By Kristina Ninyo
Charity is a cornerstone of Islam. Along with spiritual kindness and compassion toward humanity, charity is a way of bringing forth justice to society. During Ramadan, charity takes on significant importance in the lives of Egyptians and this holy month is the most special occasion of the year. Rather than continuing to wait for the government to eradicate poverty in Egypt, citizens take individual action to boost positive, communal change, and Ramadan is the perfect catalyst for such a cause (ElNabawi, 2012). For Muslims around the world, the holy month of Ramadan is a time when people fast between dawn and sunset, perform more prayers, read more Qur’an, give more sadaqah (voluntary charity), and worship more than at any other time during the year. Although they perform the same types of worship in the same way, traditions vary from one country to another. In some parts of the country, particularly in large cities like Cairo, social solidarity is expressed in the form of “charity banquets” or “charity corners”. Wealthy Egyptians such as businessmen pay their Zakat (annual almsgiving) by providing food for the poor and passers-by who cannot afford the means to break their fast. Every street corner has tables and chairs set up with free food for those in need (Ramadan in Egypt: Lanterns of Light). There are two main forms of charity practiced during the holy month — obligatory (zakah al-fitr) and voluntary (sadaqah). Sadaqah requires Muslims to give food to the poor at the end of Ramadan, before the Eid prayers so that everyone is able to celebrate the festival of breaking the fast (ElNabawi, 2012).
The concept of giving and philanthropy has evolved in Egypt through time; patterns of giving have been documented since the Pharaonic Era and I believe it is important to note the ancient Egyptians beliefs of life after death and how those beliefs were based on philanthropic values and concepts of charity similar to Western traditions. Ancient Egyptian rulers and nobles gave to the poor in an effort to please the gods and to help ensure a blissful afterlife; all ancient Egyptians believed in the afterlife and spent their entire lives preparing for it by building elaborate tombs, worshipping the gods (i.e. by providing their statues with food and drink), and helping the less fortunate in order to ensure that their good deeds out-weighed the bad when it came time for judgment. It is also important to note that one of the highest deities worshipped was the goddess Ma’at, who was the goddess of truth, morality, and justice who kept the universe from chaos. Her role was weighing the souls in the underworld to determine if they were fit for a successful afterlife, and for this reason Pharaohs and citizens made sure to commit good deeds of charity and attain a clean soul. Much like in ancient Egypt, religion still plays an essential part in modern Egypt and their philanthropic values and patterns of giving.