The growing body of scholarship on ʿulamaʾ in the twentieth century tends to focus on the rise of their institutions, the development of their teaching, their relationship to the state and their international linkages. There has also been some interest in how they began to use the media, in particular print. However, the depiction of ʿulamaʾ in modern fiction has received little scholarly attention. This is unfortunate, as it might yield insights into the changing role and status of the ʿālim in modern Muslim societies. As vehicles of mass culture, film and later television are interesting, not just for their mass culture appeal, but also for their capacity to create identifiable images and stereotypical roles. This chapter explores the changing perceptions of the role of the ʿulamaʾ by focusing on one particular activity of theirs, the delivery of the Friday sermon, and on how the films and TV dramas relate them to their audiences.
Analysing a specific scene can be fruitful. Film narrative is composed in edited scenes of light and sound. Specific locations, acts or characters evoke particular responses in audiences, often supported by standard shots or sounds. For instance, a scene of a muezzin's call to prayer, with a panoramic shot of a rural landscape and village, is a staple of Egyptian films. This scene connotes the tranquil, peaceful rhythm of daily life as it once was, and perhaps ought to be (Qasim 1997: 67). Films rarely depict the call to prayer in a busy, modern Cairo district – although it takes place there as often – but the meaning would be much less clear and identifiable to cinema audiences.
The scene of the Friday khuṭba is well known to most Muslim men in the Arab world. Loudspeakers, radio and television have familiarised other groups in Arab society with sermon content, and they readily recognise the scene. The use of the word minbar (pulpit) as the title of Islamic periodicals and TV programmes testifies to the association of the khuṭba with authoritative religious address in contemporary Arab public imagery. It is an instance of communication and of collective attention, and thus eminently suited to narratives of social engagement and action, of communal life and of religious inspiration as the mover of men. Hence, it makes for an attractive scene in a film.