Brother Hesham El Ashry, the host of the Egyptian talk show The Court of the Scholars, lured me on the air with a tantalizing offer: the chance to ask a Muslim cleric anything I wanted, on live television. “Anything?,” I asked.
“Anything,” he said. “You can even ask”—and here his eyes twinkled—“whether the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a child-molester.”
I met Hesham last year, at a sit-in next to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo—the same building that a Salafi-led crowd stormed in September. Fifty-three years old, short, and bearded, he spoke English well, having spent years as a tailor in Manhattan. (He made suits for Paul Newman.) At the sit-in, he acted as an unofficial spokesman for Omar Abdel Rahman, the 74-year-old “Blind Sheikh” serving a life sentence in the United States for conspiring to blow up New York landmarks in 1993. In Egypt, the Blind Sheikh is known as the spiritual guide of the Islamic Group, the proto–al-Qaeda organization accused of butchering 58 tourists and four Egyptians in Luxor in 1997. Hesham was working tirelessly to persuade the U.S. to free the sheikh.
Hesham and I spent many hours in his Cairo tailor shop talking theology and drinking tea. He adheres to the school of Islam known to many outsiders as Wahhabism, and to its practitioners as Salafism—an attempt to pare back the past 1,400 years of religious innovation and so-called progress, and instead mimic the austere desert ways of the Prophet and his companions. The Egyptian government vigorously persecuted the sect through the Mubarak years, but now Salafis are free to proselytize on television and lead violent protests—including the deadly ones in Egypt and Libya against the infamous Innocence of Muslims video. They have emerged as the chief rivals of the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, and have ambitious plans to replace Egypt’s Brotherhood-led government with a strict sharia state, à la the Taliban.
Early this year, Hesham started guest-hosting for Al Hafez, a Salafi station best known for letting a cleric call the actress Ilham Shahin a whore on the air. (She has filed a lawsuit.) The Court of the Scholars features theological discussion, and Hesham thought our conversations might make good TV. He’d bring on a scholar to debate theology with me. God willing, I’d lose the argument but save my soul by converting on the air.
Video: Graeme Wood debates a professor of Islam on Court of the Scholars
In August, I joined him in his studio. Gamal Abd al Satar, professor of Islamic creed and philosophy at Al Azhar University, resplendent in a Western suit and trimmed beard, would represent Islam. I, a journalist who recently wrote a piece for this magazine about a pro wrestler who stabs his opponents with forks, would represent Christendom.
The set was well appointed and clean, like one you might see on the Home Shopping Network. Hesham introduced me to viewers, sweetening them up by recounting how I had tried to interview the Blind Sheikh. Then he let me ask my first question. (My Arabic is too weak for formal debate, so Hesham translated.)
At his request, I had come up with a list of stumpers. (I declined to ask about Muhammad’s alleged pedophilia, since Hesham clearly had a zinging response planned.) Unbeknownst to him, I had canvassed a few friends and scholars for especially tough questions. One professor, a Western expert in Islamic law, suggested that I ask whether Salafis thought it was odd that their version of Islam had been ignored for more than 1,000 years, only to gain prominence today. Did that mean all of their ancestors were hell-bound? Another scholar—a gay Jew—told me in an e-mail that he found the prospect of such a debate appalling. “Since you have asked for my advice it is this: do not dignify them by your presence.”
Hesham, I knew, relished any chance to tell non-Muslims about the tortures that awaited them in the afterlife. So I started by asking his scholar how I could possibly love God, when He was so keen on flambéing me if I crossed Him. “When someone embraces Islam,” I asked, “does the person have to have a different view of love?”