Ramadan – the holiest month for Muslims around the world; the month when almost two billion Muslims around the world abstain from food, and water from dawn to dusk. The days when they dedicate their time to piety and prayer. Muslims believe that it was during this month that the Holy Qur’an was first revealed to Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him).
It is the month of peace and forgiveness. While abstaining from food and drink is possibly the most visible aspect, that isn’t all there is to it. Muslims believe that the rewards reaped for acts of worship, and other good deeds, during this holy month, are multiplied. A large number of Muslims also participate in the special ‘Taraweeh’ prayers in the evening.
It is believed that one of the last ten nights of Ramadan is Lailatul Qadr or the Night of the Decree. During this night, the first few verses of the Holy Qur’an were revealed to Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). This night is considered to be a night of blessings, and forgiveness.
That is just an introduction to what the Holy month means to Muslims from a religious standpoint. What I would like to talk about is the cultural significance of what Ramadan means to me?
Observing Ramadan in Childhood
As a young Indian Muslim growing up in the Middle East (Bahrain, to be precise), Ramadan was a time of joy! Of caring and sharing. It was a time for families and community gatherings. It was a time for worship, and learning. It was exhausting – oh, yes! Absolutely! But also immensely rewarding.
Almost a month before the Holy month began, we would start cleaning the house. It was pretty much our annual spring cleaning. As the days got nearer, we would start making and freezing dishes which can be prepped easily. My mom would start chanting religious prayers and songs – songs which I can recall easily to this day – many years after I have left home.
The best part about being in a Muslim country is that it is around you all the time.
The malls and streets are decorated and lit up with crescent moons, lamps and stars. Ramadan Kareem billboards are everywhere. The Azan (the call to prayer) is heard loud and clear five times during the day. People don’t eat or drink in public, and almost all restaurants are closed till the fast opens each day – in respect for those are fasting and well, because it is the law.
I remember days when we had to climb up our three flights of steps after school, at around 2pm, lugging our incredibly heavy school bags. After a long day at school, we would be famished! But we still had a few hours to go. Watching some television, doing homework, or playing were the activities while we were really young. As we became teenagers, and then adults, the role – in the hours that led to Iftar – was about helping mom in the kitchen, and setting up the table.
At the dusk prayer, we would all sit together, and break our fast as a family. Starting with dates – as Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) has been recorded as suggesting – and water, we then jump into a feast.
As adults, we obviously know that Ramadan is about anything but food – but as kids, food was one of the things we looked forward to the most during the days of fasting.
The common dishes on any Malayali Muslim’s table would be – the semolina kanji or the lentil kanji, Tang – usually the orange flavor, some fruits and a variety of typical snacks. The snacks ranged from the sweet – pazham pori (Plantain banana fritters), unnakkai (plantain banana missiles stuffed with sweetened coconut filling), Sweet Ada to the savory – samosa, cutlets, fish ada, prawns ada, erachipathiri and so on! Ah! My mouth is already watering.
There were also a number of Iftar gatherings across the country. Not just family gatherings, but also organized by various associations and clubs like the Indian Club, and the Bahrain Keraleeya Samajam (and others – but these two I am extremely familiar with).
Many of these saw the participation of a large number of non-Muslims. I have listened to the sermon of a Christian priest, and the teachings from a Hindu pandit, as well as Muslim imam at the same gathering. I was and am always amazed at how people come together for a celebration – while fully respecting the religious values and ethos of those who are fasting. Such gatherings are extremely important – and as children, it helped us learn values of diversity, of respect, and of humanity.
Another very interesting celebration during Ramadan – usually the fourteenth day is known as Gergaoon or Garangao. Children dress up in traditional outfits, sing traditional songs, and go from house to house collecting nuts or candies. An Arab version of trick or treating, one can say.
I have had the pleasure of participating in a few of those celebrations in Qatar (as an adult though), and I just cannot wait for my son to grow up. Big halls are set up with multiple booths for children’s activities, reading, coloring, traditional games, photobooths, it really is an experience in itself.
Even as child, and now as an adult, there is one thing every one always looks forward to – the end of Ramadan – not because it brings the end of fasting but because it brings Eid! The Eid at the end of Ramadan is known as Eid Al Fitr.
Of course the days leading up to is busy – the prayers being the most important element. And shopping for new clothes, putting henna on our hands, and one more round of house cleaning.
Once the moon has been spotted, and Eid has been declared, my mom would start reciting the Takbeer (a prayer chant) loudly at the house, and we would join in too. All this with uncontainable excitement about the next day.
On Eid Day, we would wake up nice and early for the special morning prayers which happened around 6am. Across Bahrain, there would be Eid gaahs (special grounds set up for community Eid prayers), or we would just go to the grand mosque.
Eis was really about family and community. And as kids (and even now for me 😛 ), there is an added bonus of (hopefully) getting Eidi. A token sum of money that children used to get from elders! We then go out and visit relatives, and of course there is some biriyani involved! And get Eidi from them as well.
Now in Qatar, we make it a point to go for the fireworks show that is organized every Eid. In India, it is a very common practice to have fireworks at home. I used to love celebrating Eid in India because of that!
But Eid is the Middle East is extra special – like Christmas probably is in the West.
Schools are closed for three days. There are decorations and festive bill boards everywhere. The entire country celebrates it – doesn’t matter if you are Muslim or not, expat or local, child or adult! Eid is a celebration for every member of the community! There is definitely celebration in the air.
With Eid coming up soon, I wish you a blessed Ramadan Kareem and an exciting enjoyable Eid Mubarak! Do share your experience of the Holy month of Ramadan.