Ebrahim Moosa – Cii Broadcasting (16-08-12)
A Ramadan in Egypt is truly an experience to behold. For the circumspect foreigner accustomed to a more subdued Holy Month, the Land of the Nile is bewildering in its vitality. Cities are perpetually throbbing with activity, urban centers get brightly lit, iftar tents sprout up everywhere and a concordance of Azaan and Quraan conquers the air.
Taraweeh prayers draw huge crowds, with worshippers typically flowing outside mosques onto the surrounding streets – its recitals echoing across entire neighbourhoods. The nightly prayer not only serves the purpose of spiritual rejuvenation but is also an occasion where extended families meet, friends socialize, and children get to play.
In the one colourful week of Ramadan we spent in Cairo last year with the Africa 1 Aid Convoy, en-route to Gaza, I managed to collate troves of pleasant memories. But even as we submerged ourselves deeper into the traditions of the Egyptian Ramadan, Egyptians kept reminding us that we still had a lot to experience. “Will you be around for the 27th night?” was a recurring question, from all whom we spoke to. When the reply came in the affirmative, two phrases would almost inevitably surface: ‘Sheikh Mohammed Jebril’ and ‘Masjid Amr ibn al Aas.’ Soon enough we realised that what we were witnessing was the great sentimentality which many Egyptians attached to the annual Khatmul Quraan Dua and proceedings led by Sheikh Muhammed Jebril at the oldest mosque on the African continent. And as it appeared to us, Egyptians had set the benchmark for this year’s ceremony particularly high.
2011 was no ordinary year for Africa’s third most populous country. It was the year of the Arab Spring; a the year of unrest and bloodshed, but most significantly also the year of Thawra(Revolution) culminating with victory over decades of tyranny. A breeze of excitement had swept over Egypt and the Egyptians we spoke to had expected it to also blow through Masjid Amr ibn al As that 27 Ramadan.
We were left convinced that failure to behold this spectacle on our part would be truly unfortunate and we would be missing a golden opportunity to witness another epoch in Egyptian history being written.
We had been forewarned to arrive at the mosque early to compensate for the sheer magnitude of the event. However as the momentous night arrived, circumstances delayed our departure till after the Maghrib prayer. As we boarded our awaiting taxi, our excitement took a beating with the wrath of our otherwise timid taxi driver. Soon enough, we would discover what would get him so hot under the collar.
The highway from Giza to Cairo this humid evening is uncharacteristically vacant by Egyptian standards. But as soon as Ismail descends towards the narrower tributaries of Old Cairo, the reasoning behind his wrath is revealed. Sharing the same tarred surface with us, and grinding movement to a halt for as far as the eye can see, are hundreds of laden vehicles and passenger taxis also headed for the same destination. With Isha looming on the horizon, the outlook is bleak. Then, miraculously Ismail finds an opening, and with a combination of motor gymnastics and hooter cacophony he powers forward to leave us at the edge of the traffic cordon surrounding the mosque.
To avoid congestion, a radius of several kilometers around Masjid Amr Ibn al Aas is inaccessible to vehicles. Other elaborate arrangements are in place for the evening and we witness a mobile hospital and blood donation bank that have been specially set-up to deal with any medical contingencies. Prayer mats extend well beyond the boundary of the mosque and the assortment of food vendors is bedazzling. There is a festive flavor as groups of friends and families lay down their prayer mats under the sky. Decorations adorning light poles flutter in the breeze and the archaic mosque has also been given a facelift with its garlands of colourful lighting. And in the first whiff of the ‘new’ Egypt, a massive overhead banner from the once-banned Ikhwan al Muslimoon(Muslim Brotherhood) wishes worshippers a blessed Eid outside the mosque.
Navigating the human traffic is daunting –quite comparable to a teeming Muzdalifah on the days of Haj. Some estimates for the crowds this evening are as high as 4 million. Entrances to the mosque are narrow and there is an additional need to tiptoe through heaps of luggage belonging to those stationed in I’tikaaf.
I set my eyes on securing a space in the huge open courtyard and after a determined search manage to claim a coveted gap for me to wedge-in my lanky frame. All around Musallees are chatting noisily, surrounded by swarms of drinking water bottles. Encouragingly, the vast majority of them are youth who seem buoyant ahead of the night’s proceedings.
The Isha Azaan heralds the onset of the formal programme. A panel of Ulama – some of whom were banned under the Mubarak regime – pepper the proceedings with educational discourses and words of advice. Then the collective waits with baited breath as Sheikh Mohammed Jebril steps forward to lead the Tarawih. The al Azhar graduate is renowned worldwide for his angelic voice and lively Qunoot supplications that are profuse in their praises of Allah.
And no sooner does he whirr into action, that a striking calm descends onto the previously restless crowd. With a clarion voice and a flowing melody, his recital urges the congregation on to connect with the Quraan. It is quite a culture shock to find single Rakah of the Taraweeh singularly clocking 20 minutes long. Despite this, there is no uneasiness in the congregation. Even as spellbound as I am with the recitation, after a while, my legs start to get a bit wobbly. Not so for any of any of my Egyptian brethren shouldering me. With the attentiveness of owls, they stand unfazed, not flinching in the least.
After almost two hours of standing, when the announcement for the commencement of Witr is made, there is a renewed vigour. Particularly noticeable are the mobile phones being whipped out and set to voice record mode to capture the indelible moments.
The time for Sheikh Mohammed Jebril’s legendary Dua Khatmul Quraan has arrived.
Unlike the Taraweeh where the congregation are only attentive listeners, for the Dua, everyone at Masjid Amr ibn al Aas is an active participant. Sheikh Jebril commences by extolling the Praises of Allah in the most amazing ways possible. With each exultation, the crowd responds with united chants of ‘Ya Allah.’(O Allah!) which soon reach a crescendo. These soon transpose into ‘Aameens’ as Sheikh Jebril begins supplicating for specifics. As expected, the evening gets particularly emotional as he shifts focus to the needs of his homeland. Hearts skip a beat as he supplicates for the mothers of the martyrs of the revolution. He is liberal in praying for everything distressing the Egyptian nation and is equally eager not to forget other countries still grappling with challenges of their own like Yemen, Syria and Somalia. In the wake of what has subsequently transpired in Egypt, one Dua that remains embedded in my memory from that fateful evening is “Tuizzu bihal Islama wa Ahla, Wa Tuzilu bihal Kufr wa Ahla’ (Honour (in this land) Islam and her people, and disgrace (in this land) disbelief and her people).
60 minutes and pools of tears later, Sheikh Jebril concludes his epic Dua, the first such supplication after the revolution. For me its time to head back to my hotel, but many tens of thousands will still remain here to participate in a variety of modes of worship yet planned for the evening. I have just witnessed the throbbing power of a nation united by its faith. Egypt may have thrown off the yoke of oppression on 11 February 2011, but on 27 Ramadan 1432, it scored an even greater victory: Unbounded forgiveness from Allah and Emancipation from the Fire of Hell.
LISTEN/DOWNLOAD a Podcast of the Khatm ul Quraan Dua by Sheikh Mohammed Jibril HereAfrica 1 Aid Convoy, Cairo, Ebrahim Moosa, Egypt, Gaza, Ikhwan al Muslimoon, Masjid Amr ibn al Aas, Muslim Brotherhood, Ramadan, Sheikh Mohammed Jebril, Taraweeh, Tarawih