As the Copts in Egypt prepared to celebrate Easter, the Resurrection of Christ—the mother of all the religious events they mark—on Sunday 5 May, a bombshell of a fatwa
(Islamic legal edict) burst on the Egyptian scene. The Mufti (the scholar entitled to issue fatwas) Abdel-Rahman al-Barr, one of the religious guides of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), issued a fatwa that Muslims were not allowed to wish Christians a happy Easter. Easter, he reasoned, celebrates an event which according to the Muslim creed never took place; Muslims believe Christ was neither crucified, nor resurrected. So in his view, it is haram (sinful) to congratulate someone on something that defies the Muslim faith.
Sheikh Barr’s fatwa was not new. Salafis have for years been saying the same thing and behaving accordingly. What was new was that this time the fatwa came from a religious figure that belonged to a group whose political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) today rules Egypt.
Even though other Muslim leaders, including the official Mufti Shawqi Allam and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, both of whom are renowned moderates, protested against Barr’s fatwa and saw no harm in a kind human gesture of sharing joy and comfort, it remained to be seen how Muslims in general would react. President Mursi’s position was especially delicate, seeing that the fatwa had come from a religious advisor to the MB, the group Mursi belongs to.
President Mursi sent a representative to convey the Easter greetings during the traditional Midnight Mass celebrated at St Mark’s cathedral on the eve of Easter. Pope Tawadros II presided over the service and, once he had delivered the sermon in which he elaborated on the Resurrection being at the centre of the Christian faith, he began thanking all the well-wishers who had come to wish the Copts a happy Easter.
The Pope began, as the protocol has it, with thanking President Mursi and Housing Minister Tareq Wafiq who was there representing the President. The congregation was respectfully silent. He proceeded to thank Premier Hisham Qandil who had delegated the Minister of Higher Education Mustafa Mossaad to represent him, and Ahmed Fahmy Speaker of the [overwhelmingly Islamist upper house of Parliament] Shura Council. Again the congregation was silent.
Next, the Pope thanked the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb who had visited the Pope during the previous week to offer his good wishes, and whose famously tolerant stances have earned him the hostility of the Islamists and the ruling regime; the congregation broke into spontaneous applause that lasted over a full 30 seconds. The same outstanding applause was bestowed on Lieutenant General Abdel-Fattah al-Sissy, head of the Egyptian Armed Forces and a prominent patriot; and Judge Ahmed al-Zind who had come in person to offer his good wishes. Judge Zind is head of Judges Club, the independent representative body of Egypt’s judges that is currently fiercely fighting for the independence of the judiciary against Islamist takeover. The liberal imam of Omar Makram mosque in central Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Sheikh Mazhar Shahin; and Egypt’s top comedian Adel Imam; both of whom were present, were each given a resounding round of applause. The politicians and public figures present were all applauded. All these figures have in common one trait: that they are resisting Islamist threats to the Egyptian traditions and institutions.
The following day, Easter Sunday, the Pope received more well-wishers at the papal headquarters at St Mark’s. Prominent among them was the Premier Hisham Qandil, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim; Scientific Research Minister Nadia Zakhary, as well as a number of other politicians and public figures, Muslim and Christian alike.
Defying the fatwa
But apart from the formalities, and despite the Muslims who decided to abide by the fatwa of refraining from wishing Christians a happy Easter, there was an overwhelming public persistence by many Muslims to defy the fatwa.
The normal Egyptian courtesy to wish someone well for an annual occasion, be that what may, is the famous [neutral] expression: kul sanna wenta tayeb, literally, may you be well at the same time every year. But this year, many Muslims made the point of adding that they meant it for Easter.
A Muslim hairdresser in the east Cairo district of Heliopolis insisted on tuning the TV set in his shop to a Christian TV channel as a courtesy to his Christian clients who came in to do their hair the day before Easter. This action in specific sent a clear message of compassion and courtesy, since his clients would have come in anyway to have their hair done.
Outside St Mark’s Cathedral on Easter Eve, a small demonstration by the youth of the 6 April movement held banners wishing the Copts a happy Easter. One young Muslim veiled woman held a placard which addressed the Christians with the message: “Without you, our country would be dull and flavourless.”
Many individuals and institutions offered Christians warm wishes and gifts. The Juhaina dairy product firm had its representatives camp at churches in Giza to offer members of the congregation as they left church gifts of 1.5 litre-packs of milk and small packs for children. It brought a festive mood and made the Copts very happy.
Celebrating Spring on Easter Monday
The following day, Easter Monday, marked the famous Egyptian Spring feast of Shamm al-Nessim (literally, sniffing the breeze) the celebration of which goes back in history to ancient Egyptian times. Egyptians overwhelmingly remember the famous test question they used to answer as children: whether Shamm al-Nessim was a Muslim feast, a Christian feast, or an Egyptian feast. The correct answer was, of course, the last one.
On Shamm al-Nessim, Egyptians go out to the gardens and waterways to celebrate among the elements of Nature. They keep their ancestors’ traditions of eating salted fish, onions, and eggs. All these foods carry intonations that mark the renewal of life and the flight of evil spirits. The day is a joyful one of singing and dancing in the outdoors.
Historically, the spring feast was marked on a date that would have coincided with present-day early April. When Egypt became Christian in the early AD centuries, Shamm al-Nessim frequently came during Lent—which made it very difficult for Egyptians to celebrate it with the usual gusto. So they finally decided to celebrate it on Easter Monday, a date honoured till today.
A pie for the pure of heart
Yet Shamm al-Nessim has been lately coming under fire from Islamists for being a ‘pagan celebration’ which devout Muslims should never join in. That call has not met with any significant public approval, but fears persist that, now that Egypt is in the grip of Islamists, they might at some point have their way and do away with Shamm al-Nessim. Such a move, God forbid, would inevitably lead to the loss of many things Egyptian
Watani’s Fady Labib talked to the Egyptologist Wassim al-Sissy, who reminded of an ancient Egyptian tradition of baking a “purity of heart” pie for Shamm al-Nessim. This was a pie you sent on that day to anyone you were on poor terms with, as a gesture of goodwill and to express a desire to bury old grievances and make a new beginning. This, possibly, is exactly what Egypt needs today.
8 May 2013
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