Running on empty
The advent of Ramadan prompts Gamal Nkrumah
to probe Egypt's fasting traditions
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A Muslim Indian prays in supplication after breaking the Ramadan fast -- the very picture of piety (photo courtesy of the Indian Cultural Centre, Cairo)
"Ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may attain piety." The Holy Quran
"Then came to him the disciples of John [the Baptist] saying, why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but thy disciples fast not?" Matthew
9: 14, New Testament of the Bible
Fasting is no mere navel-gazing exercise. Neither is it about harried-looking, half- starved zealots waiting to break the fast. Different religions interpret the concept of fasting in different ways. The devil, so the saying goes, is in the details. All religions -- monotheistic and non-monotheistic -- acknowledge the importance of fasting in the procedures of spiritual regeneration.
Fasting has long fascinated me like nothing else about world religions. For two decades, I knew I was obliged to undertake the fast of Ramadan if for no other reason than to maintain my bona fides as a Muslim -- at least as far as my two sons were concerned.
However, I must confess that my pleasure- seeking nature precluded me from being drawn to what I considered to be something of a life-threatening experience. I was never convinced that fasting is therapeutic, nor, from what I observed on the streets of Cairo during the holy month of Ramadan, was I convinced that it was a particularly spiritually uplifting exercise. Indeed, people tend to be especially short-tempered and belligerent when fasting. Tempers flare, and spiritual considerations can take a back seat to more mundane concerns.
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is the holiest of all months. The grand mufti of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, has described Ramadan as a "time for purification". Indeed, it is now acknowledged in medical circles that detoxification is one result of fasting. However, it is a prerequisite for this to occur that those fasting from food drink copious amounts of water in order to detoxify their entire system. Colon cleansing is yet another consequence of fasting.
However, be that as it may, a clean bowl isn't the only reason behind fasting. For, since time immemorial, fasting has been associated with the cleansing of the soul as much as the cleansing of the body. Indeed, it is the clean soul that matters the most.
The dating of Ramadan dates to the tradition of moon observation instituted by the third caliph, Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, and to the exile ( hijra ) of the Prophet Mohamed to Yathrib, or Medina, on 16 July 622 CE, according to the Western Gregorian Calendar.
The calculations of the lunar months in Islam conform to the lunar cycle, going from one crescent moon to the next. However, the Arabic root of the word Ramadan is rmd -- intense heat. This is because the ancient pre-Islamic Arab calendar was of Aramaic origin and was based on the solar system, Ramadan coinciding with the hottest month of the solar year. Islam, borrowing from the Yemeni or South Arabian lunar reckoning, discarded the ancient Aramaic solar calendar, while retaining the original names and designations of the months.
During Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. This year, for instance, Muslims will initially be fasting for 15 hours a day at the beginning of the month. Towards the end of the month this will be closer to 14 hours of abstaining from eating, drinking and sexual liaisons. The Festival of Breaking the Fast, Eid Al-Fitr, heralds the end of Ramadan and the ushering in of the month of Shawwal.
Fasting is typical of both Islam and Christianity. Devout Muslims also fast on Mondays and Thursdays in addition to during the month of Ramadan, in a tradition that bears a resemblance to the prescriptions found in the ancient Jewish Talmud. Such weekly fasting is considered sunna (a custom of the Prophet Mohamed). The ancient Pharisees also fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, then the busiest market days, in order that people would see them looking forlorn and know that they were fasting. This, however, loses sight of the true import of fasting, which aims to control gluttony, impure thoughts, words and deeds.
In contrast to these traditions, Jesus Christ seems not to have considered fasting to be particularly important, being almost easygoing when it came to fasting from food. The Bible does state that he occasionally fasted, but it is ambiguous as to when he did and why. Yet, it is clear that Jesus did not observe the traditional Jewish fasts and that he did not insist that his disciples follow the rules to the letter either.
"When ye fast, be not as the hypocrites of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces that they may appear unto men to fast. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast," the Bible quotes Jesus as saying in St Matthew's Gospel.
Neither Jesus nor his disciples made fasting obligatory, even if some modern Christian churches -- Orthodox and Roman Catholic, for example -- scrupulously adhere to set dates for fasting, perhaps the most widely observed being during the month of Lent. While the majority of Western Christians no longer fast regularly, the Coptic Christians of Egypt are more punctilious as far as fasting is concerned. Indeed, devout Copts fast for roughly half the year by abstaining from animal and dairy products on certain fast days. Abstention from the use of cooking oil is also observed by some Eastern Orthodox churches, including the Copts, though only the most devout Copts now abstain from eating fried food. This type of fasting is called "water and salt" because salt is the only item used for seasoning.
Abstinence from food is a concept associated with the monotheistic religions. The Bible is replete with examples of fasting as an instrument of spiritual preparation. According to the Old Testament, Moses fasted for 40 days before God revealed the Ten Commandments to him in the Sinai. Daniel fasted for three weeks before receiving his vision, and Elijah fasted for 40 days in preparation for his temptation by the Devil. Later, Jesus also fasted in the wilderness in order to resist the Devil's temptations.
The ancient Greek division of soma, or body, and pneuma, or soul, forms the basis of a psychosomatic union of soul and body, which is important in many Orthodox Christian Churches. But the fasting traditions of Christianity have their roots in Judaism, the more direct forerunner of Christianity. "I humbled my soul with fasting," sings the author of Psalm 35, and both the Old and the New Testaments of the Bible often depict fasting as a sign of distress and grief. A seven-day fast was held as a sign of mourning for King Saul, and King David fasted when Abner was killed, for example.
Fasting for Roman Catholics is prerequisite during the so-called Ember Days, being four series of Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays that correspond to the four seasons after the first Sunday in Lent and before the Feast of the Pentecost. However, in general terms, particularly in the Western churches, fasting and religious asceticism in general are now regarded as outdated concepts, and some Protestant churches argue that they have no biblical authority.
Even so, in the Roman Catholic tradition and in the traditions of certain Eastern Orthodox churches, fasting is still recommended, with Mondays being devoted to the angels, and therefore regarded as fasting days for novice nuns and monks encouraged to lead "angelic" lives. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are regarded as fast days by many of the world's 1.5 billion Roman Catholics. The Eucharist fast, taking place before receiving the Eucharist, is also widely upheld by Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
Non-conventional monotheists, such as the Bahaais, likewise fast during the Bahaai month of Ala, which coincides with March. During this period, Bahaais abstain from food, drinking and smoking, but they are permitted to consume prescribed medications. Those undertaking heavy labour are permitted to eat simple meals in private, a practice not regarded as breaking the fast. People under the age of 15, or over the age of 70, are also not required to fast. Bahaais are, after all teetotalers. Bahaai women who are pregnant, nursing or menstruating are not obliged to fast.
The non-monotheistic religions of course also have ancient fasting traditions. Novice Buddhist monks and nuns do not eat after a frugal vegetarian meal at noon until the next day. Prince Siddharta, the Buddha, also urged his followers to observe the fast. Hindus, too, fast the Navaratri --Nine Nights fast -- when they abstain from alchoholic beverages, don't eat salt or rice and survive solely on fresh fruit.
All this means that though the vast majority of Christians and Muslims understand that fasting plays an important role in their religions, for many the original objectives of fasting have been forgotten. Fasting seems in danger of losing its spiritual dimension. Some people are even more interested in food and eating during the periods outside the fast.
For Copts, there is a whole range of dishes associated with fasting periods. According to Magda Mehdawy, the Alexandrian food writer, "Coptic cuisine is based on the food of the Pharaohs," and dishes consumed during the fasts include fuuliya, broad bean sprouts with chard and coriander, and bisara, crushed beans stewed with greens. Bean sprouts with green mallow is another ancient favourite. Chard stalks, as well as leaves, are used in this vegetarian dish.
Bean sprout kishk, or kishk fuul nabit, is not strictly speaking a Coptic fasting dish, since kishk contains yoghurt -- a dairy product. During certain Coptic fasting periods, the consumption of fish is permitted, and a favourite dish is Greek-style grilled fish, known as samak singari, with the fish laid flat and the spine removed. Chopped celery, crushed garlic, onion rings, diced tomatoes and thinly sliced lemon are used as garnish.
Egyptian Muslims have adopted certain Coptic dishes and discarded others. Brown lentils or, ads abu gibba, a traditional Coptic fasting dish, is not traditionally eaten by Muslims in Ramadan. However, fuul medames, stewed broad beans, is a popular Sohour dish among Muslims, regarded as both filling and nourishing. (Sohour is the meal taken before dawn before the fast).
Taamiya, or fried crushed bran patties, better known in the West as falafel, is another Sohour dish, though one that has never quite attained the popularity of fuul medammes, at least in Egypt. Perhaps this is because the patties can induce indigestion, and they can induce thirst, especially when Ramadan falls in summer.
Strained broad beans, fuul missafi, are typically Coptic, and, like kushari bil ads, or migadarra, one of the most popular Egyptian vegetarian dishes, they are not traditionally regarded as Ramadan fare. Pasta, vermicelli, rice, lentils and chickpeas all go into this authentically Egyptian dish. The daqqa, or tomato, garlic and hot pepper sauce that goes with the lentil dish, is not really suitable for breaking the fast in Ramadan. Yellow lentil soup, on the other hand, is ideal for breaking the Ramadan fast, as is ads abazi -- lentils with chicken.
Fasting in contemporary Egypt may have become as much a mundane as a spiritual affair.