The small man hunches in his pressed gray suit and tie, peering through wire-rimmed glasses at his telephone, as the recorded voice of a younger man rises from the speaker.
"Is playing soccer forbidden under Islam?" the young man asks.
"No my brother, the game of soccer is accepted by Islam," says the Muslim cleric, speaking thoughtfully but authoritatively into a recording machine. "Soccer is one of the sports that gives young men the spirit of cooperation and work ethics."
After finishing his answer, Abd Al Moaty Bayoumy goes on to the next call, doling spiritual advice to Muslims he's never met.
In this country, where people consult their religion several times a day for guidance, authoritative answers can be as hard to find as Pharoanic treasures entombed in the Giza pyramids. But a new 24-hour hot line called Islam Line makes it as easy as picking up the phone.
Islam Line has been so successful since its August launch that the owners plan to expand to the rest of the Arab World, and eventually to Europe and the United States. Just last month it became available to mobile-phone users in Jordan.
The hot line, dubbed "Dial-a-Fatwa," averages 300 callers a day from men and women of every age and social class. Callers simply dial a number and leave their questions on a recording. Within 24 hours they can call, punch in the number designated for their question, and listen to the answer. The phone service is staffed by six highly respected, moderate clerics trained at Al-Azhar, a thousand-year-old university that's considered the cradle of Islamic learning.
On this day, Dr. Bayoumy, dean of theology at Al-Azhar, fields questions such as how to leave a cheating husband and how a promiscuous woman should be treated. Callers asked about divorce, financial dealings, and daily prayers.
Until now, many people have relied on religious television call-in programs or a government-sponsored hot line for answers. While the government hot line is free, it's less efficient. Service hours are limited, and answers are sometimes incomplete, prompting some callers to meet with a sheikh in person anyway. But callers say Islam Line offers better service quicker, and from reliable clerics. In Egypt, callers pay 26 cents per minute, and mobile users pay 39 cents. For Jordanians, it's 50 cents per minute.
Cherif Abdel-meguid, the project's founder, calls his hot line "Islam on a platter" - designed for easy access. The best part, he adds, is that callers remain completely anonymous. "Religion is a very important aspect of our life. We often refer to our religion three to four times a day to see if something is halal [religiously acceptable] or haram [forbidden]," he says.
Mr. Abdel-meguid's business partner is Khaled Al Guindi, a young sheikh trained at Al-Azhar. In the coming months, the pair plans to expand the hot line throughout the region. Callers across the Middle East will be able to dial the same number - 1433 - for a direct line to Al-Azhar clerics.
Later, Islam Line plans to start exporting religious advice to the Far East, North America, and Europe, complete with translations.
Here in Egypt, some traditional Muslims are still warming to the idea of free-market religious advice. When it first started, critics were worried by the idea of profiting from religious advice. But the skepticism has died down since the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, confirmed his support of Islam Line. A paid service, he said, is legal under Islamic law, or sharia, so long as it's done with both parties' consent.
Still, some Muslims think the advice should be offered free or at minimal cost. "If there's a charge for religious advice, it shouldn't be expensive," says Rania Hussein, a marketing assistant at a Cairo-based food company. "This service should be provided by the state, not by a private company."
Islam Line may be a profit venture, but Abdel-meguid also has altruistic goals. He hopes to help the international community better understand Islam. "We aren't fanatics or terrorists," he says. "Islam has really taken a beating in the last 25 years."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor