My Experience as a Non-Muslim of Ramadan in Egypt

My first Ramadan experience was in Egypt, Om Al-Donya, Mother of the World. Ramadan occurs during the 9th of the 12 months of the Islamic Lunar Calendar, and so it occurs on a different date every year.

I’ve found myself becoming much kinder and sympathetic as a person, during the time of Ramadan. This is primarily because I’m surrounded by people who are fasting and who are thirsty, hungry, weak- and are all not complaining, but doing it willingly and gladly. I’ve noticed I’m more sympathetic to people, being more polite than usual, etc. I was pondering this as I got into an uber, feeling quite good about myself but simultaneously quite sorry for them (perhaps this is Eurocentric of me), then I caught myself – why don’t I treat people to the best of my abilities usually? Why is it that during Ramadan only am I the most considerate I can be?

However, I suppose this is one of the many benefits of Ramadan. It is a time of cleansing oneself of one’s own impurities. Even though I am not a Muslim and so I am not fasting, it is affecting me very much. Having to alter my days and times to the millions of people fasting for Ramadan, who are going by the times of the rising sun and setting sun, is extremely refreshing. It seems everyone around me is going back to our roots – as mankind used to live – not by the time we monitor with our man-made clocks. Because of this, the Muslims fasting for Ramadan don’t sleep as much – in fact, I’m not sure when they sleep during Ramadan, and I’m not sure they know when they sleep either…!

In Egypt, the normative rules here are all lifted up and others are quickly put in its place during the month of Ramadan. The days before Ramadan were surreal to me, with everyone constantly talking about it, and large supermarkets like Carrefour becoming an absolute nightmare of human traffic-jams, with many products disappearing off shelves as people go and stock up on food for the month of Ramadan. After awhile of this, we finally reached the first day of Ramadan, I remember being a bit shocked at seeing the transformations of people I knew. Everyone was tired, looking at me with tired eyes and tired smiles, not speaking as much as usual.

It is OK to drink and eat in front of Muslims fasting, as they understand if you not a Muslim you would not fast, yet one should try to refrain from that as much as possible – simply to be considerate. When the sun sets (around 6.30pm now- “now” being the beginning of Ramadan), the streets become eerily empty, as everyone is eating one of the two meals of Ramadan, Iftar (الإفطار), with their families or friends. You can almost feel the millions of people in all directions around you waiting for the evening Adhan (the Islamic call to prayer), which signals the sun has set and the feast can begin. Suhoor (السحور) is the second meal during Ramadan, which must be eaten before the sun rises (at around 5.30am now). For suhoor one of the most common, traditional and popular dishes is ful and ta’miya (fava beans and Egyptian falafel). Some eat at midnight, and then sleep, waking up to pray during suhoor (which means around 4.30 am – before the sun rises) but not eating.

Pregnant women, elderly, sick people, women menstruating, young children, and other situations whereby you may not be physically able to fast – are all exempt from fasting. Perhaps around the age of 8 or 9 children may begin fasting, introducing them to the concept first by 4 hours or so, and then increasing the number of hours as they grow older.

Ramadan is a time to focus on family, loved ones, friends, and prayer. Some people I know would go to mosques everyday, and live there, just cleansing themselves of human impurities. During Suhoor and Iftar friends and family are often invited over to each other’s houses for feasts.

There are three layers of cleansing during Ramadan:

1. Fasting of Al-Shari’ah (Jurisprudential Fasting)

Fasting from food and drink, intercourse (even if married), is the easiest, as it is the physical, external layer.

2. Fasting of Al-Tariqat (Ethical Fasting)

This focuses on things considered Haram such as gossiping, swearing, non-Islamic dress, and so on.

3. Fasting of Al-Haqiqat (Mystical Fasting)

The last layer only a handful of people in the world can do, which is very deep meditation – a state of detachment from anything other than God.

If you talk about Ramadan, you must talk about the TV shows during Ramadan, and the food. Let’s talk about the TV shows first. Millions of people sit in front of the TV for much of the day during the days of Ramadan. Although everyone troops off to work each morning, not much is done – as everyone is bone-dead tired and weak. When they come home for Iftar, millions of Egyptians (Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous country), settle down in front of the TV and wait to break their fast. In some districts, the streets become populated with people sharing food at night, with all the shops opening all throughout the night, and people awake throughout much of the night. In other areas, friends and family are invited over to each other’s houses, as people settle down for the fast in the evening.

Soups are important during Ramadan, as they are usually had first before eating to ease their way into food and to break the fast. Having drinks first are another way to break the fast. An Egyptian traditional Ramadan drink is Amar El-Din, made out of dried apricots and olive oil. The main food itself usually consists of a carb meal, like rice, pasta or mahshi (anything stuffed with vegetables) with some form of animal protein, like meat, chicken, or fish. Desserts are also an important part of Ramadan food culture. Some of the most loved Egyptian desserts during Ramadan include but are not limited to Mohalabeya, Konafa, Baklava, basboosa.

Other customs of Ramadan include:

  • The traditions of the Fanoos (الفوانيس, “lanterns”). They are hung all over restaurants, shops, people’s houses and apartments. Normally brightly coloured, either lit up with a candle or lightbulb, they make anywhere you look more colourful. This is specifically for Egyptian Ramadan, however.
  • Reading the khatma, which represents a full reading of the Qu’ran over the month. There are 30 chapters, fitting for one a night for the approximately 30 days of Ramadan that vary by one or two days every year.
  • Charity. Although this is one of the five tenets during Islam, all the five tenets are exemplified and focused on even more during the Holy month of Ramadan.

Every Muslim I’ve talked to that is fasting is happily doing it for ربنا (“rabana”, our Lord), and doesn’t complain. After having studied and read about Ramadan so much, it is infinitely more rich and beautiful when witnessing it all around you, for miles and miles. About 24% of the world is Muslim, which means that a large portion of almost a fourth of the world is currently fasting. That’s something to think about.

And so, رمضان كريم (“Ramadan Kareem”) – literally translated to “Kind Ramadan”, but when said to someone it means, “I hope Ramadan will be kind to you” or “wishing you a kind/generous Ramadan.”

 

The Complex Nature of Arab Nationalism and Islamism in the Arab World

While the concepts of the “nation” and the “state” have long been present, the “nation-state”, is broadly agreed upon within International Relations community to have been “codified”  by the 1648 Peace of Westphalia.[1] Regardless of whether non-Western polities would have adapted the nation-state concept themselves in time, colonial powers crudely instilled the concept in the Middle East, with much of the Middle Eastern map drawn by Great Britain and France as part of the Sykes-Picot agreement after Ottoman rule of the Middle East.[2] Therefore, Arab nationalism has been a force of unity for the Arab people, from opposition to the Ottoman Empire, then to the colonial powers of Europe, and then to US hegemony. As “nationalism” is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the “loyalty or devotion to a nation,” [3] “Arab nationalism”, then, is not quite the same as the nationalism one might think of in the West. The nation Arab nationalists are devoting to has historical, political, cultural, and socio-economic differences than the nation of Western nationalists, and therefore, will be, according to Anderson, imagined in different ways.

The school of thought that sees Arab nationalism and Islamism as separate, mutually exclusive identities and phenomena identifies the perceived failure of Arab nationalism with the devastating Arab defeat by Israel in the June 1967 war. In this case, the nationalist projects that were rampant in Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and across the Arab world in the early 1950s, were overtaken by a surge in Islamic sentiment.[4] The collapse of the United Arab Republic in 1961 that caused Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser to suffer, as the leader of the “Arab nationalist march,”[5] is seen as another turning point from a nationalist era to an Islamist era in the Arab world.

Here it is viewed that the dwindling of Arab nationalism with its strong rhetoric in anti-imperialist sentiment is believed to be due to Britain’s departure from Egypt and Iraq, the Arab states who had “espoused the ideas of Arab nationalism” suffering the humiliation of ’67, and the gradual shift in power to the more conservative states, which has resulted in an era where “Islam became a way for people to address their grievances from an authentic, respected viewpoint.”[6] The “sun set on nationalism” and “rose on Islamic militancy”, as radical Islamists challenged governments throughout the region, such as the Baathist Iraqi government in the 1970s, the Baathists in Syria in the 1980s and the secular Algerian leaderships in the 1990s.[7]

Yet the idea that Arab nationalism died and was replaced by Islamism relies on the assumption that Arab nationalism and Islamism are merely contradictory, and is a fallacy that suffers from oversimplification. It neglects the history of Islam, the Islamic movements that helped shape the political discourse and Arab society much before the 1960s, the decline of Ottoman and Persian power and how this affected the role of Islam in the Arab world, and so on. Instead, understanding Islamism as a part of the wider “Islamic phenomenon” allows one to acknowledge the deeply complex nature of it, with expressions such as al-ba’th al-islami (Islamic resurrection), al-ittijah al-islami (Islamic tendency) and al-sahwah al-islamiyyah (Islamic awakening); commonly used to refer to the Islamic phenomenon and portraying the cyclical nature of it.[8] The Islamic phenomenon is an intrinsic part of Arab society, thereby inevitably intertwined with each part of Arab society, including Arab nationalism.

Chouraqui uses Descartes’ Discourse on the Method to argue understanding Arab nationalism and Islamism as separate and opposing ideologies confuses the concept of origin with foundation.[9] In this sense, the origin of both these movements have similarities: an anti-West dynamic against the colonial European powers and then US hegemony, while the foundation of these movements, in other words, what these movements consists of, differs – as, while Arab nationalism embraces Western ideas, Islamism fundamentally rejects Western ideas and values.[10] Historically, the two have co-existed, overlapping, and been used by the other for their own aims. Islamism has been used to strengthen nationalist sentiment, such as through Al-Azhar as a unifying ideological tool.[11] Another instance of the two overlapping are the Iraqi Baathists, a nationalist force who held a deeply complex relationship with Islamic forces – in 1993 beginning to embark on a Return to Faith Campaign (which ultimately aimed to emphasis Islamic identity) and in 2003 collaborating with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which would later on become Islamic State, and thus, “by 2014, the Baathists and the jihadists were back to being allies.”[12]

The Egyptian Arab Spring witnessed Islamists, liberals, conservatives, all united in overthrowing the Mubarak regime. Tahrir Square was not split by sectarianism nor by ideology, as “inside the field no one asked about religion, no one cared. All Egyptians…all protesting, all united.”[13] Despite this unity disintegrating after the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, the unity during the revolutions and uprisings prove the two may work together in ways nationalism in the West and Islamism have not. The widespread suspicion that Nasser had approached the Muslim Brotherhood at some point in his life for a national cause further shows a larger phenomenon whereby Islamist and nationalist groups in the Arab world hold the potential to aid each other.

As Arab nationalism and Islamism are not mutually exclusive, then the argument that rising nationalism has a purely fundamentally contradictory relationship with jihadi terrorists as Islamist forces is faulty and proves oversimplified. The relationship between rising nationalism and Islamist fundamentalism is not necessarily purely fundamentally contradictory. While ideologically Arab nationalism and Islamism seem to be contradictory, with one rooted in transnational goals and the other in national, in practice this has not been the case. Therefore, the relationship between the two entities are deeply complex in the Arab world.

[1] Benno Teschke, “Theorizing the Westphalian System of States: International Relations from Absolutism to Capitalism”, European Journal of International Relations 8 No. 1 (2002), 6, https://doi.org/10.1177/1354066102008001001.

[2] Tarek Osman, “Why Border Lines Drawn with a Ruler in WWI Still Rock the Middle East,” BBC, December 14, 2013, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-25299553.

[3] Merriam-Webster, s.v. “Nationality,” accessed July 23, 2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nationalism.

[4] Dorothy Zirkle, “Arab Nationalism Versus Islamic Fundamentalism as a Unifying Factor in the Middle East,” (Dissertation, Boston College, 2007).

[5] Adeed Dawisha, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003), 167.

[6] Zirkle, “Arab Nationalism Versus Islamic Fundamentalism,” 88, 98.

[7] Dawisha, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century, 296.

[8] R. Hrair Dekmejian, Islam in Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1985), 4.

[9] Nathanael Chouraqui, “Are Arab Nationalism & Islamism Two Sides of the Same Coin?” E-international Relations Students (2016). Received from: http://www.e-ir.info/2016/09/02/are-arab-nationalism-and-islamism-two-sides-of-the-same-coin/.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Isabel Coles and Ned Parker, “The Baathists: How Saddam’s Men Helped Islamic State Rule,” Reuters, December 11, 2015, https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/mideast-crisis-iraq-islamicstate/.

[13] Nermeen Edrees, “Egypt: Inside Tahrir Square,” Global Voices February 4, 2011, Accessed July 23, 2018, https://globalvoices.org/2011/02/04/egypt-inside-tahrir-square/.

Tafsiir Continued

Jihad

A topic that is widely discussed in the Quran and that has many political implications in today’s society, is Jihad (“holy war” or “holy struggle”). The word “الجهاد” comes from the root word “جهد” which means to strive or exert oneself, and also means effort, routine, and so on. Jihad has been grossly misunderstood by many non-Muslims, as Jihad holds, perhaps first and foremost, a spiritual meaning – that of spiritual Jihad – which each person is constantly engaging in within themselves. We carry out Jihad at every stage of our lives in order to reach a societal equilibrium that Islam strives for and which is a reflection of inner jihad and stability. The 5 pillars of Islam are related to this spiritual jihad – as the daily prayers of “salat” are a form of spiritual jihad, as is faith, as is Ramadan – the detachment of temptations of the material world which requires strength and inner discipline, as does the Hajj – which requires hard work and preparation and is a tedious journey, and finally, as does Zakat (religious tax/charity), in order to fight against one’s greediness.

As for Jihad in the sense of the Jihad external to one’s own body, it is often depicted as a defense mechanism in the Quran. An aya in Surat al-Baqarah goes as such:

وَاقْتُلُوهُمْ حَيْثُ ثَقِفْتُمُوهُمْ وَأَخْرِجُوهُم مِّنْ حَيْثُ أَخْرَجُوكُمْ وَالْفِتْنَةُ أَشَدُّ مِنَ الْقَتْلِ وَلاَ تُقَاتِلُوهُمْ عِندَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ حَتَّى يُقَاتِلُوكُمْ فِيهِ فَإِن قَاتَلُوكُمْ فَاقْتُلُوهُمْ كَذَلِكَ جَزَاء الْكَافِرِينَ

 

“And slay them wherever you find them, and drive them away from where they drove you away. And persecution is more grievous than slaughter. And fight not with them at the Sacred Mosque unless they fight with you therein; then, if they fight with you, slay them; such is the retribution of the infidels.” (aya 191)

 

Which is followed by the next aya:

فَإِنِ انتَهَوْاْ فَإِنَّ اللّهَ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ

 

“But if they desist, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” (aya 192).

 

Here it becomes clear that many aya’s urge one to put peace first. This can also be seen in in Surat Anfal (the Bounties):

وَإِنْ جَنَحُوا لِلسَّلْمِ فَاجْنَحْ لَهَا وَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّهُ هُوَ السَّمِيعُ الْعَلِيمُ

 

“And if they incline to peace, then you (too) incline to it and put your trust in Allah; verily He is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.” (aya 61)

 

The Early Prophets:

The early Prophets consisted of the following: the Prophet Salih of the Thamud people in the North of Arabia, Prophet Shuaib of the Midian people in the Sinai, Prophet Hud of the Ad people in the South of Arabia, Prophet Lot of the people of Sodom, and the Prophet Noah. These were the early Prophets – and each of their stories have many parallels and a similar morality – do not forget Allah and stray of the path of goodness and commit sins of theft, murder, homosexuality, worshipping idols, attachment to materialism, disbelief in Allah- for he will punish you for that. Each of these Prophets attempted to tell their people’s and persuade them to stop their sins and to believe in Allah again, and were patient in their doing so, and each of their people’s did not listen to them – fating themselves to apocalyptic natural disasters caused by Allah.

Finally, Surat al-Khaf (The Cave), number 18, which is 110 aya’s long and consists of four stories. The first is the story of the people of the cave, where Allah told some men to dwell in a cave for 309 years, and when they woke up they found the people around them believed in Allah and they were in a society of faith. The second story was of a man who was given two gardens of grapes, with green crops, and he became very arrogant and forgot Allah, and so it was taken away from him. The third is the story of the Prophet Musa (Moses) who was asked by his people who held the most knowledge on the earth, and he replied he did. Then he heard of a learned man who had even more knowledge than he (Al-Khidr) and went out in search of him. Al-Khidr did three things which seemed immoral and wrong to Mosa at the time – he made a hole in a ship, killed a child, and built a wall himself for no seeming reason. It turned out that he made a hole in the ship because there was an unjust king who was taking away all the ships by force, he killed the child because he was not dutiful to his parents, who were very righteous, and he built the wall over a treasure belonging to two orphan boys which otherwise would have been found and taken from them. The fourth story is the story of the King Dhul Qarnain, who was a just king who had the means to spread justice and goodness. He traveled to the East and West and did so.

The trials put forth within this Surah is the trial of religion from the first story, the trial of wealth from the second story, the trial of knowledge from the third story, and the trial of power from the fourth story. The morals to be learned from these trials is as such: the trial of religion shows our need of righteous companions. The trial of wealth teaches us not to become attached to this life of materialism. The trial of knowledge teaches us humility and to trust in Allah and his plan. Finally, the trial of power teaches us sincerity.

Although the Prophet Suleiman is not considered to be a part of the early Prophets, he is an important Prophet in the Qur’an. He was mentioned in several of the Surah’s – including Surah of the Ants, where he asks for three things: to be a King, to be wise, and that if anyone goes to the Holy Temple that they be forgiven. Suleiman became one of the most powerful Kings, who could speak to the winds, birds, and to jinni. Because of this he had a really strong army. Surat An-Naml (Surah of the Ants) shows that he understood the Ants. Surat as-Saba shows what power he had, and that the jinni were afraid of him:

وَلِسُلَيْمَـانَ الرّ‌ِيحَ غُدُوُّهَا شَهْرٌ وَرَوَاحُهَا شَهْرٌ وَأَسَلْنَا لَهُ عَيْنَ الْقِطْرِ وَمِنَ الْجِنّ‌ِ مَن يَعْمَلُ بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ بِإِذْنِ رَبّـِهِ وَمَن يَزِغْ مِنْهُمْ عَنْ أَمْرِنَا نُذِقْهُ مِنْ عَذَابِ السَّعِيرِ

 

“And for Solomon (We made subservient) the wind which travelled in the morning a month’s journey and a month’s journey in the evening. And We made a fountain of molten copper to flow out for him, and of the jinn, some worked before him by the leave of his Lord; and whoever of them turned away from Our command, We made him taste of the chastisement of the blazing Fire.” (aya 12)

In Surat Sad, 30 after he had spent a day with horses whom he loved very much, he had forgotten to pray, and as a result he killed all the horses and gave the meat to the poor. Many of the Surah’s shows Suleiman’s power.

The Qur’an affects and guides millions of people around the world. Attempting to understand it therefore crucial and a necessity. As mentioned in the previous post “Tafsiir (Quran Interpretation 101” – this is just meant as a rudimentary dip into the world of Tafsiir and is by no means the only interpretation possible for any of these aya’s or Surah’s. The Arabic and English translations in this article were derived from https://www.alislam.org/, a reputable, widely used and well-known site for understanding the Quran.

Ibn Rushd, also Known as Averroes, and “The Commentator”.

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أبو الوليد محمد ابن احمد ابن رشد‎ (Abu I-Walid Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd), known as Averroes in the West, was a prominent Islamic philosopher during the Islamic Golden Age. He was often called “The Commentator” due to his vast and extensive commentaries on everything Aristotle wrote, with the exception of Politics, where he instead wrote a commentary on Plato’s Republic. Coming from a line of judges, he was well versed in jurisprudence and was appointed qadi (judge) in Seville several times. Under the Caliph Abu Yaqub, he met Ibn Tufail in the same court, and it was he who told Ibn Rushd the Caliph desired to understand Aristotle’s books, resulting in his vast commentary on Aristotle we are able to enjoy today. Ibn Rushd served as a judge as well as a physician in the Almohad caliphate, but later met his misfortune and injustice due to political circumstances under the Caliph Al-Mansur, the son of Caliph Abu Yaqub.

His own manuscripts, including On the Syllogism, On the Intellect, On Conjunction with the Active Intellect, often defended Aristotelianism, as he believed Aristotle had the purest intellect. Whether this is may be considered haram is Islam is worth pondering about. He, as did many of the other Muslim philosophers, understood the prophets to have a pure Intellect that almost, in a way, reflected the Active Intellect (God’s Intellect). In this sense, what would he have said, if one asked him, why did Aristotle not receive or dispel any form of revelations? Perhaps he would have argued that Aristotle’s secular work was, in its own form, a revelation.

Regardless of what his answer might have been, many of his ideas and writings led to the mindless masses to collaborate and turn against him, declaring him a heretic and cursing his books as well as those who read it – essentially marginalizing him from society. Thus he joined the list of condemned philosophers. Of course, there was politics at play as well – the Caliph Al-Mansur wanted the support of Ibn Rushd’s rivals and thus turned against him. As a result, many of Ibn Rushd’s works were lost, as his works were declared illegal or burned by the Caliph. Ibn Rushd’s Incoherence of the Incoherence is arguably the main criticizing work against al-Ghazali’s Incoherence of the Philosophers. He argued that interpretation of the holy text does not make one a disbeliever, contrary to Al Ghazali’s ideas, but instead using ta’weel (تأويل , interpretation) to understand and strengthen faith is almost mandated by God, and he’d then support this with aya’s from the Quran.

One of his important and influential thoughts was that philosophy and religion (or faith) were not at odds, but rather philosophy reinforces faith. In his book Fasl al Maqaal (On the Harmony of Religions and Philosophy) he argued that the Quran itself urges contemplation and therefore is a must for Muslims. This leads us to his highly held regard for analogy as the strongest tool to attempt to reach Truth. Ibn Rushd’s emphasis on the importance of contemplation deems it a necessity for a Muslim, as, he argued, it is urged and invited by Allah to do so. Therefore, it is, in this sense, a duty to use the Intellect to examine all that exists around us.

Ibn Rushd discussed the idea of شرع (“shar”), which is for the masses who are unable to contemplate deeply (nor do they generally want to), while only those who are able to (the philosophers), should engage in ta’weel and furthermore, these philosophers should not discuss these ta’weel to the masses. However, as his persecution showed, this is not realistic. While ideally it is a sound idea, to separate the two, however in reality this is not possible – his books and his teachings still reached the presumably mindless masses, resulting in his exile and marginalization from society. So, then, perhaps we can contemplate a different methodology – instead of letting شرع for the masses and keeping the writings and compositions of the philosophers to themselves – perhaps dispelling these shocking and fear-inducing ideas in a different way is worth contemplating upon. The methodology of the Brethren of Purity in their The Case of the Animals Versus Man Before the King of the Jinn is entirely written in story-form, and yet philosophical criticisms, thoughts, ideas and the like are well versed in it, able to exist more freely as it is read, facing less opposition than Ibn Rushd’s works. This is due primarily to two things: the story-form of the writings as well as their anonymity.

Finally, Ibn Rushd’s respect for previously proven premises and knowledge is humbling and also useful. He understood that one should not limit oneself to one’s own time and era, disregarding those before, nor should one limit oneself to one discipline, instead- medicine, astronomy, mathematics, physics, ethics, philosophy, and so on, are all helpful in questioning and examining Truths as well as in attempting to reach Truths. In this sense, he understood the experimental sciences to be built on the accumulation of knowledge throughout the generations. While this point is valid, one must make sure to also question the very essence of the prior knowledge before basing one’s own assumptions and questioning after it.

Tafsiir (Quran Interpretation 101)

“Bismallaah Al-Rahman Al-Rahiim” (In the name of God, the most Gracious and the Merciful”): The “Basmala”, this is the opening phrase in the Quran, and opens every Surah except for Surah 9, “Al-Tawba” (The Repudiation).* This article will go through some reflections and points on each of the Surah’s. Due to the complexity surrounding the issues, this is just offering some تفسير (tafsiir or Quranic interpretations) of various آية‎ (“aya”, verse ) and سورة (“surah”, chapter) and is by no means the only interpretation possible.

Surah Kafirun, the “Unbelievers” (الكافرين) in other words, the one who doesn’t know the Truth. This Surah, number 109, is only 6 آيات (“ayat”, verses) long. It ends with: “to you be your religion, and to me my religion”. This holds openminded connotations, similar to the old saying “to each his own.” This Surah can be seen as an order to the Prophet Muhammad to not force the unbelievers. Similarly, in Surah number 10, Surah يونس (“Yunus”, Jonah), aya 41:

“وَإِن كَذَّبُوكَ فَقُل لِي عَمَلِي وَلَكُمْ عَمَلُكُمْ أَنتُم بَرِيئُونَ مِمَّآ أَعْمَلُ وَأَنَاْ بَريءٌ مِمَّا تَعْمَلُونَ”

“And if they belie you, say: ‘For me is my work and for you is your work. You are quit of what I do, and I am quit of what you do’.”

It emphasised that one cannot force others to believe. In other words, force is not commendable here, but rather, the opposite, is: سلام (“salam”, peace). The word “Islam” is derived from this root word “sine (س) lam (ل) mim (م)”, here pronounced “sa la ma”, as does the word “Muslim”. Surah Yunus may be examined closely alongside Surah Kafirun, as it addresses monotheism and how to deal with those who deny the revelation.

Surah Miryam (مريم), or in Christianity and Judaism, “Mary”, the mother of Jesus, tells a beautiful story of the birth of Jesus. In Islam, unlike in Christianity, Jesus is not the son of God, but another prophet, alongside other prophets like Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Ishmael, Idris, Adam, Noah, and so on. A rationalisation of this is derived from the following logic: Allah wouldn’t need, want, or have a son because this would then imply divisibility and furthermore a need for intimacy, etc. Miryam is the only woman’s name mentioned in the Quran, and is mentioned 34 times in the Quran. The Surah tells of the prophet Abraham who left his father, who worshipped idols, and was rewarded with two sons – Isaac and Jacob. The Guardian of Mary, Zechariah, also a prophet, and the husband of Elizabeth (Mary’s cousin) wanted a son, but his wife was barren and he was very old, and so he asked God who forbade him to speak for three days, and then gave him a son named يوحنا (“Yahya”, John. Generations after these prophets, people became negligent of God, and gave in to their basic desires, as the Arabs believed in life after death more as a formality and custom. The argument for life after death follows the following line: the first birth, the birth that is why we are all here, is the argument that supports re-birth.

Mary, sister of Aaron, is a miracle, and perhaps is a way to show people that although things may seem bad in the moment, they are good. Mary’s birth was very painful, so painful she said that she wished she had never been born:

فَاَجَآءَهَا الْمَـخَاضُ إِلَي جِذْعِ النَّخْلَةِ قَالَتْ يَا لَيْتَنِي مِتُّ قَبْلَ هَذَا وَكُنتُ نَسْياً مَنْسِيّاً

“And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree. She said: ‘Would I had died ere this, and had been a thing forgotten’.” (aya 23)

and Allah told her to eat the sweet dates off the tree and drink water:

فَنَادَاهَا مِن تَحْتِهَآ اَلاَّ تَحْزَنِي قَدْ جَعَلَ رَبُّكِ تَحْتَكِ سَرِيّاً

وَهُزّ‌ِي إِلَيْكِ بِجِذْعِ النَّخْلَةِ تُسَاقِطْ عَلَيْكِ رُطَباً جَنِيّاً

“Then (a voice) called out unto her from beneath her: ‘Grieve not! Verily your Lord has made a stream to flow beneath you’.” (aya 24)
“And shake the trunk of the palm-tree towards yourself. It will drop on you fresh ripe dates.” (aya 25)

Surah Al Zumar (الزر) “the Groups”, describes the Day of Judgement. There are many names for the Day of Judgement, such as the Day of the Rising, the Day of Regret, the Day of Recompense, and the Day of Meeting. Here those that were going to Heaven or Hell were referred to repeatedly as the “troops” or the “throngs”, who would enter the gates of Heaven or Hell as such. Paradise and Hell were, in this Surah, both described as having gates, and keepers. One would be judged by a record of their deeds, and then witnesses would provide testimonies. This Surah also states that if you recite this Surah, you won’t go to Hell. Heaven is described as having lofty rooms and rivers flowing with milk, wine, and honey, while Hell is described as “Coverings of fire”. Those that lied, “their faces will be black”:

وَيَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ تَرَی الَّذِينَ كَذَبُوا عَلَی اللَّهِ وُجُوهُهُمْ مُسْوَدَّةٌ أَلَيْسَ فِي جَهَنَّمَ مَثْویً لِلْمُتَكَبِّرِينَ

“And on the Day of Resurrection you will see those who lied against Allah – their faces will be black. Is there not in Hell an abode for the vain?” (aya 60) 

The book of deeds will be put forth, and the Prophets and witnesses will be brought forward (aya 69).

Surah al-Nisa (النساء, “the women”) is one of the most controversial Surah’s. It is the longest Surah in the Quran after second Surah, البقرة (“Baqarah”, The Cow) with 177 verses. Surah al-Nisa’s topics span from faith, justice, to supporting the orphans at the end, marriage, inheritance, immigration, Holy War/Jihad, and opponents of the Islamic community. The first 35 aya’s are about women and family affairs. Aya 34 holds extreme importance and is greatly debated about the meaning:

الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاء بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَى بَعْضٍ وَبِمَا أَنفَقُواْ مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ فَالصَّالِحَاتُ قَانِتَاتٌ حَافِظَاتٌ لِّلْغَيْبِ بِمَا حَفِظَ اللّهُ وَاللاَّتِي تَخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ فَعِظُوهُنَّ وَاهْجُرُوهُنَّ فِي الْمَضَاجِعِ وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ فَإِنْ أَطَعْنَكُمْ فَلاَ تَبْغُواْ عَلَيْهِنَّ سَبِيلاً إِنَّ اللّهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّا كَبِيرًا

“Men have authority over women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property (for the support of women). Therefore, the good women are obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded. And (as to) those (women) on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and avoid them in beds and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; verily Allah is Ever-High, Ever-Great.”.

Aya 75 encourages Muslims to fight for the vulnerable in war – referring to oppressed men, women, and children:

وَمَا لَكُمْ لاَ تُقَاتِلُونَ فِي سَبِيلِ اللّهِ وَالْمُسْتَضْعَفِينَ مِنَ الرِّجَالِ وَالنِّسَاء وَالْوِلْدَانِ الَّذِينَ يَقُولُونَ رَبَّنَا أَخْرِجْنَا مِنْ هَـذِهِ الْقَرْيَةِ الظَّالِمِ أَهْلُهَا وَاجْعَل لَّنَا مِن لَّدُنكَ وَلِيًّا وَاجْعَل لَّنَا مِن لَّدُنكَ نَصِيرً }

“And what has happened to you that you should not fight in the way of Allah and for the weak among men, women and children who say: ‘Our Lord! Take us out of this town whose people are oppressors, and appoint for us from You guardian, and appoint for us from you helper!”

For the early Muslim community, this aya outlined acceptable behavior. It is commonly utilised by fundamentalists for control, and was believed to be revealed to the Prophet Muhammad during جَاهِلِيَّة (“Jahiliyyah”,Time of Ignorance, referring to the time before the advent of Islam, in other words, the time before the Prophet Muhammad). During that time, polygamy was the norm (for men) and so women had no laws protecting her, and as it was all tribes, the Surah here helped lay down foundations for marriage, inheritance, and such. Surah Al-Nisa may be seen as an early attempt at social reform, as:

يُرِيدُ اللّهُ أَن يُخَفِّفَ عَنكُمْ وَخُلِقَ الإِنسَانُ ضَعِيفًا

“Allah desires that He should make light your burden, and man has been created weak.” (Aya 28)

As seen merely from examining a few select aya’s from Surah al-Nisa, it is clear the topics in this Surah span many topics.

With knowledge of the Arabic language, one would understand the concept of the root word in Arabic, of which many other words stem from that – each of their meanings having some connection with the meaning of the root word. This is extremely important to understand and recognise, because it means that every aya in the Quran may be interpreted in many different ways, hence the need and growth of Tafsiir. Furthermore, reading a text has many layers:

  1. The meaning the reader derives from the text, inevitably influenced by their schemata. This is influenced by the time and place and era one is in, as nothing is produced in a vacuum: the reader is, inevitably, to some extent, a product of your environments, and therefore as are your thoughts.
  2. Similarly, the author is also a product of his/her time and place, and therefore, there is the meaning the author wanted the reader to know.
  3. Finally, there is also the meaning the author didn’t intend the reader to know or didn’t know himself or herself at the time.

These latent and manifest layers require one to acknowledge that these interpretations are not whole and are not representations of the aya’s in their meaning entirely. This article merely acts as a very rudimentary first dip into the abyss of Tafsiir. The Arabic and English translations in this article were derived from https://www.alislam.org/, a repudiable, widely used and well-known site for understanding the Quran.

* It is debated why this is the only Surah of the 114 Surah that together comprise the Quran that does not begin with the Basmala. This link provides a clear explanation of the main theories as to why this is: https://islam.stackexchange.com/questions/36463/why-does-surah-taubah-start-without-bismillah.

 

A Reflection on Al-Ghazali- Mystic and Islamic Philosopher

أبو حامد محمد بن محمد الغزالي (Abu Hamid Muhammed Ibn Ahmed Al-Ghazali), born in the Persian town of Ghazala, also known as the “proof of Islam” (Hujjat al-Islam), transgressed through an personal journey that very much is reflected by his intellectual journey as a philosopher, theologian and Sufi mystic. Perhaps he was one of the more honest philosophers and thinkers of his time, as he abandoned his posts in Baghdad in 1095, embarking on a solitary, spiritual journey for eleven years – where he, similarly to Al-Farabi, traveled around the Islamic world. Ghazali’s realization that he was going the “wrong way”, where this Doubt shook him to his core, as he saw the materialism and superficiality within which his life was rooted in, prompted him to embarked on a journey to find the “righteous path”. The first scholar to combine Sharia and Sufism, or, in other words, religion with Sufism, or theology with taste, he went against many of the thinkers of his time.

Ghazali’s intellectual journey may be divided into three stages. The first may be classified as “doubt”, during which he began to doubt the premise of defending or justifying religion as something that requires dogmatic defense. It was during this stage where he wrote the infamous “Incoherence of the Philosophers”, a rigorous rant on the issues and constraints of the الفلاسفة (“falasifa”, translates to “the Philosophers”). Doubt was the means to reach the Ultimate Truth, the second stage. Ghazali believed the Intellect was not enough to reach the Ultimate Truth, and, as such, trust is needed. Just as the Intellect aids our constrained senses, something was behind the Intellect, governing the Intellect. In this sense, the Intellect is similarly able to deceive, just as our senses are. This brings us to his third stage, the Final Truth. Here he emphasised the importance of trust in prophecy, as prophecy is beyond the Intellect. It is a natural perception, he believed, beyond the Intellect, faith, or religion, and instead, should be understood as a spiritual experience of heart and ذاق (“douqh”, meaning taste).

Ghazali’s belief and argument that the Intellect has the ability to be impotent and deceiving, and therefore cannot be wholly trusted leads to the conclusion that trust in prophecy, instead, may aid intellect. Ghazali placed a heavy emphasis on prophecy. According to his writings, after the Prophet Muhammed died, there is now a need for trust in the prophecies, and from this will sprout inspiration, which is the extension of the revelation- almost as if the prophecy had been revived, in a way. The Final Truth is attained by believing in Prophecy first, as prophecy is beyond the Intellect. This has a similar echo to Ibn Sina’s writings on prophecy, where he argued prophesizing is rational, and uses syllogisms. However, prophets merely state the conclusion without the premises, although this does not lead to the conclusion that it isn’t based on the premises. Ibn Sina believed that the prophet’s intellect was such that it didn’t need the premises. Here the revelation’s are seen to be above rationality and intellect, in a similar vein to Ghazali’s beliefs.

Ghazali’s influence is widespread and variant. He has had an effect on Islamic Fundamentalists, as they have exploited and used his writings to their own gains. This has, in turn, caused a widespread misconception of Ghazali as having closed the doors to philosophy in the Islamic World, and opened the doors to Islamic Fundamentalism, as some blame him for the decline of science in the Islamic world. However, this Western theory is privy to being reductionist to Ghazali himself and his writings. Furthermore, the belief that the phenomena of the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism may be attributed to one person, thing, or entity, is an oversimplification and therefore faulty.

His writings also largely effected Western philosophers, including the well-known René Descartes. Descartes’ “basket of apples” philosophy argues that one must inspect each apple in the basket, carefully, and only putting back the sound ones. This is a metaphor for one’s mind, to inspect each thought within his or her mind, and in this sense, not taking anything for granted. To turn over each belief and determine which are true. This is strongly reminiscent of Ghazali on Doubt. This doubt echoes throughout various philosophers. One cannot help but think of Plato’s cave allegory in comparison to Ghazali’s work. Both men were plagued by doubt (as was Plato’s mentor, Socrates), however they diverged in where this skeptical journey led them. While Plato believed one could achieve truth and infallible knowledge by emerging out of the dark cave and into the world, Ghazali believed that only by looking within, into the soul and by trusting in God and the revelations, would one be able to truly attain Ultimate Truth. The two great philosophers have interesting overlaps, with Ghazali being almost confused as to how there can be so many different sects that men tended to believe merely because he was brought up in this way, while Plato depicting the falsehood of data that men tend to be bound by – symbolized by the shadows of the Cave.

In  المنقذ من الضلال (“al-Munqidh min al-dalal”, translates to “Deliverance from Error”), an autobiographical account of Ghazali, one can understand his approach and thoughts towards skepticism and doubt, which was what led him to initially leave his teaching position, and is essential to search for the Unshakable Truth (حقيقة). His quest for certainty led him to question uncritically accepted religious beliefs, and instead search for a kind of عِلم الْيَقين (“‘ilm al-yaqin”). This diverges from Socrates’ “the only thing I know is that I know nothing”. Ghazali experienced two personal crises, with the second leading him to look within in, and resulting in his conclusion that only through a life of trust or تَوَكُّل (“tawakkul”) would the seeker be able find the Unshakable Truth, which he called the Ultimate Truth. In this way, one could remove the veil- a common Sufi concept in which knowledge of the heart surpasses that of the intellect, and by going through personal, spiritual, struggles, will one reach the truth, and the veil covering the spiritual realms will be unveiled.

In تهافت الفلاسفة (Incoherence of the Philosophers), Ghazali denounced Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina and Al-Farabi. He refuted Aristotelian logic and the Falasifa’s certainty of rational logic being superior to knowledge derived from the revelation was incorrect. In particular, he saw theology as a dead body of rituals, with men blindly believing certain things without really understanding why. Perhaps one of the biggest contributions Ghazali perpetuated was the idea that Intellect, and rationalism, have constraints on understanding many of the main philosophical questions within Islamic Philosophy, such as Creation and God’s attributes.

Ghazali’s honesty, and lack of fear for political or social retaliation of consequence is admirable, and is reminiscent of less fortunate philosophers and thinkers like Socrates and the Sufi mystic Mansur Al-Hallaj. If we are to understand Islamic Philosophy within four groups- المعتزلة  (“Mu’tazila”), الأشعرية (Ash’arites), الْتَّصَوُّف (the Sufis) and those of أصول الفقه (Islamic Jurisprudence), Ghazali is not able to be easily classified into any one of these, as he explored them all throughout the course of his life. Many would classify him as a philosopher, a mystic, a theologian and a Muslim jurist. Various ideas of his fall under the Ash’rites predisposition of placing revelation over rationalization. Meanwhile, his spiritual journey led him to wholly follow the beliefs and ways of a Sufi, such as his emphasis on trust to attain absolute Truth, or, in other words, to be one with God. Ghazali began his journey as an al Kalaam, before going to the Philosophers, and then the Sufis.

 

An Anthropological Study of El Fishawy Cafe

Built in 1771 AD, and where Naguib Mahfouz, and many other famous socialites frequented much of their lives, El Fishawy Cafe is open 24/7, with people staying there through the night until morning, with smoke hanging from the mirrors and wafting from the ends of hookah pipes, coming out in bursts as laughter is, also, carried around. It is also known as the mirror cafe, as it is ordained with beautiful, old, mirrors, as well as chandeliers.

Groups of friends sit there, chatting merrily through the night, as do couples, lovers, and families. Unlike the nightlife of most of the developed Western world, it is not dominated by friend-oriented groups trooping to clubs or bars, but it holds groups of friends just as much as family with their children, lovers; all groups of people. We arrived at around 10PM and stayed until about 1AM, with little children no bigger than five years of age who’d be gazing around with their large, innocent eyes. Old, national, famous Egyptian songs would be played by various men with their various instruments – the oud, guitar, or just by strumming their fingers to a beat on the table tops, singing in groups or solo at tables, while the rest of the people listened. At one point, the entire cafe was singing and clapping along to an old Egyptian folk-song.

As the smoke of shisha wafts around, and trays of tea with mounds of sugar and mint leaves go around, I looked around- at the content, sun-kissed faces, and felt that this was truly a unique place. Perhaps an anthropological study would even be sufficient here, and no doubt would produce copious and interesting amounts of information. What are the norms in this cafe? If we see it as a meeting place of all sorts of people, what values and norms are suspended once you enter here, and which ones replace it?

It was an extremely chaotic place – with young boys coming through asking for money, or selling beads and the like, other slightly older boys would come through holding at least 15 books all piles up, carrying it with their hands linked underneath them and the books leaning on their chests, likewise trays of tea and hookah pipes would be swinging around by the very comfortable and obviously very-used-to-this waiters, with people dodging left and right. A waiter put down a drink on our table, and we mentioned to him this wasn’t ours and he said “I know.” After he was done fixing the fan on the wall behind us, he picked it up and swung off again to the drink’s destined table- and so, it was almost as if there was a new set of certain values and norms that had been set in place in this very place, with its mirrors, chandeliers, and laughter. Perhaps the study of human behavior in this segmented part of Egyptian social life could reflect certain values and ways-of-life of the Egyptian common man. There was some form of order to the chaos.

In this cafe, the people seemed drunk – but not on the alcohol that many Western societies drown themselves in after the sun disappears for the night, but on حياة (“haya”, Arabic for life), on friendship, on family. On hookah and sweetened mint tea, or drinks of رمان (“roman”, Arabic for pomegranate). A single policeman seemed to have been stationed there, in his smart, ironed-white uniform, and even he, had a lingering smile on his sun-kissed face, as he gazed around. One could sit there and let many hours slide by, just be observing the like. At least, that’s what I did. And so, this is a place of warmth, laughter, with its own customs and norms. One of the oldest cafes in el-Hussein area, one that has hosted kings, princes, movie stars, and the like.

As I was not able to capture a representative video that night, here is one on YouTube that captures much of the cafe’s essence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuGhtPvfWb0

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http://www.asherworldturns.com/cairo-bazaar-by-night/