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.”

 

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.