Ramadan often causes discussions related to religion as the holy month drives people towards spirituality, but should these discussions raise concerns over some interpretations of Islamic teachings and over the understanding of the role of some so-called guardians of religion?
Dar Al-Iftaa, a major institutional source of Islamic rulings, known as a fatwa, removed a post that it published on Facebook the eve of Ramadan, which began on 6 June, possibly after coming under fire over its content. The post came along with several others, which the institution announced would be part of a “heavy meal of faith” to be shared on social media networks.
The statement read: “The public manifestation of breaking the fast during fasting hours of a day in Ramadan does not fall within personal human freedoms. On the contrary, it is a sign of chaos and an assault on the holiness of the Islamic religion because the revelation of sins is forbidden, or haram. It also goes against public convenience in Muslim countries and is a clear violation of the society’s right for respect of its sanctities.”
The statement raised controversy as some viewed it as a restriction of personal freedom.
Dar Al-Iftaa deleted the post, rephrasing its statement as following: “Morality is one of the pillars of our religion, among which is consideration of other people. However, it grieves the heart to see some Muslims publicly manifesting their breaking of the fast during fasting hours, whether they have an excuse to do so or not, it hurts the feelings of those fasting.”
The statement seemed to ignore the presence of non-Muslims citizens, who are not banned from eating and drinking or visiting restaurants during fasting hours. Out of consideration, many Christians do abstain from doing so in front of a fasting Muslim.
But the statement was addressed to Muslims despite Islam exempting Muslims who are incapable of fasting, such as permanently or temporarily ill persons, pregnant women and travellers. Those categories are entitled to breaking the fast.
According to Dar Al-Iftaa’s Sheikh Magdy Ashour, Muslims are not allowed to break their fast if they do not have a legitimate excuse. “Ramadan is a month that you cannot make up for, especially those who do not have an excuse—if they break their fast they cannot make up for it in their entire life. Excuses like hot weather are not plausible as you are supposed to show proof of being unable to bear fasting,” he said.
Although Dar Al-Iftaa’s statement on publicly breaking the fast does not have the rule of law, it still carries threats and incitements against those not fasting. There have been cases where police raided cafés or arrested citizens on grounds of “public manifestation of breaking the fast”. In 2009, reports of the arrest of 155 people in Aswan stirred public controversy.
Following several reports of the arrest of citizens in Cairo in 2015, Deputy Minister of Interior Abou Bakr Abdel Kareem stated to the media that there were no legal grounds for such arrests.
The Egyptian Constitution, which recognises only Abrahmic religions, guarantees the absolute freedom of belief but stipulates that religious practices and rituals are rights to be regulated by the law.
The Constitution also stipulates that Al-Azhar institution is the main reference for religious sciences and Islamic affairs. It is responsible for calling people to Islam as well as disseminating religious sciences and the Arabic language in Egypt and around the world.
Dar Al-Iftaa is an educational hub representing Islamic law and clarifying its principles by drawing upon the Quran and the sayings attributed to the prophet. People usually address Dar Al-Iftaa when they have inquiries about religion.
But the value of the fatwas or clarifications they issue are questionable, let alone the value of the questions themselves.
On Tuesday, the local news website Al-Bawaba News published an article in which it said it submitted a question to the institution regarding the legitimacy of the fasting of journalist, and whether their fast “will be accepted by God”.
Al-Bawaba News claimed that the question stemmed from the “increasing insults to those working in the press and the media to the extent of their expiation”. It elaborated by stating that “gossiping is a pillar of the journalism profession. Covering accidents is equal to exposing people, and covering news about movie stars and the like, are all things despised by Islam”.
The response they received read: “Yes, journalists’ fasts are accepted.”
For years, Arab Muslims have had superficial inquiries about religion, leading to thousands of groundless fatwas, mainly by media preachers. Those questions varied from “entering the bathroom using the right or left foot” to “is watching TV a sin”, resulting in radical fatwas such as “greeting Christians is a sin”. Dar Al-Iftaa’s website contains a full range of such arguments including one in response to whether using the traditional greeting of “Ramadan Kareem” is religiously accepted.
Although President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and leading religious state figures repeatedly addressed the need to renew religious discourse after the ousting of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi and the spread of religious intolerance, their efforts have been minimal and more of a crackdown on Islamic preachers on grounds of having “terrorist” affiliations.
In a recent interview with state-owned media Akhbar Al-Youm regarding taraweeh prayers, a Ramadan ritual, Minister of Religious Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa said that in light of combating extremism, the ministry has imposed restrictions on mosques and religious practices.
These include the careful selection of preachers leading prayers and the monitoring of mosques especially during taraweeh prayers, a Ramadan ritual which consists of extended prayers after the last prayer of the day.
Moreover, i’tikaf, the practice of spiritual stay at mosques, will be limited to mosques authorised by the ministry and monitored through ID cards. Otherwise, it will be considered as an outlaw assembly. The minister added that small mosques, zaywa, should close right after the last prayers, explaining that such procedures “aim to gain control of the mosque and prevent sleeper cells from infiltrating”.
Despite the interference of religious affairs with politics being a major criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood’s regime , the practice has continued in less apparent ways under the new regime. On several occasions, Gomaa spoke politics during religious events.