CAIRO -- A spillover crowd of worshipers outside central Cairo's Sayyida Zeineb Mosque sat under a furious midday sun Friday and listened gravely as a disembodied voice of Islam, crackling over ancient loudspeakers, interpreted the Koranic meaning of a 20th-century conflict that has turned their Arab world upside down.
"Moslems are one body," intoned the somber voice of the imam, Sheik Ibrahim Galhoum, "and a part of it hurts."
The worshippers nodded their heads in unison as the sheik admonished, in an unmistakable rebuke to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein: "We pray day and night that the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, wakes up to the call of Islam, because he is a Moslem, and Islam calls on him not to rape the land. Mohammed, the prophet, said: 'He who steals the land, Allah will bring vengeance upon you. Mohammed told you not to kill Moslems, because this is the greatest sin.' "
Then, in his most specific reference during the 40-minute sermon to the turmoil in the Arabian peninsula, he said: "I call on all Moslems to stand by the dishonored Kuwaitis. Were the struggle between Iraq and an infidel country we would hope Iraq would be victorious. . . . But in this case, what can I ask of Allah? I cannot pray that the Iraqis will be victorious over Moslems, so what I pray for is Saddam's senses to come back to him."
The anguish in Galhoum's sermon has been mirrored in mosques elsewhere in Cairo, reflecting the pain of an Arab nation torn by its first modern internecine war and deeply troubled by the seeming contradiction of standing for Moslem unity while at the same time supporting invading nonbelievers from distant lands who have come to punish a renegade Arab Moslem leader and his countrymen.
Across town, at the al-Azhar Mosque, the biggest and oldest Islamic institution in Egypt, Sheik Ismail Sadeq Adawi alluded to the Iraqi invasion by condemning "Moslem selfishness and unfairness," which he said had reached a "very dangerous stage."
"This unfairness made us beg non-Moslems to protect our land, and this doesn't make any Moslem happy and is unacceptable to any believer," the sheik said.
Addressing Saddam, he pleaded: "Have mercy on the helpless people. Have mercy on those who are lost in the desert and on your brothers. You are responsible for them."
At the al-Hussein Mosque, the Friday sermon struck a similar theme, where the sheik asked his listeners: "Is it considered a part of Islam that a pious believer attacks another believer? Is a true believer one who violates the home of another, violates his rights, makes his children homeless?"
Two extraordinary statements by top religious leaders were published earlier in the week in the state-sponsored al-Akbar newspaper under the headline, "The leader of Iraq is treacherous and Moslems have a duty to kill him."
One of the statements quoted Egypt's mufti, or highest cleric, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi: "The Moslems and their leaders should first try to solve a dispute. If one party is tyrannical to the other and does not accept reconciliation, the Moslems and their leaders must decide to fight the tyrant without any hesitation."
The mufti, according to the newspaper, added: "If the Moslem leaders find the help of Moslems is not enough . . . they may resort to non-Moslems."
Another statement, attributed to Sheik Gad Haq Ali Gad Haq, president of al-Azhar University, the most important center of theology in the Sunni Moslem world, referred to the U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia and declared: "Resorting to such forces of different nationalities is based on agreement and international treaties. The excuse that non-Moslem forces violate the sanctity of Saudi Arabia is untrue. These troops defend against the enemy and injustice."
As listening posts for political currents among the masses, mosques in Egypt can be useful and deceptive at the same time, religious scholars and analysts agree. The sheiks of such state-financed mosques as al-Azhar, al-Hussein and Sayyida Zeineb may reflect the thinking of their sponsors for obvious reasons, while the sermons offered by the sheiks of smaller, community-sponsored mosques of a more fundamentalist or independent bent might reflect a contrasting political line, Moslem analysts observed.
But, the analysts agreed, many of the sermons being offered in the fourth week of the Persian Gulf crisis reflect an agonized ambivalence toward what Iraq's invasion of Kuwait has brought upon the Arab world -- and no small amount of resentment toward the foreign forces that have been marshaled against it.
Weighing equally heavy on the minds of many Arabs, according to the analysts, is a fear that the foreign presence in the region may become permanent.
"You must never underestimate our sensitivity to the many years of colonial domination we lived under," said one senior Egyptian official, referring to the 1915 Constantinople Agreement, which divided the Ottoman Empire largely between Great Britain and France, and the League of Nations' approval seven years later of British and French rule over Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
Also, many Egyptians are old enough to have personally experienced the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal zone in 1956, after President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the canal, and they remember well their humiliation and their fears of a recolonization of the Middle East at that time.
The ambivalence of devout Egyptians over the Western intervention in the gulf was reflected in an open letter published last week in the government-controlled daily, al-Ahram, and signed by 50 prominent Islamic scholars.
The letter is remarkable for its agility in skating to the edge of official government policy in the current conflict without directly confronting it, while at the same time appealing to the Arabs' fear of colonial domination.
"The present state in the gulf has left all Arabs with a great sense of insecurity, an insecurity that has increased with the arrival of foreign troops on Arab land, ready to enter battle with Arabs, especially our Iraqi brothers," the Islamic scholars' letter said. "Arab leaders, paralyzed by fear, are unable to do much but sit and exchange insults, a direct result of intimidation in the face of Western powers."
The message strongly condemned Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, calling it a "crime of abuse against all Arabs and Islamic laws" and saying it must be challenged with force. But, said the letter, "this challenge must come in a purely Arab and Islamic form. If we resort to foreign aid, especially aid of those who have traditionally ignored Arabs and Islamic rights . . . then we open the doors wide for further foreign intervention. We ask you to beware. This foreign intervention aims foremost at protecting only foreign interests, even if foreign interests call for the destruction of all Arab forces, especially our Iraqi brothers."
If the Arab nations are unable to resolve the gulf crisis, the letter said, "then we insist that the matter be put into the hands of an international organization -- that is, under United Nations supervision. No Western or Eastern flag should preside."
The letter's author was Fahmy Howeidi, a respected scholar in the fundamentalist Moslem Brotherhood movement whose political views apparently are considered moderate enough to earn him not only space in al-Ahram but a weekly religious-affairs column in the Saudi-financed al-Majala magazine, published in London. In an interview, Howeidi said that while a broad range of political perspectives may be expounded from the pulpits of mosques throughout Egypt, the ambivalence reflected in his letter probably could be found in most Friday sermons.
"Despite the crime of Saddam Hussein's actions, people recognize the unfairness of what the Americans are doing," Howeidi said. "Saddam did in Kuwait the same thing Israel did in the West Bank, but everyone is well aware of how the United States backs whatever Israel does," he said.