Ramadan then and now - AUC Press authors

Meet The Authors during Ramadan

How was Ramdan celebrated in mediaval Egypt? What are common sayings in today’s Ramadan? Do families still gather to share iftar? What are some of the highlights of the holy month? We reached out to AUC Press authors to find that out.

Amina Elbendary, author of Crowds and Sultans: Urban Protest in Late Medieval Egypt and Syria (AUC Press, 2015)

Celebrating in Mamluk style

AUC Press: How was Ramadan celebrated in medieval Egypt?
Ramadan seems to have been a special time in medieval Egypt, like modern times. There are traditions that especially link the Fatimids to popular religious celebrations in general, including Ramadan ones. One tradition ascribes to them the introduction of the very famous Ramadan lantern (fanus, plural fawanis) which has become synonymous with Ramadan here. In that tradition the lanterns were used to light people’s way as they went out to welcome the Fatimid caliph after his armies had conquered Egypt. Since people went out to mosques late at night in Ramadan for additional devotional prayers, the lanterns came to be used more frequently as people walked through the streets at night.

Other traditions refer to distributing money and food to the poor in Ramadan. Although the banquets of the Fatimids are stressed, I don’t remember reading much about particular banquets in Ramadan.

AUC Press: What are some of the traditions that have disappeared over time?
There were also special or additional religious lessons offered in the mosques during Ramadan, presumably to a wider public than those on the rest of the year, a “learned illiterate” general type of public, not the usual students of madrasas. So we hear of scholars being hired to teach/read the Sahih al-Bukhari Hadith Collection in certain mosques during the month for example. I think that aspect has largely disappeared and in more recent years the tarawih prayers seem to be getting more attention. They have become a Ramadan event.

With the introduction of coffee and the spread of coffee shops and coffee house culture, people would spend time at night in Ramadan in coffee shops and we hear of performances of the folk epics on such occasions, such as Sirat Bani Hilal for example. Again, that’s another thing that's largely disappeared, to be replaced by television dramas.

AUC Press: What do you like most about Ramadan?
My favorite part of Ramadan is the festive spirit whereby I get invited for dinner at family and friends and we often go out in the evenings and the whole city is awake. Granted, that’s no longer as unusual as it once was, but the family gatherings remain special. And they are decreasing, with the changes in family structure, many people leaving, and many people not being able to afford large gatherings. So the ones that do happen are all the more special. There are cousins and relatives I only meet in Ramadan so I look forward to that every year. There’s an expectation of lamma, of family gatherings, that accompanies Ramadan, which is what I look forward to. 


Bahaa Ed-Din Ossama, author of Egyptian Arabic through Popular Songs: Intermediate Level (AUC Press, 2015)

Nine common sayings and prayers in Ramadan

رمضان كريم
Ramadan is kind!

الله اكرم
God is the most generous

اصحى يا نايم وحد الدايم
Wake up, sleeper, affirm the unity of God!
(Call of the misa77arati to wake fasters for the last meal of the night)

اللهم لك صمت وعلى رزقك أفطرت!
God, for you I have fasted, and with your bounty I break my fast
(Prayer before the sunset breaking of the fast)

اللهم إني صائم!
For God I fast!
(Prayer to ward off the temptation to break the fast early)

والله لسه بدري يا شهر الصيام!
By God, don't finish so early, Month of Fasting!
(A line from a popular song about the last days of Ramadan)

رمضان جانا وفرحنابه بعد غيابه.
Ramadan came and we get rejoiced by it after its absence!
(A line from the most popular song celebrating the coming of Ramadan)

صوما مقبولا وإفطارا شهيا إن شاء الله!
Ramadan came and we rejoiced after its absence!
(A prayer we say to each other on the table before eating)

اللهم تقبل صيامنا!
God accept our fast!
(A prayer we say when we eat iftar)


Salman Abu Sitta, author of Mapping My Return: A Palestinian Memoir (AUC Press, Pbk edition, 2017)

A personal jihad

AUC Press: What is it that you enjoy the most about Ramadan?
The family gathering and social cohesion!

AUC Press: How important are family gatherings during the holy month?
It preserves the only stable element in Muslim and Arab society, namely the family, up to the largest extent, the hamula, the clan.

AUC Press: In your opinion, are there things that non-Muslims don’t realize or understand about Ramadan?
They need to know it is a test of oneself for the sake of feeling with others. It is a personal jihad.

AUC Press: Has Ramadan changed over the years?

Yes! Technology has stretched the bond of families beyond geographical barriers.

AUC Press: In what ways is Ramadan different across the Middle East?
Only in local habits. Now we have a new unifying factor: TV series!


Ahmad Hamid, architect and author of Hassan Fathy and Continuity in Islamic Arts and Architecture: The Birth of a New Modern (AUC Press, 2010)

AUC Press: What do you  about Ramadan?

The change and break from the day to day routine and life’s pragmatism and focus. Every year we say we wish the whole year would be Ramadan. After the Bairam feast we go once more again to the mundanity of everyday life...forgetting how peaceful the holy month's style was.
Do you spend more time with your family during the holy month?
If there are still family bonds due to the pressing situations within life’s struggles nowadays. ..then this is the time to enhance them. It is the time to extend relations to new friends and remote aquaintances too. It’s labeled commonly ’Ramadan Kareem’ for many and several diverse reasons. Generosity is its prevailing social quality, not only materially or physically.
How do non-Muslims experience Ramadan?

I see that non-Muslims enjoy the outer manifestations of the holy month as onlookers. They are most welcome to join in more with whatever they are inspired to part take in. Rain falls in general and totally over a place and for a time... so does the mercy within the holy month of Ramadan.
Has Ramadan changed over the years?
Yes. Enough to think of the invasion of the horrendous advertisements and soap operas on television that take away from the serenity and quality time during the holy month.


Bahaa Abdelmegid, author of the novellas Saint Theresa and Sleeping with Strangers (AUC Press, 2010) and Temple Bar (AUC Press, 2014)

AUC Press:
What was Ramadan like as  child?

As a child I always loved Ramadan because it meant freedom, spending hours in the streets with my friends, going to the mosque for Fajr prayer, sleeping in in the morning, visiting relatives, having iftar with them, especially my uncles, and eating a variety of foods and sweets like konafa.

I would never get depressed during Ramadan because there were always people around me. I would also roam the streets of Shoubra where I grew up and where Muslims and Christians lived peacefully together. Some Christian neighbors used to fast with us as a sign of respect to our tradition or abstain from eating or drinking in front of us.

Shoubra looks beautiful during Ramadan, as it does at Christmas and Easter time. The Christian and Muslim feasts in Shoubra are very much associated with lights and lamps. 

AUC Press: How do you celebrate Ramadan today?
As I grew older I became more spiritual. Now during Ramadan I read Quran, classical Arabic literature like A Thousand and One Nights, and religious texts like the hadiths, Prophet Muhammad’s sayings. I listen to recitations of the Quran by different sheikhs. By doing this, I feel that, as a writer, it enhances my knowledge of Arabic and Islamic culture. I also listen to classical Arabic music. I sometimes go to Al Fishawy Café in Khan al-Khalili to drink tea with mint, buy spices for my family, and have sohour in one of the local restaurants. 

AUC Press: How would you describe Ramadan to a non-Muslim?
Ramadan is a spiritual month where Muslims renew and refresh their faith and belief in God, with the ritual of buying the fanous, to fasting, iftar, and sohour.  It is a month of tolerance and love, and an important pillar of Islamic belief because Muslims are ordered by God to fast. If for some reason they can't, they have either to feed the poor or to fast the missed days later.

AUC Press: How does Ramadan affect your writing?
Writing during Ramadan is difficult so I stick to reading.


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