Is Sham El-Nasim against Islam?

Sarah Mourad , Tuesday 17 Apr 2012

Hard-line Islamists — especially Salafists — say Sham El-Nasim, the traditional spring holiday, is against Islam and should be prohibited, but is there any foundation to the claim?

Sham El-Nessim, a forbidden day: Hardliner Islamists only celebrate religious holidays. (Photo file: Shrief Mahmoud)

Monday 16 April marked the Egyptian spring holiday Sham El-Nasim, one of the few days that Egyptians of all religions have celebrated together for almost five millennia. Salted fish is the main dish of the day and eggs are painted — a ritual linked to ancient Egyptian feasts in 2700BC. 

However, in the wake of the January 25 Revolution, with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists dominating the political and social landscape, claims have been made by some Islamists that the ancient feast is unIslamic and ought to be prohibited. 

The name Sham El-Nasim (inhaling the breeze) comes from the ancient Coptic language that in turn is derived from the Pharaonic language. It was originally pronounced Tshom Ni Sime, with tshom meaning "gardens" and ni sime meaning "meadows."

Linked to astronomy and nature, Sham El-Nasim denotes the beginning of the spring festival, when the sun is in the Aries zodiac marking the beginning of creation. The exact date is confirmed annually by sighting the sun in relation to the Great Pyramid.  

Despite being a truly Egyptian celebration, the Islamists last year used its ancient heritage against the festival. A Salafist statement was widely distributed prior to Sham El-Nasim 2011 denouncing the feast because it originated from the pharaohs, who the ultra conservative group describe as infidels. 

On website, the official site of the Muslim Brotherhood, an article by Al-Azhar scholar Sheikh Atteya Saqr put forward the same idea. This is despite statements to the contrary by the awqaf ministry (religious endowments) and Al-Azhar, the highest Sunni religious authority.

Adel Afifi, president of the Salafist Asala (Authenticity) Party, said that although he supports art that serves society, especially opera, he believes that celebrating Sham El-Nasim is wrong. Many Islamists, particularly the Salafists, argue that music is not permitted under Islam.

Afifi believes that only Islamic feasts should be celebrated.

Amna Nosseir, professor of Islamic doctrine and philosophy at Al-Azhar University, stated that, "Celebration and fun for the Egyptian family cannot be prohibited by a sane person." Festivals and feasts are not against Sharia (Islamic law) and Islam, the Islamist academic added.

She believes that the Islamists who make the claim that Sham El-Nasim is haram (forbidden) are reading religious texts in a narrow and literal way at the expense of reason.

Some who oppose Sham El-Nasim quote the Prophet Mohammed's saying (hadith), "We are a nation with two feasts." Normally the two feats refer to Eid Al-Fitr that comes after Ramadan and Eid Al-Adha (the Feast of Sacrifice) that follows later in the Islamic year. However, the hadith does not establish that Muslims should refrain from celebrating anything else.

Nosseir added that there is a hadith by the Prophet Mohammad that Islamists who claim Sham El-Nasim is prohibited never mention. It says: "At the head of every 100 years, there would be someone to revive the religion." It infers that times and circumstances can and should change.

"How can enjoying God's created nature be a wrong thing?" Nosseir asks, explaining that this is part of observing and appreciating the world crafted by God. She adds: "The Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) said, 'Allah is beautiful and loves beauty.' So those who make such claims basically lack knowledge of what beauty and joy is."

Ahmed Shawky El-Aqabawy, professor of educational psychology at Al-Azhar University, went as far as to say that "those who call themselves Salafists are actually not Salafists." He explains that the term Salafist means those that follow Al-Salaf Al-Salih, who are the four Imams of Islam, who represent different schools of Islam.

Instead of this grounding in diversity, current Salafists follow the most strict fatwas and interpretations. They also assert that the way Al-Salaf Al-Salih lived fourteen centuries ago is the perfect way of living, without taking into consideration the modern world. "They want life to be the way it was in the time of the Prophet, which is irrational," El-Aqabawy said.

El-Aqabawy explains that Imam Al-Shafii, for instance, changed certain fatwas when he went to live in Egypt, "because he realised that the country's circumstances and civilisation do not comply with them." He adds that prominent Islamic scholars know these facts well.

El-Aqabawy stated that the general climate in the Arab world for the past 40 years has been Islamic, so it was no surprise that voters chose Islamists over other political currents. 'The Islamist current offers people the most amazing recipe: 'Vote for me, and go to heaven,' which is using religion for a worldly purpose," El-Aqabawy said.

"And most Islamists are very extreme and do not even focus on the important issues that should be handled or discussed in Islam," he added.

Psychologically, political Islam gives people permission — especially the youth — to stop using their minds since Islamist leaders are deemed to have all the answers, El-Aqabawy stated. Meanwhile, the Islamic nation suffers from poverty and illiteracy. In this context, says El-Aqabawy, it is telling that "people who call themselves spokesmen of religion and Islam argue about such lame matters for example, whether or not Sham El-Nasim is prohibited."

Mona Youssef, sociologist and member of the National Centre of Social Studies, believes that no matter how dominant Islamists become, they will not be able to take away from Egyptians the small joys and forms of happiness they are used to, such as celebrating Sham El-Nasim.

Youssef explains that celebrating feasts has become a habit in Egyptian culture. "I don't think the majority will be convinced that it's not right not to celebrate it." She added that Egyptians have their own religious references (Al-Azhar for Muslims and the Coptic Church for Christians), and she does not think that any other kind of religious authority will be followed blindly.

The Wednesday prior to Sham El-Nasim (which always falls on a Monday) is known as "Jacob’s Rara" after the Rara plant that the Prophet Jacob bathed in, curing 18 years of illness. On that day, Egyptians traditionally bathed with it, to rid themselves of the waste of the past year. Some Egyptians, in Upper Egypt, continue the tradition to this day.

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