EGYPT: Universities must open during holy month

Egyptian Minister of Education, Hany Helal, has caused a stir by opposing a suggestion that the new academic year be postponed until the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Insisting that studies at universities and other education institutions begin on 20 September, Helal was quoted in the press as saying: "Postponing the academic year until the end of the [lunar] month of Ramadan would give a bad impression in the West that Muslims are lazy."

During Ramadan, Muslims have to abstain from eating, drinking or having sex from dawn to sunset. This year's Ramadan is expected to start in early September, depending on the sighting of the new moon. Ramadan is one of the holiest months in the Islamic calendar. It is followed by the three-day holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the month-long fast.

The Minister's decision, which has yet to be approved by the governmental Higher Council of Universities, has drawn fire from clergymen in the predominantly Muslim country.

"This decision is unpractical," said Jamal Qotb, a prominent Muslim cleric. "A large number of Muslims are keen to go to Mecca [in Saudi Arabia] to perform Omra [lesser pilgrimage] during Ramadan. Others prefer to stay longer inside the mosque to offer extra prayers in order to get God's blessings," Qotb told University World News. "Thus, students would not attend their classes regularly because of fasting and other religious duties."

Qotb, an ex-chief of the Fatwa (Islamic edicts) at Al Azhar University, which is Sunni Muslim's most influential seat of learning, said that obliging students to attend classes "would place an extra burden" on Egypt's streets, which are usually traffic-snarled in Ramadan, when everyone wants to be at home in time for the iftar (a fast-breaking meal taken just after sunset).

A governmental agency in charge of school education has already decided that pre-university institutions will open their gates on 20 September.

"Fasting and other religious duties in Ramadan should not be an excuse to skip hard work," Muslim scholar Fathi al-Wassel told University World News. "Early Muslims lived under harsher conditions in the desert Arabian Peninsula, but never cited Ramadan as a pretext for laziness."

MP Mustafa al-Salab, a member of the ruling National Democratic Party, was the first to suggest deferring classes until the end of Ramadan, citing economic reasons. "My suggestion was prompted by the concern I felt among people of my constituency [in Cairo] that starting the academic year in Ramadan would exhaust their household budgets," al-Salab said. During Ramadan, rates of food consumption usually rise, starting with the main fast-breaking meal.

In recent months, Egypt has experienced a series of protests against price rises and low wages. "The start of the academic year in Ramadan would mean that Egyptian families have to spend more on buying stationery and uniforms for their children," added MP al-Salab. "People living on limited incomes in Egypt would not afford costs of this double burden."

Disagreeing, Mohamed Fahmi wrote this month in the leftist newspaper Al Ahali: "It is absurd that while others landed on Mars and found traces of water on the Red Planet, some Muslim clergymen in Egypt still demand that classrooms remain closed until the end of Ramadan." Fahmi, a Muslim, urged clerics to stay out of controversy over when classes should reopen "because this is a purely educational, not religious, issue".