With mosques closed and an outbreak of the deadly coronavirus worsening, Egypt on Friday marked the first day of Ramadan as a fierce sandstorm lashed the country, giving people another reason to stay at home.
Authorities on Thursday night announced that 232 new cases of Covid-19 have been diagnosed, the highest single-day number since the first case of the disease caused by the coronavirus was identified in mid-February. The previous one-day record high stood at 189 and was recorded on Monday.
With many streets eerily quiet, Friday’s storm added to the country's sombreness, with howling winds and a foreboding off-white sky overshadowing a day that is normally associated with joy, giving and spirituality.
Observing Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and sex between dawn and sunset during Ramadan. The fast is meant to instil spiritual discipline and allow Muslims to experience the life of those who are less fortunate. It’s also a time when Muslims seek a closer connection with God through prayers, extensive reading from the Quran and meditation. It’s also a month of giving and a time when families gather over grand meals at sunset and late nights at tea houses.
But the spiritual aspect of Ramadan is by far the most definitive feature of the month; and it’s closely associated with mosques.
Not this Ramadan, however.
The closure of the mosques has been a bitter pill to swallow for many Muslims in Egypt, as with other Muslim communities facing the perils of the coronavirus. There has been some discontent over the closure of the mosques by extremists using social media to air their opposition, but there have only been rare instances of active resistance to the decision.
Officials from President Abdel Fatah El Sisi down have gone to great lengths to explain that the decision to keep the mosques closed in Ramadan was a religiously and medically sound one with its legitimacy rooted in the intention to protect Muslims. Explanations of the rationale behind the decision were coupled with stern warnings that failure to diligently observe social distancing and hygienic practices would send the number of infections spiralling out of control. There have also been warning that flouting coronavirus-linked regulations would be firmly dealt with.
Sheikh Ahmed El Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, the foremost seat of Sunni Islam learning, weighed in on Thursday with comments of his own.
“God is a witness to the pain and sadness filling the hearts of Muslims over the suspension of prayers at mosques despite our firm conviction that protecting lives is among the goals of Sharia (Islamic law),” Sheikh El Tayeb said.
“Our hearts are attached to the mosques and it is difficult to abandon them … May God allow us a joyous return to the mosques after he removes the plight of this pandemic,” he said.
The Grand Imam also urged Muslims to pray at home with their children and spouses and shot down the false notion spreading in Egypt that fasting during Ramadan makes Muslims more vulnerable to contracting Covid-19.