Ramaḍān and the Great Fast begin in Egypt

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Thu, 2024-03-14
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In a rare occurrence, both the month of Ramaḍān and the Great Fast of the Coptic Orthodox Church began this week on Monday, March 11th. For Muslims, Ramaḍān is the month during which the Holy Qurʾān was first revealed to the Prophet Muḥammad. For Coptic Orthodox Christians, the Great Fast is the 55-day period before the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter. For many Western Christians, this fast broadly corresponds to the season of Lent which extends for forty days before Easter.


According to Sherif Mourad, a lecturer and researcher at the Alexandria School in Egypt and Agora University in the United States, the origins of the Great Fast are found in the ancient church when new Christians (or catechumens) fasted before their baptism on Easter. Over time, this practice was extended into its current shape. The Great Fast involves abstaining from all food and often water for some hours every day and from foods derived from animals or animal products for the whole duration. For many Coptic Orthodox Christians, their fasting practices will become more intensive as the days and the weeks of the season go by. For further insights on Coptic Orthodox views of fasting, please see these translated lectures by H.G. Pope Shenouda III (1923-2012).


(An otherwise busy street in central Cairo is virtually empty at 6 p.m. as Egyptian Muslims gathered for the first ifṭār on March 11th.)


Beyond the practice of abstaining from food and water from sunrise to sunset, other common practices during the month of Ramaḍān include the following: 


Qurʾān reading: many Muslims will try to read the entirety of the Qurʾān during the 30 days of Ramaḍān. For this reason, the Qurʾān has been divided into thirty sections to help facilitate this practice. Some people may consult Qurʾānic commentaries (tafsīr/pl.tafāsīr) in order to enrich their reading.


Tarāwīḥ prayers: these are recommended prayers during Ramaḍān that usually take place after ṣalāt al-ʿishāʾ, the last of the five daily prayers. The prayers often involve extended Qur’ānic readings.


Suḥūr meals: meals that are taken at night before dawn at which point the next day of fasting begins. In some contexts, one may hear drummers walking through the city attempting to rouse people for the meal.


Iʿtikāf retreats: during the last ten days of Ramaḍān, some Muslims may decide to spend time residing in a mosque.


Zakāt/Ṣadaqat al-fiṭr: an amount of money or its equivalent that should be given by every Muslim to the poor during Ramaḍān.


Laylat al-Qadr (“Night of Power”): based on the Qurʾān (Q 97) and Islamic tradition, the Night of Power is understood as the time when the Qurʾān was revealed for humanity. There are different views over which night in Ramaḍān the night occurs, but it is agreed that it occurs during the last ten days of the month. For this reason, many Muslims may adopt additional practices like iʿtikāf retreats and tahajjud prayers during the last ten days of the month.


ʿĪd al-Fiṭr: A holiday that marks the end of Ramaḍān. Many Egyptians prefer fish on this occasion.

As these rich spiritual seasons unfold for millions of people in Egypt, we remember the tragic conflict that continues only 350 kilometers north of Cairo in Gaza. Our hope and prayer continues to be for a ceasefire. If you pray during these seasons of fasting, please join us.

With best wishes for a blessed Ramaḍān and Great Fast,

Matthew Anderson

Director - Center for Arab-West Understanding

Executive Editor - Dialogue Across Borders (Brill)

March 14th, 2024