- Oct 05, 2018
The second half of May will see the start of Ramadan, the ninth month of the twelvemonth Islamic calendar. This is a
time when Muslims worldwide fast
from dawn to sunset every day.
It is one of the five pillars of Islam
and is seen as an act of worship
and a way to become more
compassionate towards those in
Along with fasting, the holy month is a time for introspection, prayer, and practicing self-restraint. But it is also a cause for celebration and spending precious time with family and friends. Indeed, there are many unique ways people express what Ramadan means to them.
From Saudi Arabia to Indonesia, here are some unique traditions from around the world.
In Indonesia, observers take the time to visit the graves of their forefathers to pay respect by praying and leaving ﬂowers. It is a time to connect with the past.
During the graveside prayers, Muslims may ask God for good fortune or good health, among other things. The ritual is known as ‘nyekar’ and usually takes place the week before Ramadan begins, with families crowding cemeteries across the country.
In some parts of Indonesia, Muslims even visit the graves of ancient kings and revered public figures to pay their respects. During these visits, one can also take part in ‘nyandran’ which involves bringing food as an offering.
Another tradition observed by Indonesians before the start of Ramadan includes 'padusan' which consists of a bathing ritual, a symbolic act of purifying the body and soul before partaking in the holy month.
Practitioners of this tradition can be seen in sarongs – a week or so before fasting begins – heading toward local rivers, the sea or a natural spring. The cleansing ritual largely consists of splashing one's face and arms with water before gathering for a communal prayer and then enjoying a simple meal.
Ramadan brings with it a festive string of lights in Istanbul, Turkey, as the main mosques of the city adorn the space between their largest minarets with messages written in lights and call the practice ‘mahya’ – meaning "writing in the sky" in Turkish.
Traditionally, the messages are changed five times during the holy month, featuring welcome greetings, farewells and religious sayings.
This observation stretches back almost four centuries, before electricity was even in place. Originally, oil lamps were hung and had to be refuelled every four hours.
"Besides the lights, other practices I've noticed include the sounding of the Fajr Azzan (prayer) earlier at suhoor time as well as the sounding of drums in some neighbourhoods," said Isra Nabil, an ex-UAE expat and now current resident of Istanbul.
While the deafening sound of a cannon being fired may be startling to some, to fasting Muslims this is a sound of sheer happiness, signalling the setting of the sun and marking the time to break their fast. Humorously, it is said this worldwide famed Ramadan ritual started out accidentally. Some trace it back to a 15th-century Egyptian sultan as he fired a cannon he was trying out by mistake and it happened to go off the same time as sunset. This was then mistaken by the public as an act of thoughtfulness from the sultan.
Others say the ritual originated from another ruler of Egypt and Sudan in the 19th century when his soldiers were maintaining a cannon only to fire it by mistake – the people again considered this to be a thoughtful act. Princess Fatimah, the sultan's daughter, knew well to take advantage of that and made it an official tradition.
Egypt is well known for its festive environment during Ramadan; children adorn their houses and street with decorations, especially lanterns. They bustle around from house to house offering and trading traditional sweet and savoury dishes.
It is believed that the lanterns became a tradition more than a thousand years ago when the people of Cairo were expecting Caliph al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah al-Fatimy’s arrival at night and stepped out to illuminate the paths with lanterns. The Caliph then decided to start this as tradition due to its pleasing aesthetics. This is but one of many tales tracing back to the origin of the practice.
“Before that, lanterns were just used to walk around at night, and to walk to the mosque. But when the Caliph came, the whole community went to welcome him with their lanterns. Since then it became that the month of Ramadan is more beautiful with lit up lanterns everywhere,” said managing director of the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Dubai, Dr Nasif Kayed.
Egypt, Somalia, and Lebanon,
Long before alarm clocks and smartphones, the Middle East and North Africa had the ‘musaharati ‘as a wake-up service for Ramadan prayers.
A musaharati is a title given to the person tasked with waking the neighbourhood for suhoor. He would walk through the streets, calling: “Wake up sleepy ones, praise God; Ramadan is the month of forgiveness (Es’ha ya nayem, wahed el dayem, Ramadan Karim, Es’ha ya nayem, wahed el razaq)” and then bang his drum three times.
In some cities and villages, he would even call individual households by name. The tradition is believed to have originated from Egypt and is still practiced in many countries like Somalia, Lebanon, and Egypt as well.
"In a way, those were much simpler times," said UAE-expat, M Ismail from Somalia as he recalled his time back home. "Besides the musaharati, we also had a special Azzan an hour before Fajr to let people know it is time for suhoor.
"The practice of the Azzan is still observed but the tradition of the musaharati is now only experienced in a few small towns and settlements," he added.
In the Maldives, poets step up after iftar gatherings to recite Raivaru, an ancient-traditional form of poetry that relates to Ramadan. This much-loved, festive tradition consists of two main types, with the first raivaru comprising of six lines of words called "Ha bahuge raivaru" while the second type is of three lines called "Thin bahuge raivaru."
Food is an essential part of the Holy Month and with the diversity present among Muslims, there are countless delicious dishes served.
Emiratis, for instance, feature a diverse range of dishes from around the world on their Ramadan table. You will find the Emirati traditional dish harees (wheat porridge with meat), and some Levantine salads like fattoush.
Egyptians, on the other hand, break their fast with dates and then start off with a dish they would usually have at breakfast, like shakshouka (poached eggs in tomato sauce) and ful medames (broiled fava beans with vegetable oil, herbs and spices). They believe it goes easier on the stomach, slowly working their way through to heavier meals.
Going east, in Jordan, the iftar table is colossal, including several courses. However, the one main dish that you will always find is the Jordanian national dish, mansaf – a pungent, bed of rice and herbs-spiced lamb chops served on top with a garnish blend of diluted yogurt and every kind of nut your heart desires (their hearts prefer pine nuts though).
In Pakistan, sweet and savoury dishes are largely served as well. You will fnd the table bedecked with dishes like pakoras (sliced vegetables dipped in batter and then deep-fried), samosas, kebabs, dahi baray (fried lentil dumplings served with yoghurt), and namak paras (seasoned crackers).
Though one similarity all these cultures share is drinks like Amar el-din, Tamarind, and Karkadeh.
Two weeks into the Holy Month, the gerga’aan tradition takes place – a three-day celebration that sees children in traditional clothing knocking on their neighbours’ doors after Maghreb prayers and singing in exchange for confectioneries. Think Halloween, but minus the trickery of course!
Although not unique to any one culture, Muslims often practice charitable acts, especially in Ramadan. These actions include donating food, time, and money. Often, families, friends and even companies prepare care packages consisting of staple foods which they then distribute to the less fortunate. These bags usually contain dry or tinned food.
"Ramadan is a blessed month where friends and family reconnect, and old disputes are left behind," said Emirati citizen Maryam Al Dhaheri. "It's also a time to reach out to those in need. For this reason, it is an Emirati custom to send food out to family, friends, neighbours and those less privileged.”
Ramadan nights are lively as communities come to life after iftar and tarawih prayers, heading out to neighbours and friends to socialise.
Along with talking the nights away, a popular tradition in Iraq is to partake in mheibas. Similar to the game of Up Jenkins it consists two teams, each attempting to hide a ring from the other. It starts with one player handing a ring stealthily to another player on the same team and then the other team elects a member to step forward and make one guess as to who holds the ring. The trick is to study the facial expressions of others and crack their expressions.