice to pray in the open air, according to Sunni traditions. But it is a well established pattern and causes little social disruption.
That is, unless in you are driving during the hour when the time of prayer is approaching.
Sherry Ramzy lives in the Cairo isle of Manial enveloped within the Nile River. Out and about on Friday she was passing by the local mosque, as the street was beginning to fill with worshippers.
Hesitant to brave the crowd but already committed in her path, Sherry followed the lead of the taxi driver in front of her, who moved through carefully, but successfully.
As she trailed him, however, the taxi driver stopped to get out and pray, and a donkey cart with vegetables for sale crossed the road and set up shop, blocking the remaining small opening through the mass of people. Before too long, Sherry was surrounded. Meanwhile, the lady with the donkey cart began shouting, “She saw the prayers were beginning, she should have stopped!”
A sense of panic began to settle in. Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt are generally calm, but as the religious identity of both communities has increased, tensions have sometimes developed. Sherry is one who believes prevailing Christian and Muslim attitudes toward each other is too negative. Nevertheless, as a Christian out of place, possibly disturbing a holy Muslim moment, she began to fear. At the very least she faced sitting locked in her car for the next hour. At the worst, she could become a spark that aroused Muslim anger. Helplessness has a way of letting the imagination run wild.
Helplessness also increases the joy of rescue. Before too long the taxi driver took notice of her plight, and asked the owner of the donkey cart to move. This opened a path just wide enough for Sherry to drive through, enabling her to continue on her way. She took notice that her salvation came from one with a long beard and white robe, and wondered if he was not only a Muslim, but a Salafi.
Salafi Muslims follow a conservative interpretation of Islam, calling for the imitation of the life and practice of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, generally rejecting modernity as inimical to Islam. They have become feared as a social force which could sideline democracy through democratic means. They have also aroused the worry of Christians, as a number of pejorative comments and physical attacks have issued from their community.
Sherry, however, wishes to see that such generalizations are not applied to the whole community. She wrote a description of her experience and posted it on her Facebook page. She desires to see good relationships formed between the Christians and Salafis of Egypt. These may have opposite goals for society, but one must not reject the other out of hand.
Sherry had an open mind and heart to Muslims before her incident, but note the power of kindness while in need. The Muslim in question did nothing more than ask a donkey cart be moved a few feet. But to do so, he needed also to inconvenience those preparing for prayer around it. It was a small matter, but required a fair number of people to adjust in favor of a displaced Christian.
The repercussions of this kindness, however, multiply. Sherry has over two hundred friends on her Facebook page; add to this those who read this article. The taxi driver could easily have ignored her; instead, a positive testimony reaches hundreds of people.
This testimony does not invalidate the true accounts of Salafi provocation, heard by thousands. Unfortunately, bad news travels far faster than good. Yet it seeks to show the humanity, goodness, and, as Sherry emphasizes, the Arabness of individuals within the movement. It may well be this testimony represents the majority.
May we be mindful of the unknown consequences – both positive and negative – that our seemingly minor actions set in motion. Furthermore, may we purpose to exhibit such kindness, especially to those considered as against us. Egypt needs repair; it needs relationships built and reestablished. Such actions have the ability to warm hearts and change opinions.
As Sherry received, may we all so give. The world is no less needy.