By Moin Qazi
This is the holy month of Ramadan (Arabic: Ramaḍān, variations: Persian: Ramazan; Urdu: Ramzān; Turkish: Ramazan), the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and the most sacred month in Islamic culture. It is in this month that Muslims, about one fifth of the world’s population, undergo a rigorous fast (not even a drop of water or spittle passes their throats). From dawn to dusk, each day of this month, Muslims do not eat, drink, smoke, use perfume or apply leeches and abstain from conjugal relations. During this month, conscientious observance of every divine commandment marks a high water mark in the lives of Muslims.
Ramadan is an eagerly awaited interval for Muslims to utilise the absence of food, drink and other luxuries, as an opportunity to concentrate on prayer, meditation and worship. It encourages greater reflection on life itself and appreciation for the resources we sometimes take for granted. Ramadan is also the month to invest in the afterlife as the returns are supposed to be much higher then. According to canonical texts, rewards for prayers in this moth are multiplied by 70. If you go to Mecca during Ramadan and pray, the rewards are multiplied by hundreds of thousands.
Muslims around the world take a journey within – to discover their inner strengths and strive zealously to subjugate their evil instincts. Ramadan underpins some of the religion’s core values, such as prayer and giving to charity. There’s no tradition of monastic orders in Islam; instead, for one month in a year, every observant Muslim becomes an ascetic during the entire day. The simultaneity of this and other Muslim rituals is Islam’s way of fostering fellowship.
The setting in of the Ramadan begins on a joyful note. Every year Muslims around the world anticipate the sighting of the new crescent moon that signifies the official first day of Ramadan. It is reckoned in the traditional way by groups of folks going out in the evening to look for the new moon by the naked eye.
Spotting the new crescent moon – the beacon of light that signals the start of Ramadan- can be tricky because it’s quite faint and can be seen for only a few minutes. If the moon isn’t visible to the naked eye because of haze or clouds, lunar calculations are used to predict whether it’s in the sky. But the spectacle is really exciting for the younger folks.
At sundown, as glow worms wink good-bye against an inky blue sky, all eyes squint skywards in search of the crescent moon heralding the beginning of Ramadan. The sun has gone down, the evening mellowed by the soft amber of the setting sun. The russet sky turns grey as shades of twilight spread across the plain. The smog has cleared enough for a bone white sliver of moon to flicker like a pared fingernail briefly through a film of dust and cloud in the sky. The first glint of the new moon has a special significance and people offer supplications with cupped palms. The lights glow out of the minarets and domes. It is a sign that Ramadan has begun. The moon sighting at the beginning and end of Ramadan witnesses a similar spectacle
The rules of Ramadan are fairly straightforward: for one month, all practicing, able-bodied Muslims over the age of 12 are forbidden to eat or drink from sunup to sundown. The fasting begins at dawn when one can distinguish a black from a white thread; and it’s a month for parties, making the night day. The azan marks the beginning of the fast as the sonorous cadence of the muezzin resonates toward Allah.
The origin of the word Ramadan comes from the classical Arabic root, ramida, ar-ramad or ramdaa, meaning scorching heat or dryness – believed to be either in reference to the heat of thirst and hunger or because fasting burns away one’s past sins. The first Ramadan is thought to have occurred during the middle of summer. In other words, Ramadan is a month meant to purify the body of toxins and the soul of the lavish desires of life, such as greed, hatred and malice.
A typical day starts, with the Pre-dawn breakfast, or suhoor, (sehri in the Indian subcontinent) before the first prayer of the day, fajr. The rest of the day is spent reciting prayers, abstaining from bad deeds and reading the Quran. The fast lasts until sundown — or until it’s too dark to “distinguish a white thread from a black thread,” according to the Qur’an. The evening meal, iftar, can begin once the sunset prayer, Maghreb, is finished. Since the Prophet Mohammad broke his fast with dates and a glass of water, Muslims eat dates at both suhoor and iftar.
Fasting or sawm in Arabic is one of the vital pillars of Islam. The Arabic word sawm is derived from the root sama which means ‘to abstain’. Although ṣawm is most commonly understood as the obligation to fast during Ramadan, it is more broadly interpreted as the obligation to refrain between dawn and dusk from food, drink, sexual activity, and all forms of immoral behaviour, including impure or unkind thoughts. Thus, false words or bad deeds or intentions are as destructive of a fast as is eating or drinking. As Lent may be prescribed for Christians and Yom Kippur for those of the Jewish faith.
The objective of the fast is to purify spiritually as well as physically– a time to detach from material pleasures and be closer to God. It’s as much a period of self-growth as of self-denial. It is abstinence in its literal, metaphorical and allegorical sense, the lesson in abstinence is not simply one of refraining from the physical gratification of drinking, eating, or smoking. Muslims are also urged to exercise restraint in their thoughts and actions, avoid anger and lust, refrain from gossiping, lying, complaining and fighting, refocus their minds from their busy daily lives to their religion, increase what should already be a high level of charitability, express empathy for those less fortunate and get closer in their religious practice to God.
The spirit of fasting should allow a refined piety to abjure even minor sins and offenses. he spiritual rejuvenation effected by prayer, fasting, and charity should contribute to the overall moral and spiritual cleansing and growth of both individual and community that are integral to earning God’s pleasure: the real purpose of human life. Prophet Muhammad reportedly said, “He who does not abandon falsehood in word and action in accordance with fasting, God has no need that he should abandon his food and drink.”
The most significant aspect of the fast is the development of God-consciousness (taqwa).Prophet Muhammad emphasized: “He who does not abandon falsehood in word and action in accordance with fasting, God has no need that he should abandon his food and drink.”
The month of Ramadan is further divided into three parts, consisting of ten days each. Each ten day period is referred to as ashra, which is the Arabic word for ten. These three parts are the Rahmah (God’s mercy), Maghfirah (God’s forgiveness), and Najah (salvation). The first 10 days of the month of Ramadan are dedicated to mercy from Allah. The next 10 days focus on forgiveness from Allah and the last 10 on freedom from Hell Fire.
Ramadan lasts for 29 or 30 days, starting with the sighting of the new moon. The actual night on which the Qur’an was revealed is called Laylat ul Qadr (Night of Power). It is a very auspicious night and to stand in prayer on this one night is said to be better than a thousand months of worship. . It is in the last ten days of Ramadan that the “Night of Glory” (or “Power”) falls when God is believed to be releasing the greatest number of souls from Hell. Since it has never been revealed which particular night is the Night of Glory, Moslems must be strict in their religious observances on all ten nights.
The Quran further states: “You who believe? Fasting is prescribed for you, even as it was prescribed for those before you, so perchance you may attain God-consciousness.” (2:183) .The rules of Ramadan are fairly straightforward: for one month, all practicing, able-bodied Muslims over the age of 12 are forbidden to eat or drink from sunup to sundown, from that time in the morning when a white thread can be distinguished from a black one, until the hour of the evening when neither can be seen.
Although the fast is obligatory for all sane adult Muslims in good health, a number of exemptions are allowed. Fit and able adults are expected to fast, but children and elderly people are exempt. Pregnant or breastfeeding women, anyone who is sick and anyone travelling on a journey are also exempt. Women who are on their periods are not expected to fast but make up the missed days at a later date. Children from the ages of six to eight may fast for half the day, gradually increasing the duration until old enough to fully observe the fast.
These are seen as proof of Allah’s wish not to place too onerous a burden on His people. Unintentional breaking of the fast is not punished, and Muslims are enjoined to break their fast if there is a threat to health. Other types of infractions require restitution. This is of two kinds: Qada, which involves making up missed days, and Kaffarah, which additionally exacts a penalty from the transgressor.
The cooking of Indian subcontinent is much more than a series of throat-cauterizing curries. This major cuisine has drawn from the culinary wisdom of a huge geographic area over a period of centuries. Making Ramadan’s exquisite dishes was often thought of as a culinary challenge, cloaked in an aura of mysterious eastern promise. Now most supermarkets stock the main ingredients and once you’ve grasped the main cooking techniques, you’ll soon be making signature dishes from scratch. Spices are to East what basic stocks, sauces and dressings are to the West. Whether familiar or exotic, they add warmth, pungency, heat, and subtlety to dishes.
More traditional Muslims do not just follow the letter of the law when it comes to Ramadan, but the spirit of the law as well. When the sun goes down, they do not gorge themselves, but instead break the fast modestly, starting off with just a few dates or a simple glass of juice. They only eat more after they have said the sunset prayers, and then usually carry on afterwards by attending the evening prayers.
In the hush before sunset, there is the sound of cannon shot, followed by the cry of “Allahu Akbar!” from a nearby mosque, to break their day-long fast .The Quran says: “O Believers, prescribed for you is the Fast, even as it was prescribed for those that were before you… The month of Ramadan, wherein the Koran was sent down to be guidance to the people, and as clear signs of the guidance and salvation. So let those of you, who are present at the month, fast it; and if any of you be sick, or if he be on a journey, then a number of other days. And eat and drink, until the white thread shows clearly to you from the black thread at dawn; then complete the Fast until the night(Q2: 183-187)
Worship in all its forms abounds during Ramadan. A special emphasis is placed on dhikr (invocation, deep meditation and reflection over the mysteries of the universe). Before retirement each night, special congregational prayers called salat al-tarawih, consisting usually of twenty prostrations with a short interval or pause (tarawih) after every four, are offered. Uttered at night and only during Ramadan, tarawih is a recitation of the complete Quran over the course of 30 days. All recite the ‘Isha, the fifth and the day’s last mandatory night prayer, and then settle into the tarawih.
After sunset, streets and squares all over the Muslim world are thronged with people anchored by a pulsing market as they flood out to the streets to shop, eat and promenade . The city takes on a new look eerily illuminated by lamps and moonlight as the crowds dredge away. Stores line a bustling charade as merchants squat behind piles of pistachios, almonds and rosewater-doused candies. Fluorescent lights glow like light sabers, directing lost souls to God. On grimy mats, fruits and vegetables are spread out in huge mounds .Bargains are made by means of hoarse shrieks swapped between buyers and sellers. Rivulets of fasters thread through the bazaars as tempting aromas keep titillating the taste buds. The lighted minarets stand silhouetted against the sky. Food lanes are abuzz with gastronomic activities inviting you to feast on a tempting palate that showcases savouries emerging out of a great sugary avalanche. There is a vast diversity of culinary delights and aromatic dishes flavored with saffron. The eateries liven up the evenings as festivities turn nocturnal.
Ramadan is also a month of benevolence. Islam has a two-pronged requirement on charity. The first, the zakat, requires Muslims to give 2.5 per cent of their savings each year to the poor. The second, fitra is voluntary and depends on a person’s financial ability. Zakat is not just the payment of a tax as it is generally understood, but is rather an act of worship. Its importance is underscored by the fact that the Qur’an treats it at par with salat (prayer). The Qur’an goes to the extent of saying that one cannot attain righteousness unless one spends out of one’s wealth for the love of God: “By no means shall you attain righteousness, unless you give of that which you love.”(3:92)
There is an interesting difference in the two traditions. In zakat, the donation is made to a person or family to improve their economic well being. In fitra alms are given to enable the family to celebrate Eid. The fitra must be a minimum of two kilos and a half of wheat, rice, barley, flour or any other grain, dates, fruits etc. Every member of a Muslim household is under religious obligation to give fitra before proceeding to the ground for EId Prayer so that the poor can also participate in the celebration. The gesture is intended to level any social distinction in the celebration of EId. The conscious setting aside of an amount of money – that is a set proportion of one’s income or wealth – n order to be able to give it away to those deserving charity is an essential feature of this holy month.
The start of Ramadan fluctuates each year because Islam uses a lunar calendar that follows the phases of the moon .A month is considered to have begun from the time when the initial crescent of a new moon is seen. However, a lunar calendar is shorter than the regular solar calendar year of 365 days. The lunar calendar falls short by around eleven or twelve days each year. Due to this discrepancy between the two calendars, the month of Ramadan is advanced by around eleven days each year. This means that the average Muslim will have to fast in both the winter and summer months during the course of his lifetime. On its 32-year migration through the solar calendar, Ramadan happens to fall in different seasons.
This ensures that the hardships faced while fasting are experienced equally by Muslims living in the northern and southern hemispheres. Summer Ramadans are the toughest. In northern climes, the yawning chasm that separates dawn from dusk makes the long, meandering days feel like an epic marathon. Further south, the days may be shorter and the hunger less palpable, but the intense heat makes the faster feel lost in a desert of thirst. Muslims living in northern countries face fasting through as many as 19 hours of daylight. Clerics have suggested that worshippers in these climes follow the daylight hours of the nearest Muslim-majority nation.
In Islam, man’s relation to the earth is seen as that of a custodian. “Now, behold! Your Lord said to the angels: I am placing upon the earth a human successor to steward it” (Q 2:30). It is required that man should work towards the conservation of earth and ensure sustainability of natural resources for future generations. He must not be extravagant in consumption (whether of food, cloth or natural resources). As cited in the Quran: “Eat and drink of that which Allah has provided and do not act corruptly, making mischief on the earth.” (Q2: 60)
In many ways, Ramadan mirrors a form of spiritual renewal – a time for new resolutions and a revival of inner peace. Ramadan provides an internal retreat where the mind and it’s natural ‘thirst’ for knowledge, awakening and reason is given greater precedence over the physical needs and desires of the body – needs which are regularly served but rarely satisfied.
The struggle for internal balance and control of the self is as old as mankind. Ramadan is a long arduous ordeal to prepare mankind for a journey into a new year with renewed spiritual energy and fresh pledges. It is a means of building self control and striking a balance between the spiritual and the mundane. It is a way of adapting one’s life to subjugate the evil instincts and vicious ambitions like lust, greed and hatred .Islam has a beautiful word to describe this war against man’s carnal instincts. It is called jihad.
In fact Islam repeatedly emphasizes it and calls it the ‘greater jihad’. The “greater struggle” is the personal one: the struggle to resist temptation, combat one’s own evil traits and imperfections, and become a better person in God’s sight. the King James Bible speaks of it as seeking ‘The Kingdom of God’ and the Hindu spiritual classic Bhagavad Gita represents it in the battle of Kuruksetra.
The whole night of vigil and silent communion with God is meant to imbue oneself with the moral power to cope with the rigors of the fast as believers seek enlightenment and a light for guidance in the still majesty of darkness. These very brave souls are what the Islamic jurist, theologian and poet Jalaluddin Rumi referred to as ‘night travellers’ when he wrote: “Search the darkness, don’t run from it. Night travelers are full of light and you are too, don’t leave this companionship”. As the Quran reiterates: “The servants of (Allah) Most Gracious are those who walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, “Peace!” Those who spend the night in adoration of their Lord prostrate and standing” (Q25:63-64)
The end of Ramadan is signaled by the sighting of the new moon that signals the start of the next lunar month; and the last day of Ramadan. Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr—(the Feast of Fast-Breaking). – which is marked by three days of festivities where Muslims gather to pray, eat, exchange gifts, and pay their respects to deceased relatives.
This Eid is also called “The Little ‘EId,”—to distinguish it from “The Big ‘Id,” the Eid al-Adha, .At the beginning of the festival, the community gathers at an outdoor prayer ground known as Eidgah to perform the Eid prayer. For the most part the crowd is dressed in sober white, but here and there a bright turban flashes its colours like a peacock at a poultry show. The colorful dresses of children look like so many rainbows, their colors enhanced by the sheen of satin and the shimmer of silk. After the service the milling crowds exchange greetings and hug and embrace each other warmly.
The night preceding the Eid is the chaand raat, or the night of the moon, the last night of Ramadan. It stirs up vigorous festivities particularly among girls. They delicately apply grids of henna paste dabbed with a lemon and sugar concoction on each other’s palms. The hands, arms and legs are scrolled and florally patterned with lacy paisleys and fanciful filigrees in henna which will wear off in several weeks. The paste is applied in the late evening to flake off and dry by next morning, leaving the skin floriated in henna. The grandees too do not want to be left behind as their faces glow with hennaed beards and kohled eyes, building up on euphoria of nostalgic memories of their youthful Eids.
The celebratory mood is actually a way of thanksgiving for an otherwise soulful endurance, particularly the night long vigils and quest for the realization of the divine unity. The joy on Eid day is more an expression of the deep inward warmth that soothed the hearts of believers in their month long Endeavour as they recited and pondered over the Quran in the serene calm of the night, it is like a traveler climbing a mountain; the higher he goes the farther he sees. It elevates the human mind to great heights of ecstasy, comparable to what the greatest English poet John Keats experienced when he discovered Chapman’s Homer:
Then felt I some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken,
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent upon a peak in Darien.