Islam in Egypt
Islam and Muhammad
Islam is one of the three largest (and somewhat interrelated) monotheistic religions in the world. The prophet Muhammad is believed to be descended from Ishmael, son of Abraham. Abraham also sired Isaac, who was one of the patriarchs of Judaism and Christianity. Thus, many of the prominent figures in Judaism and Christianity—Adam, Moses, and Jesus—are also revered as prophets in Islam.
Muhammad was born in Mecca on the Arabian Peninsula (near the Red Sea in present day Saudi Arabia). He became a religious figure in 610 ad when, according to Islamic tradition, while meditating in solitude he began to receive visions from the angel Gabriel. The words of these visitations became the ayats (verses) that were later organized into the suras, or chapters, of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. When Muhammad first began preaching the new religion he was met with hostility by pagan tribesmen, and he and his followers were forced to flee to Medina (also in Saudi Arabia).
After converting the majority of the people of Medina to Islam, Muhammad returned to Mecca and converted his hometown, and by the end of the 6th century, Islam had become the dominant religion in Arabia. In the subsequent centuries, Muslim armies swept across North Africa and into Spain, throughout the Levant and eastward into Central Asia and Persia.
Egypt is a predominately Muslim country. Egyptians are overwhelmingly Sunnis, with less than 1% of the population practicing Shia Islam.
In order to walk in God’s grace, Muslims adhere to the Five Pillars of Islam: First, they declare that there is no God except for Allah and that Muhammad is his Prophet. Second, Muslims pray five times a day towards Mecca; visitors to Egypt will hear the commanding sound of the call to prayer—called the azaan—radiating from the loudspeakers of local mosques. Third, is zakat, or “alms giving,” which means providing for the poor and less fortunate. Fourth, is fasting; Muslims fast from dusk to dawn during the holy month of Ramadan . Fifth, all able Muslims should make the hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace of Muhammad at least once during their lifetime.
Visitors will encounter a range of conservative and liberal Muslims in Egypt. While mainstream Islam forbids drinking alcohol and smoking is generally frowned upon, don’t be surprised when you see some cosmopolitan Egyptians enjoying a beer or a cigarette in one of Cairo’s back-alley bars. Egyptian Muslims do not, however, eat pork. Although the Qur’an expressly forbids eating carnivores, pigs are held with particular disregard. Some Coptic Christians, on the other hand, have historically relied on pigs for their livelihood. In the slums of Cairo, the Zabaleen, or “garbage people,” once used pigs to dispose of the city’s waste and slaughtered the animals for food. However, during the 2009 hysteria of so-called swine flu, practically all the pigs in Egypt were killed. Most Shia Muslims consider fish, however, to be halal, or lawful, and it is therefore much more common.
Most Egyptian Muslim women wear the hijab, a head covering that conceals the hair, and a smaller number wear the niqab, a veil that completely covers the face except for the eyes. During the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, very few Egyptian women wore any head covering. The hijab became increasingly popular during the 1980s when an influx of Egyptian women traveled to Saudi Arabia to work and adopted Saudi ideas and practices concerning the purification of Islam. Upon their return, Egyptian women brought these practices home, including the hijab. Veiling is also popularized by various societal factors, including the way Islam is communicated over the TV and radio. Amr Khaled, who Time recently called one of the world’s most influential people and New York Times Magazine describes as the world’s most influential Muslim television preacher, has been particularly influential. His sermons have contributed to the decision to take the veil for many young, educated, more-upper-class women.
Ramadan represents the month in which the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. This celebration of the transmission of Allah’s message lasts 30 days and is an especially pious time, during which Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual relations from dawn to sunset; this self-denial teaches restraint and humility and is meant to bring one closer to God. Although most people fast during this time, the elderly, sick, travelers, and children are allowed to abstain. Even some Christians take part in the fast as a sign of national unity. Those who are fasting start each day with a predawn meal called sohour. At sundown, the fast is broken with a meal called iftar. This is the main meal of the day. Many restaurants offer special iftar fixed menus during Ramadan.
In small towns, many restaurants will be closed during the day, but in most cities and tourist areas this is not an issue. Though it’s understood that non-Muslims are not fasting, it’s respectful to avoid eating in public (e.g., on the street or on public transportation) during Ramadan. Alcoholic beverages may not be served in some restaurants during this time. Most hotels, however, run as usual, including their bars. Traditionally, men known as mesaharaty used to wake people up for sohour singing and drumming in the streets at dawn. Although this profession no longer exists, tourists can expect a musical awakening from local amateurs trying to keep this tradition alive. The end of Ramadan is marked by a new moon and celebrated with a feast called eid, meaning celebration in Arabic. This is the start of Eid-al-Fitr, or festival of the breaking of the fast, a three-day holiday during which Muslims enjoy plentiful feasts and gift giving with their families.
Ramadan is a great time to visit Egypt. You'll usually start your days a little earlier, and some museums and tourist attractions may close an hour early, though most restaurants, parks, zoos, and cinemas remain open. Take a walk after iftar, when the streets are nearly empty and soak in the festive lights. The last week of Ramadan is an especially busy time to travel, comparable to Thanksgiving in the United States, so be sure to plan ahead if you want to travel during this time. One can also expect heightened traffic the hour before iftar as everyone is trying to reach their families.