Muslims around the world are preparing themselves for Ramadan — the Islamic holy month that commemorates the time the Qur’an was revealed to the prophet Muhammad. For some of us outside of the faith, we listen to their stories of waking up in the wee hours of the morning to get a bite to eat and their nightly prayers. By faith, I am a Roman Catholic, but I’ve always been fascinated by Islam. The discipline with which they practice their religion and the intensity of their faith which drives it is admirable; something I haven’t been able to achieve.
This year, Ramadan starts on May 26 and ends on June 24. As our Muslim friends start with their fasting and their worship, I’ve decided to take a look at their customs and traditions.
Ramadan Basic Facts
The holy month is the 9th month in the Islamic calendar or the Hijri, and it’s based on the lunar cycle. The month starts when they see hilal or the crescent moon. For this reason, the date for when it starts and ends is different every year. Different customs and traditions are being practised by Muslims in different countries; however, they are expected to do countless acts of devotion, strengthening the relationship between family and friends, and to practice discipline and worship.
We all know that one of the practices during Ramadan is fasting. It’s included in the five pillars of Islam, along with declaring their faith (shaddah), the five daily prayers (salat), alms giving (zakat), and pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj). In the Qur’an it says, ‘O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous’ (Surah Al-Baqarah [2:183]).
Fasting isn’t just about abstaining from food and drink, but also vices like smoking, the use of bad language, and backstabbing. Muslims are encouraged to carry on with their work and treat fasting not as a way to divert from it, rather, to use it as an opportunity to reflect. Since most things that bring instant gratification are not allowed to be consumed, they get a better understanding of their privilege and how those who have less feel. Its aim is to bring them closer to God by being patient and generous.
There are people who are exempt from fasting, though. These are children, people who are physically sick and those who have mental illness, and the elderly. This also includes women who are menstruating, pregnant, at the postnatal stage, and currently breastfeeding.
A person can make up for the missed fasts; however, if they aren’t able to for specific reasons, they can do acts of charity by feeding the needy for every day that they haven’t fasted.
Emphasis on community
Ramadan is also about being with the community, when Muslims invite friends and family over to share a meal — a practice called iftar. If you live near a Muslim community, sometimes you’ll see them distributing food and eating.
They recite special prayers called the Tarawih as a congregation, a means of reconnecting with the Qur’an and with God together. This involves reading from the Qur’an while performing a certain cycle of movement which involves standing, bowing, sitting, and prostrating. After every four cycles, they get to rest for a bit before continuing.
One of the most beautiful traditions some of us outside of Islam enjoy seeing are the Ramadan lanterns or the Fanous. The word fanous has Greek origins that means ‘light’ (transliterated to ‘candle’), used to symbolise hope, the “light in the darkness”. It’s said to have originated during the Fatimid Caliphate where the Egyptian people hold lanterns to greet Caliph Al-Muizz Lideenillah and celebrate his arrival at Cairo during Ramadan.
However, others attribute its origins to the Fatimid Caliph Al Hakim Bi-Amr Illah who would look at the moon marking the start of Ramadan while the streets are illuminated by children holding lanterns (fawanees) and singing songs.
Today, the fanous remains to be practised, mostly by children who would happily decorate lanterns and sing songs during Ramadan.
In Arab countries, there is a practice called Al-Misaharaty. A night caller would wake the people in the community 2 hours before sunrise so they can have sahur or pre-dawn meal before fasting starts for the day. In smaller villages, the night caller would knock at each door and would call out to them by name. While in larger communities, the night caller would bang a loud drum to wake them up. The night callers are not paid to do this, but at the end of Ramadan, they do receive gifts for their work. Nowadays, not a lot of places does night calling anymore.
Entertainment and Hospitality Industries During Ramadan
In countries with a Muslim majority population, this is the best time to reveal new programs on the television. Some are centred on the practice of Ramadan, while others are soap operas, game shows, and sitcoms.
There are also travel promos especially made for Muslims. For instance, Quality Hotel City Centre in Kuala Lumpur is offering the Ramadan in the City promo which offers affordable hotel accommodation that comes with a special Sahur and a Berbuka Puasa buffet dinner. It runs for the whole Ramadan month, from May 27 – June 24, 2017.
There’s most likely still a lot more of their traditions and customs that have not been covered here, but let me tell you, learning about Ramadan is more than just enlightening. My take away from this would be in how my actions reflect my faith. Islam has put an emphasis on being a person for the community, understanding each other’s plight. If we can reach that level of empathy, imagine the things we could’ve avoided and resolved through peaceful means.