By Moin Qazi
This is the holy month when Muslims, about one fifth of the world’s population, undergo a rigorous fast (not even a drop of water or spittle passes their throats). Muslims around the world take a journey within – to discover their inner strengths and strive zealously to subjugate their evil instincts. It is abstinence in its literal, metaphorical and allegorical sense.
From dawn to dusk each day this month, Muslims do not eat, drink, smoke, use perfume or apply leeches and abstain from conjugal relations. It is the month of Ramadan, the ninth and holiest month of the Muslim lunar year, a month of sacrifice and humility punctuated by joyous family gatherings, during which conscientious observance of every divine commandment marks a high water mark in the lives of every Muslim.
The start of the month 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. If it is a cloudy day the possibility is dim. But excitement builds up as the ragged clouds skate apart and an incandescent sun pulses slowly between them. A sliver of radiance, like a spray of gold, spread from the clouds. 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.
A fine haze stands above the vast plain, filtering through its screen the last roseate hue of the sinking sun. The last pale shades of light still illuminate the sky as people straddle the mottled trail of dents and potholes enchanted by the ruddy glow in the horizon. The men and boys accompanied by cherubic girls spread everywhere, squatting on their haunches, their faces roughened by the sun and the wind, bangles clanking on the arms of the bustling girls. 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.
As news of the sighting of the moon spreads there is a flush of excitement. The crowd points excitedly. “There it is. It is at hand!” .There is a flush of excitement as others too see it. They offer supplication with outstretched palms. A few minutes later, before the local halal committee (a group of clerics who take a final decision on the sighting of moon) of the city, they testify to what they have seen. “The new moon is at hand,” they say. “We have seen it.” The leaders accept the testimony. The lights glow out of the minarets and domes. .It is a sign that Ramadan has begun. The mantle of the night spreads like a canopy as a million stars of variable brilliance chip from the new moon and spangle the dark sky In Middle East countries, Ramadan is heralded by the boom of cannons.
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. Muslims believe that during this month the gates of hell close — meaning the devil is unable to tempt them during a month of discipline, charity and self-control. The objective of the fast, which also prohibits participating in “sensual pleasures” such as smoking, sex and even listening to music during daylight hours, is to diminish believers’ dependence on material goods, purify their hearts and establish solidarity with the poor to encourage charitable works during the year. It’s as much a period of self-growth as of self-denial: 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 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. This period is called Ramazan in Iran and Turkey and Ramadan in the Indian subcontinent. 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 commemorates the time when Quran was first revealed to Prophet Mohammad about 1,400 years ago through the angel Gabriel. This revelation was the final link in the chain of divine communication, which includes the Commandments of Moses, the Psalms of David, the Scrolls of Abraham and the Gospel of Jesus.
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. Because the faithful do their work by day, eat, drink and pray by night, they have little time for sleep and as Ramadan progresses become increasingly fretful.The Qur’an provides a vivid account of this night.
“We have indeed revealed this (message) in the Night of Power: And what will explain to you what the Night of Power is? The Night of Power is better than a thousand months. Therein come down the Angels and the Spirit (Gabriel) by Allah’s permission, on every errand: Peace! This until the rise of Morn!” (Surah 97) he night between the 26th and 27th days of Ramadan, is possibly the night of Laylat Al Qadr during which, according to the Quran, God determines the course of the world for the following year. Muslims pay attention to the odd numbered days like the 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th and 29th because it is most likely to be on one of them. The Prophet advised believers to spent those last ten days at the mosque in vigil (i’tikaf) retreating to the hermitage of the God’s house and pray throughout the night, for partaking of the blessings of the holy night.
Fasting or sawm is one of the vital pillars of Islam. Sawm is 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, 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. This in turn encourages greater reflection on life itself and appreciation for the resources we sometimes take for granted
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.
The Prophet Mohammed said “God would make fast an ease and not a difficulty,” and exempted the old, the sick, the pregnant, nursing mothers, and wayfarers. Children are not required to fast until they reach the Age of Responsibility (twelve years for girls; fifteen years for boys). 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.
The Quran states:”But if any of you is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed number (of Ramadan days) should be made up from days later. For those who cannot do this except with hardship is a ransom: the feeding of one that is indigent…. Allah intends every ease for you; He does not want to put you to difficulties….” – (Q 2:184-185)
Although the fast is obligatory for all sane adult Muslims in good health, a number of exemptions are allowed. 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 most significant aspect of the fast is the development of Allah-consciousness (taqva). 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 azan marks the beginning of the fast as the sonorous cadence of the muezzin resonates toward Allah. A typical day starts, with the predawn meal called the sahur, (sehri in the Indian subcontinent) usually rich in protein and carbohydrates to get through the long, foodless day. The rest of the day is spent reciting prayers, abstaining from bad deeds and reading the Quran. Ramadan, a fast-feast, though a lesser religious event, has a seesaw or frenzied edge, people sitting with a tumbler of orange juice, waiting for the cannon to boom over Cairo marking sunset, when they can quench their thirst. 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 meals served then are the best of the year, a fast being a marvellous condiment.
The fast lasts until sundown — or until it’s too dark to “distinguish a white thread from a black thread,” according to the Quran — and is broken with a small meal called an iftar which is followed by the maghrib prayer before the fasters join their families and tuck into a celebratory meal that normally comprises: dates, apricots and sweetened milk
- Kheema samosa –a small crispy and flaky Muslim pastry consisting of minced lamb meat mashed with onion and cumin and packed inside a chipped white bowl of batter of wheat flour that is conjured into a small pyramidal envelope and is deep fried.
- Kebab-meat dish, the most popular form of which is seasoned minced meat grilled on a skewer.
- Gulgula- a dessert made out of wheat fluor shaped like a small pancake.
- Shahi Tukda- fried bread poached in sweetened milk that is leavened with dry fruits.
- The celebratory meal comprises
- Haleem –a concoction of cracked wheat, lentils, spices and meat, which is cooked over a slow fire. It is sprinkled with fried onions on top and flavoured with a twist of lemon juice.
- Biryani -A world-renowned dish of Indian subcontinent .Long-grained aromatic rice (like Basmati) flavoured with exotic spices like saffron, cardamom ,cinnamon and bay leaves is layered with lamb or chicken cooked in a thick gravy. The vessel is then covered, its lid sealed on with dough and biryani is cooked on a low flame.
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.
Unlike their peers in the Middle East who benefit from working hours adapted for Ramadan, Muslims in rest of the world fit Ramadan around the demands of a regular working day. Sportsmen must grind their way on an empty stomach and endure the brutal training sessions without a sip of water. Ramadan is a way of resetting one’s moral clock, of starting anew with a clean slate, a virgin heart. Ramadan is also an excellent time for performing the umrah (a visit — as opposed to a hajj or pilgrimage — to the holy Kaʿbah, which can be performed at any time during the year); the Prophet encouraged us to undertake the umrah in Ramadan by saying, “An umrah in Ramadan is like a hajj with me.”
Another unique feature of Ramadan are the night warriors, musahhir, a sort of town criers who traverse the streets rapping on doors with a stick, tapping a drum , strumming the lute, reciting Qur’anic verses or chanting hymns to rouse the sleepy, and crying out to them to awake for the solemn occasion, “Awake, sleepers! It is time for sahur and prayers!” For particularly heavy sleepers the musahhir often waits beneath the window until they acknowledge his call, usually with a sleepy, “Thank you, brother. May God compensate you with His grace and benevolence?” There are several traditional musahhirs whose voices have been ringing in people’s minds for several years ,yet they have not been able to see their faces. These are the invisible night warriors whose moving tunes have sharpened people’s consciousness about the sanctity of fasts. Then there is roza kushai -a ceremony that marks the first fast of a child. The boy or girl is decked in bridal costumes and paraded through the neighbourhood, reminiscent of a birthday ceremony.
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 snacks and promenade. The city takes on a new look eerily illuminated by lamps and moonlight as the crowds dredge away. The alleys remind you of a carnival — an overwhelming frenzy of lights and aromas. 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 emanating from hotels keep titillating the taste buds. Crowds mingle in gay, fantastic patchwork quilts of colour and light. The lighted minarets stand silhouetted against the sky. Green flags strung from posts and trees like pennants on a sailing ship flutter their appeals heavenward. Shrouded women wrapped in veils shuffle past and innocent charming girls, whose faces are suffused with radiant exuberance, inject the space with a thick, engrossing energy. 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. On hills and mounds and by the gaunt trees of the countryside, bonfires gleam. Walking through a maze of narrow alleyways inside one is struck by the festive atmosphere. Strands of decorative lights twinkle over spice shops and jewelry stores. Rainbows of colorful scarves and beaded necklaces lined walkways, while above, everywhere, glass and tin lanterns gently dot the darkness with rays of red, yellow, green and blue.
Seeing the Ramadan lanterns swaying gently from shop entrances, balconies and trees, in all shapes and sizes, in materials from copper and brass to plastic and tin, is mesmerizing. Far from being subdued from the day long rigors of fast the town is positively glowing.
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 small percentage of one’s income or wealth – in order to be able to give it away to those deserving charity is an essential feature of this holy month.
Allah ordains: ” O you who have believed, do not invalidate your charities with reminders or injury as does one who spends his wealth [only] to be seen by the people and does not believe in Allah and the Last Day. ” (Q:2:264). There are eight categories of the beneficiaries of zakat which Allah specifies in the holy Qur’an: ” Zakah expenditures are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed to collect [zakah] and for bringing hearts together [for Islam] and for freeing captives [or slaves] and for those in debt and for the cause of Allah and for the [stranded] traveler – an obligation [imposed] by Allah. And Allah is Knowing and Wise.” (Q9: 60). It is verily mentioned in the holy Qur’an that Allah says: ” Take, [O, Muhammad], from their wealth a charity by which you purify them and cause them increase, and invoke [ Allah ‘s blessings] upon them. Indeed, your invocations are reassurance for them. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing” (Q9: 103).
The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar. 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. When Ramadan, on its 32-year migration through the solar calendar, 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” (Al Baqarah 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.” (Al Baqarah: 60)
In many ways, Ramadan mirrors a form of spiritual renewal – a time for new resolutions and a revival of inner peace. Similar to how one might attend a nature retreat once a year to escape the humdrum of a dog-eat-dog world, 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” (25:63-64)
As believers recite and ponder over the Quran in the serene calm of the night, a divine radiance permeates the heart as the power of divinity glows through every speck of dust. It gives a truly exhilarating inward joy. 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.
The end of Ramadan is signaled by the sighting of the new moon that signals the start of the next lunar month; it’s celebrated by a huge festival called ‘EId al-Fitr (the Feast of Fast-Breaking). It is also called “The Little ‘Eid,”—to distinguish it from “The Big ‘Id,” the al-Adha, which starts at the end of the period of pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj and during which Muslims unable to actually go on pilgrimage participate spiritually in the rituals).
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 first Eid was celebrated in 624 A D by the Prophet Muhammad with his friends and relatives after the victory of the battle of Badar. One of the special dishes in the Indian subcontinent is savayya (known as sheer khurma) , a dish of fine, toasted vermicelli noodles dipped in creamy milk and richly flavoured with exotic dry fruits. It is served for the breakfast on Eid day.
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 hennaed design on the skin.
In Qatar, it is a custom on the 14th day of the holy month of Ramadan for children to wear traditional outfits as children in other lands go caroling – hoping to receive in return a few nuts or sweets for their vocal efforts. The girls deck themselves in shimmering satins adorned with tinsel sequins, gleaming lacquered bangles on their wrists, that glisten along with the radiance from the eyes that are thinly penciled with kohl. Everywhere you have the glowing incense and fragrant perfumes. The grandees too do not want to be left behind as their faces glow with hennaed beards and kohled eyes, building up on a euphoria of nostalgic memories of their youthful Eids.