Among the many traditions and rituals in Egypt surrounding the holy month of Ramadan are Rahman tables, which have become a regular sight in the capital city of Cairo and other provinces.
Rahman tables provide iftar meals to the poor and others who are unable to be home for the evening feasts, such as policemen, drivers and sanitary workers.
Many Rahman tables are offered by merchants, artists and religious institutions, who set up the tables inside canvas tents as well as in public squares, mosque courtyards or simply on the street.
According to Dr. Hamid al-Zini, a professor of Islamic history at Al-Azhar University, the tradition of Rahman tables date back to year 9 AH (631), during the time of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). In Egypt, they began during the era of Prince Ahmed Ibn Tulun (880 AH - 1475), who personally opened the first table and encouraged the rich to offer tables to help the poor.
The tradition continued during the reign of Fatimid Caliph al-Muizz and throughout the Ottoman era, when the name was changed to the royal tables. However, in 1967, they became known as Rahman tables when Nasser Bank encouraged offering them as a way of using zakat money.
Al-Zini told Al-Shorfa that the latest study on Rahman tables in Egypt place the cost of setting up and providing the tables at two billion pounds ($330 million), with half of the funds spent in Cairo.
The report also said that the tables provide meals for an estimated three million Egyptians.
He said that while many benefactors who sponsor the estimated 25,000 Rahman tables seek publicity for political or social reasons, the charitable and religious character of the tradition remains prevalent, regardless of the donor's motivations.
Al-Zini said that there are four types of Rahman tables offered during Ramadan: tables offered by mosques, tables sponsored by wealthy individuals, tables arranged by residents of certain neighbourhoods voluntarily contributing within their means, and those offered by government institutions.
However, recent events have negatively impacted the number of tables in Egypt, said Sheikh Ezzat al-Nasr, the zakat superintendent for Al-Azhar.
"Rahman tables have not been the same after the January revolution due to the prevailing poor economic conditions and the reluctance of many philanthropists to offer Rahman tables as they have prior to the revolution," he told Al-Shorfa.
"Moreover, many mosques have also reduced their [charitable] activities during Ramadan," al-Nasr said, pointing to the case of Cairo's Amr ibn al-As mosque, which opted to not set up Rahman tables "due to the decline in donations that [in the past] were earmarked specifically for the tables".
He added that in recent years the government moved to regulate Rahman tables and worked to spread them to the largest possible number of needy citizens.
Al-Nasr said the Ramadan season motivates many charities and youth to volunteer and work at Rahman tables by "collecting donations, preparing tables and washing the pots and pans".
The religious motive is inseparably "mixed with the social motive, as the religious motive seeks to draw nearer to God through charitable work, especially feeding the poor, [while] the social motive seeks solidarity and social interdependence", he told Al-Shorfa.
He also criticised those who offer support to the poor only during Ramadan but fail to offer assistance during the rest of the year.
Businessman Fahim Ayad said he and others have set up Rahman tables for the past decade in the low-income Dar es-Salaam district, adding that they have tried for the past two years to continue the "Egyptian Ramadan folkloric tradition" despite the economic downturn.
"There is a greater need for [aid] now than in the past, as the number of poor people has risen as a result of the economic recession," he said, adding that his charity group also delivers Ramadan iftar packages to poor families.
Ayad said that some people visit the tables out of curiosity, and some actually prefer to have iftar among the poor to experience a genuine Ramadan atmosphere, especially in the Old Cairo neighbourhoods near Al-Azhar, the Al-Hussein shrine, Al-Muizz al-Fatimi Street and Khan el-Khalili.
He added that officials decided this year to designate sites for Rahman tables that do not hinder traffic in the streets and ensure that the tables are not overly abundant in some areas and scarce in others.