Egypt arrests religious influencer who sponsored paid 'proxy pilgrimage'
Egyptian authorities arrested a social media influencer on Tuesday who has promoted an application that charges users for Umrah by proxy, according to a lawyer who lodged a complaint against the self-styled preacher.
The lawyer, Hani Sameh, said he lodged a complaint with the public prosecutor accusing the pharmacist and influencer Amir Mounir of "committing crimes of receiving money, donations and Islamic preaching without a licence from the Ministry of Endowments".
In Islam, Umrah is a voluntary pilgrimage, as opposed to Hajj, which is compulsory for all healthy and financially capable adult Muslims. Muslims are also allowed to perform Umrah on behalf of those who are unable to carry out the ritual, such as the sick or the deceased.
The app allows users to pay for Umrah by proxy at a cost of 4,000 Egyptian pounds (around $130). Mounir had promised that this would be further discounted with his promo codes.
The lawyer said in his complaint that Mounir also created a platform on Patreon to receive donations for himself, and set values of up to $500 per month for the individual supporter.
In response to the video and the online backlash against Mounir, Egypt’s Al-Azhar Fatwa Global Center issued a statement with a religious ruling against the monetising of Umrah by proxy, referring to "religious brokers" and accusing them of defying the purpose of religious rituals.
'The general public’s disapproval and denunciation of such new ideas is evidence of the public’s awareness and their refusal to turn rituals and worship into a job'
- Al-Azhar Fatwa Global Center
"The general public’s disapproval and denunciation of such new ideas is evidence of the public’s awareness and their refusal to turn rituals and worship into a job or profession that is performed without spirit or invoking reverence," the statement said.
While scholars have said that the act of performing Hajj or Umrah on behalf of someone else is permissible in cases where the person is unable to embark on the pilgrimage - in situations such as terminal illness, old age or death - many online have raised alarm over the payment aspect of the app.
In one tweet, a user warns that taking payment for Umrah is still under "jurisprudential dispute”, with the promotional material put out by Mounir considered illegal in Egypt.
However, others have defended the online personality after his detention, with one user calling out the bandwagon against Mounir, saying: “We are all human in the end.”
Moreover, online users who disagreed with his adverts have also come to Mounir’s defence, warning of Egypt’s “oppression”.
“Don't stand in line with the machine of oppression, even if they disagree with this person, he will be under the guillotine today because the state only moves by trend and this person does not like it, and tomorrow you will be under it for whatever reason, and remember this well,” one user warned.
Another user noted their disagreement with the app’s “commodification of religion”, but questioned the Egyptian authorities' reasoning behind the arrest of Mounir.
Commodification of rituals
The Umrah Albadal application is not the only controversy when it comes to the monetisation of Islamic traditions. Over the years, other applications and resources have reignited discussions surrounding the trend of Umrah by proxy.
In May, the Malaysia Tourism Agency Association (Mata) advised citizens to be wary of Hajj and Umrah by proxy packages, especially those with low fees. Mata also proposed that these packages should be monitored and regulated by authorities.
Professor Abdulrahman bin Awad Al-Qarni of Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh warned that such business practices are “setting a competitive trend”.
“Such kind of competition is not permitted, because performing Hajj is not intended to be a profession for getting money. In addition, this service may encourage some lazy people not to perform Hajj themselves, and to hire others to do that for them.”
Meanwhile, other forms of monetising the Islamic pilgrimage include performing specific rituals, such as the act of throwing pebbles at Jamarat (a wall representing Satan).
Saudi scholar Saleh Bin Saeed al-Lihaidan objected to work that deputises for those on pilgrimages unless it falls under certain conditions, including terminal illness, emergencies where the pilgrim needs to leave the area, and pregnant and breast-feeding women.
Lihaidan said pilgrims who are ignorant of the correct hajj rites usually fall victim to these offers.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.