The term ritual was originally derived from the Greek culture and is generally used to denote an organized system. The term as applied within a religious context majorly implies a highly organized system in which practices are presented for acceptability and in enforcing order for worship standardization. Consequently, this leads to cultural practices that are used as rules of identity within a given order. For instance, a Muslim follower is easily identified by the outward adornment in terms of clothing and in the order of worship in areas like personal hygiene and prayer modes. A Buddhist monk can also be identified by the manner of clothing, triggering within an individual the ability to relate the monk to the religious practices as noted by the rituals. The Egyptian Copts, being a Christian denomination also bears ritualistic practices that bear spiritual significance as evidenced by prayer patterns and other religious observances (Copt-Net, 2006). The following discussion will focus on the ritualistic practice of fasting, as evidenced by Muslims and Egyptian Copts with the differences and similarities indicative of the political, cultural, social and ideological aspects of the given cultures.
Fasting as Conducted by Egyptian Copts and Sunni Islamism
The Copts are a Christian sect that was instituted by Apostle John in Alexandria (Saint Mark Coptic Orthodox Church of Chicago, 2009). The ritual of fasting to the Copts allows an individual in overcoming fleshly desires in form of material items like eating provisions, sex, and entertainment among other practices that hinder optimal association with God. The main objective behind is fostering the initial pure nature in which the first man had experienced before the manifestation of sin. This was marked with a vegetarian diet comprising of fruits, vegetable and herbs and it is only after the introduction of sin that the first family was allowed to include animal products in their meals. Copts observe strict fasting periods on an annual basis amounting to two hundred and ten days out of the designated three hundred and sixty five days. A fasting day begins before the sunrise and extends up to the period in which the sun sets and during this period, all practicing individuals are mandated to refrain from food items and liquids.
Strong individuals are allowed to commence the fasting period at midnight up to the following evening after the sunsets (Ibrahim, 2010). This is reducible for weak individuals whose commencement period remains as midnight up to either midday or three o’clock in the afternoon. The latter breaking period symbolizes the exact period in which Christ was crucified while the latter denotes the actual time, which Christ demised. The food items prepared within this period are strictly vegetables with a refrain from meat any form of animal food items. The preparation of the vegetables depending on an individual’s preference may use oil for frying purposes of water if the food is to be boiled. Expectant mothers and ill individuals are exempted from the fasting periods that are determined by the Coptic Calendar, which is determined by priests in the Alexandrian location. This ensures uniformity with regard to the period and the time schedule in which the fasting should commence and end.
The Sunni Muslims also observe fasting practices within their religion. Strict observances are conducted during this period but the fasting period is not as pronounced within the Copt religion. Similarities do exist in both religions in terms of outward self-restraint instituted for a resultant spiritual uplifting. Fasting in Sunni Islam is a fundamental ritual of the Islamic faith and it is termed as sawm (Teece, 2004). During the fasting period, an individual is expected to observe a strict refrain from the consumption of any type of food or liquid. This observance is set between the periods in which the sun rises to its setting. Sawm is observed in various days and parts of the year as deemed fit by an individual or the Islamic religious leaders. The practice of fasting maybe categorized as wajib according to it a mandatory compliance, mustahab denoting a suggested status, makruh that is indicative of dejection towards fasting and muharam a literal prohibition to an individual against fasting. A Sunni Muslim is free to perform fasting rituals within any time of the year except on Fridays, which is considered as muharam. However, in accordance to Muhammad’s fasting periods, the mustahab days on a monthly period tend to be on the13th, 14th and 15th days. Additionally, Thursdays and Tuesdays are also highly recommended periods.
The Ashura fast is observed on the tenth day of Tishrei in commemoration of Israel’s rescue from captivity and it is conducted for a period of a day. This fasting is not obligatory for a Sunni Muslim. Wajib fasts in Sunni Islam are the Ramadan, which covers an entire month, the kaffarah fast that is practiced as penitence for any contraventions that an individual may have committed during the period of Ramadan and personal periods of sawm in the completion of vowing periods (Katz, 2004). Individual vows in Copts are also allowed to include private fasting that has to follow the pre-instituted observances and conducted within the stipulated fasting days away from the prohibited period. In addition to the eating and drinking observance, sexual relations are prohibited throughout the fasting period as an outward reflection of purity during the prayer period. One is required to avoid places and instances in which sensual indulgences may be prompted as a representation of self-control to Allah. The daily food and drink portions are used to feed the poor and needy individuals among the community. Several groups are exempted from wajib fasts like the mentally unwell, the aged and deformed individuals. The two latter groups are however expected to pay homage to the needy as a recompense for their exclusion.
Women during the period of their menstruation are considered as unclean and exempted from sawm as well as nurturing or expectant mothers. Prayers are accompanied by Qur’an readings that are performed during the night in sessions termed as the Tarawih in which one out of the thirty sections of the Qur’an is read out as a prayer (Teece, 2004). Shoes have to be left outside the Mosque during any form of visit just as the Copts have to observe during temple visitations. Upon the completion of the fast, the whole Qur’an is usually covered. Other than food items, Sunni Muslims may opt to but clothe items for the needy with their daily monetary allocations. Upon sunset, families are allowed to eat the Iftar meal that is marked with other family members and friends. Communal feeding zones termed as Mawaed Rahman are placed in strategic places for the serving of the Iftar to the needy and the poor. The fasting period continues until the last day where normal consumption, sexual and business activities return to normalcy.
Unlike in Sunni Islam, all fasting periods for the Copt believers are mandatory observances especially due to their spiritual symbolism. The initial fasting Copts fasting period known as Winter Lent begins on the seventh day of January, which according to the Coptic Calendar is termed as the 29th day of Koiak. The Copts observe forty days as an imagery of the period in which Moses had to fast on the Lord’s mountain before the issuance of the Ten Commandments (Saint Mary and Saint Antonios Coptic Orthodox Christian Church, 2011). Winter Lent is observed as a form of allegiance to Christ as the word of God and a living reflection of God’s laws. The second Copt fasting is termed as Fast of Jonah, as a parallel of the three days in which Jonah prayed whilst in the whale. With no form of food, Jonah was indeed in prayer and fasting for a period of three days. Copts observe the same length period as a remembrance of the period that Christ lay in the grave. The third fasting, Great Lent, is observed for forty days as an indication of Christ’s fasting before the triumphal entry in Jerusalem with the waving of palm branches. Due to its level of significance in the Copts faith, an individual is expected to have an additional cleansing period that lasts for seven days, bringing the total period to forty-nine days. Great Lent is marked on the calendar before the Palm Sunday.
The fourth fast is Holy Pascha held seven days prior to Easter is used as a preparation period for the demise and resurrection period of the savior. Upon the celebration of the Pentecost, the fifth fast termed as Fast of the Apostles is initiated on the subsequent day for a varying period determined by the priests. The least days that can be spent in this fast are fifteen days and the highest is forty-nine days. This period is spent on the contemplation of the afflictions that the apostles had to bear for the progression of the Gospel throughout the nations. With Christ having given a promise to the apostles that he would transform them into fishers of men, fish as the only animal item is allowed for inclusion in the food preparation menus. The Fast of Virgin Mary marks the last major period in which individuals are expected to conduct a fifteen-day prayer towards the virgin as a petition for her mediation prayers for earthly Christians (Saint Mary and Saint Antonios Coptic Orthodox Christian Church, 2011). Special days for fasting are Wednesdays and Fridays to mark the period for Iscariot’s treachery scheme against Jesus and Christ’s demise respectively. Note that, these special fasts are observed on a weekly basis excluding the period beginning with Easter and ending with the Pentecost.
The Sunni subdivision of Islam is considered as the largest with the followers bearing the literal meaning of conventional followers of Muhammad’s life and actions as documented in the hadiths (Central Intelligence Agency, 2009). The second largest subdivision is known as Shia Islam modeled after Muhammad’s cousin Ali, and it combines both the hadiths and Ali’s teachings as authoritative in Islamic practices. Muhammad being a political leader mandated the selection of heirs upon his demise and this were chosen according to the Caliph instructions recorded in the Constitution of Medina. With the presence of belief sects, the Caliph was supposed to create political unity rather than religious unity. Sunni Islam contends that political heirs are chosen by the Shura whereas the Shia Islam believes that this role is accorded to the Imam. The ideological differences presented by these divergent schools only have a minimal effect on the fasting ritual and a reflection of the diverse nature of the Islamic culture. The political differences point out the personal influences infused by personal interpretations that are noted even in the current setting.
Sunni Islam acknowledges the initial three political heirs after the demise of Muhammad and rejects the rest as being illegal due to Ali’s influence (Katz, 2007). Shia Islam accords Ashurah as a mandatory observance as opposed to Sunni Islam. Due to this, it is observed in two days rather than the one specified period. Following the political influences on the leadership position, the calendar observances for fasting periods tend to vary with the Ramadan being the only unified form of fasting. This is a clear indication that political differences still exist in the Islamic culture. In the Egyptian Coptic faith, political influences within church activities are absent due to the nature of the observed faith. Islam reveres Muhammad as both a political and spiritual authority marking the last of Allah’s prophets for the handing of the Qur’an. The Christians are considered as followers of Christ who being of Jewish descent is considered as the Messiah (Theodorou, 2011). Upon his birth and development, the Jewish people eagerly awaited his political involvement in leading the Jewish nation into worldly activities but he declined this position claiming that his time for political involvement was not yet dawned.
Christ thereby is majorly regarded as a spiritual head more then a political one until his promised second return. Consequently, church divisions in the Christian faith are a reflection of ideological differences in terms of scripture interpretation as compared to the Sunnis whose ideological differences include the political aspect. Notably, both religions despite the ideological practices view fasting as a mandatory ritual for spiritual nourishment. Although the sacred attachment to fasting is quite prevalent in the practice of fasting for the Copts, prayers offered during the fasting periods are a reflection of the social aspect embedded in the ritual (Theodorou, 2011). Egyptian Copts have to offer an intercession prayer for the whole body of the Coptic brethren spread in the entire globe. With various sects existing under Christianity, Copts also offer a prayer for unity among the various church divisions. Socially, they offer petitions to the nation of Egypt concerning the head of state and other government officials, the military for its protections, the government units and the natives of Egypt.
Prayers for political leaders are a practice that reflects the Coptic belief that all authority on earth is allowed by God and therefore should be respected as Christ obeyed the rulers of his period. This has to be borne until the time that Christ descends again for his reign. A peace prayer is offered on behalf of Egypt and the entire globe as this enhances human existence, and this includes the wellbeing of all humans. With Egypt notably dominated by a desert climate, the Nile acts as its source of agricultural activities and the Copts do not overlook this aspect in their thankfulness to God (Wakin, 2000). Therefore, the Copts pray to the creator for the sustenance of the Nile waters due to its economic significance as well as the welfare of the crops cultivate near the water source. This is in the hopeful deterrence of any water surge that may be caused by floods that would have an adverse effect on the crops and the harvest. On the other hand, social aspects within the Sunni practice of fasting is more practical as evidenced through the feeding initiatives to fellow Muslims whose welfare is limited. A Sunni Muslim is expected to extend a provision hand to the needy a practice that lacks in the Copts observance.
Failure to follow this social aspect in the fast has to be penitenced by the kaffarah. Economic implications in Sunni Islam reflect a normal society in which the rich coexist with the poor depending on one’s monetary ability. Fasting is actually considered as an economic impetus for business owners as a notable increase is noted in purchases for food items and clothing during the fasting period, especially Ramadan. To the fasting Sunni Muslim, fasting tends to have an increased level of monetary spending with the inclusion of the needy but as the Ramadan only covers a month the increased expenses are accrued back during the rest of the year. As for the Copts, fasting does not have any economic aspect as daily provisions are maintained at the bare minimal for every individual without the need to offer to the poor unless on a personal choice.
The Egyptian Copts and the Sunni Islam are both practiced religions in Arabian nations. The similarities in both religions in the discipline of fasting are observed in the sensual restrictions towards the achievement of a higher spiritual level. The strictness accorded to the ritual is indicative of the piety observed by the followers. In addition to this, the religions mainly use the Arabic language for communication and are monotheistic in their faiths. The greatest divisive element is observed in the political aspect of the religions with Sunni Muslims determined to enforce the doctrine of Allah unto all individuals as a mandated requirement from Muhammad’s teachings (CNN Wire Staff, 2011). The Sunni faith regulates the political as well as the spiritual aspects unlike the Copts whose main consideration is the enhancement of the Christian faith through peaceful techniques. With their livelihood in Egypt being a minority group, many Copts have been slain on account of their faith by the Muslims as a way of coercing Muhammad’s teachings and political rule on the group (Wakin, 2000). The Copts have opposed these practices and continue their faith in Egypt by comparing their suffering to their founding Apostle’s teachings with their ardent every day prayers directed towards the permanent institution of peace and harmony through God’s intervention.
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