I started to post a Ramadan article at the beginning of the Holy Month, but decided I really needed to experience it to understand it. So, I determined I’d wait for the end of the month. Unfortunately, inaction begat inaction – followed by the flu. Now, we’re nearly a month down the line, and I am just now posting this subject. Oh well. Here it is.
One co-worker described the Islamic Holy Month of Ramadan as Lent meets Christmas. Truthfully, that’s not a bad description (though not wholly accurate) of one of the most important events, if not the most important, of the year in the lives of Muslims. Piety, renewal, and self-sacrifice are stressed; gifts are given, and merchants rejoice.
Ramadan, the Fourth Pillar of Islam, occurs during the ninth month of the Hajiri year and advances by 11-12 days each year because it is based on a lunar, rather than solar, cycle. So, in comparison to the Gregorian calendar, Ramadan happens in different parts of the year. However, it is always 30 days – although its start and finish can touch off debates within the Islamic world. Within each country, there is a jury of clerics who determine, based on the position of the moon, just exactly when it is that the month begins and ends. The moon’s relative position to the horizon or sun (as seen from Earth) is always going to be different in different parts of our planet. Thus, the difference in beginning and ending times and dates. This year, Ramadan ended a day later in Jordan and Syria than it did in Saudi Arabia.
The primary thing that Westerners and other non-Muslims know about Ramadan is that it’s when all the Muslims fast for 30 days. And, there is limited truth to that belief. During the month of Ramadan each Muslim is expected to abstain from food between sunrise and sunset. But, it’s not just food, water, and all other beverages. They’re expected to abstain from bad thoughts, sexual intercourse, masturbation, TV, movies, music, and sarcasm – essentially, anything that might take their mind away from their relationship with God. They’re supposed to say extra prayers in addition to their normal daily prayers. They’re supposed to focus on who they are and who they should be in terms of piety and goodness. And, they’re supposed to help those less fortunate than themselves.
In fact, if a Muslim falls into a class of individuals not required to fast, they’re supposed to feed someone who is poor. For example, a traveler who will be on the road for no more than ten days is not expected to fast; so, he should feed someone for each day he does not fast. The elderly, people with diabetes, the infirm, children, and pregnant women are allowed not to fast. Women who are in menstruation are forbidden to fast, and they have to make up the time with replacement fast days. If someone breaks the fast period by doing one of the things outlined in the previous paragraph, they’re supposed to make up that fast day.
Each day of Ramadan begins with a light meal, just before dawn prayer (Fajr), and concludes with a more substantive meal after Maghrib (the sunset prayer). Although no one is supposed to make up for lost meals at the evening meal, there are some fairly elaborate feasts that occur, particularly when friends and families get together to break the fast.
Each night at prayer, a passage from the Holy Quran is read aloud to the congregants (as well as being broadcast via loudspeaker to the neighborhood). During Ramadan, Muslims are encouraged to read the Holy Quran all the way through, and the nightly recitations help to facilitate this entreaty.
During the last ten days of Ramadan, there is one special night – no one really knows which date – the faithful celebrate in particular. On this night (Laylat Al-Qadr), it is said that Allah gave the first verse of the Holy Quran to the Prophet Mohammed. Whichever night is designated to represent that event, Muslims are expected to spend extra time praying and devoting themselves to self-examination. There was one day this past Ramadan when many of the Saudis showed up to work earlier than expected (explained in the next installment); when we asked why, they all said it was a special night that required them to be awake all night. So, there was no point in staying home if they were already awake. I am pretty sure they were “seeking” Laylat al-Qadr, a prayerful experience which results in the expiation of all sins in their lives – as if reborn.
At the end of Ramadan, all Muslims who are financially able to do so are required to pay zakat (similar to tithing). Zakat, in this sense, is an offering that is given to a charitable organization for the purpose of aiding the less fortunate within society. Generally, a father would pay about 11SR each for himself, his wife, and any other dependents he might have.
It’s hard to discuss Ramadan without discussing Eid ul-Fitr because one is so intertwined with the other. At the conclusion of Ramadan, the first three days of Shawwal (the next month after Ramadan) are celebrated as Eid ul-Fitr, which is a Holiday for all Muslims. In some places, such as Saudi Arabia, Eid lasts five days. In fact, this year, King Abdullah proclaimed that the Eid Holiday would last for an extra ten days: the last five days of Ramadan and the first five days of Shawwal. This is really where the gifts come into play rather than during Ramadan – though on a MUCH lesser scale than the gift giving associated with Christmas. Gift giving is almost exclusively among family members: parents for children, wives for husbands, husbands for wives, siblings, uncles for nephews and nieces…you get the picture. Usually the gifts are simple, such as clothes and that sort of thing.
Okay that’s the basics, and that’s where I’ll end Part One. In Part Two, I’ll describe the impact on daily life that occurs as a result of Ramadan – and that impact is significant.
Copyright, Greg Hubbard, 2006.