By Moin Qazi, New Age Islam
21 May 2018
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 spangles 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
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
“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
(Itikaf) 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 Sawm
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:
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
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 most significant aspect of the fast is
the development of Allah-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 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
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.
dish, the most popular form of which is seasoned minced meat grilled on a
a dessert made out of wheat flour shaped like a small pancake.
Tukda- fried bread poached in sweetened milk that is leavened with dry fruits.
celebratory meal comprises
–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.
-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
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 Quran 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
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-Taraweeh, consisting usually of
twenty prostrations with a short interval or pause (Taraweeh) after every four,
are offered. Uttered at night and only during Ramadan, Taraweeh 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
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
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 sabres, 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 flavoured 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 jewellery
stores. Rainbows of colourful 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.
“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] traveller - 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
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
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 travellers
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 traveller 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:
felt I some watcher of the skies
a new planet swims into his ken,
like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
stared at the Pacific—and all his men
at each other with a wild surmise—
upon a peak in Darien.
The end of Ramadan is signalled 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
colourful dresses of children look like so many rainbows, their colours
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 carolling - 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 pencilled 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 euphoria of
nostalgic memories of their youthful Eids.
Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a
Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four
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