All About Ramadan
When was the last time you learned more about holidays in other cultures? For many of us, we only think about the holidays that we celebrate. We don’t often think about people who celebrate different holidays. For most of us, holidays include Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and Lent (if you belong to a Christian denomination that celebrates Lent).
For most people in the United States, Ramadan is not on their radar.
For starters, one of the biggest misconceptions about Muslims is that they all speak Arabic as their first language. Contrary to popular belief, however, the vast majority of Muslims do not speak Arabic as their native language. However, many of them use it as part of their religion, whether to say daily prayers, read the Quran, or converse with other believers.
At ReDefiners World Languages, we are committed to developing multilingual and multicultural individuals. One way to do this is to explore holidays in other cultures. Since Ramadan (pro. RAH-mah-dahn) is just around the corner, we thought we would explore the holiday and how it’s celebrated. While there is a lot to learn about Ramadan and Islam, we will provide a basic overview of the holiday. Throughout the post, we will link other articles with more information where you can continue your own research.
What is Islam?
To understand more about Ramadan, we must first develop a basic understanding of Islam. Islam is a religion with over 1 billion followers worldwide. Muslims worship Allah (pro. all-LAH), which means Almighty God. Islamic beliefs fall into six main categories, known as the “Articles of Faith'': faith in the unity of God, faith in angels, faith in prophets, faith in books of revelation, faith in an afterlife, and faith in destiny/divine decree. Five formal acts of worship help strengthen faith and obedience. These are often referred to as the “Five Pillars of Islam.” These include testimony of faith, prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and pilgrimage.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is one of the most important times for Muslims. Ramadan is a holy month of fasting, introspection, and prayer. This month is also considered the month during which the Prophet Muhammad received the initial revelations of the Quran (pro. kur-RAHN), the holy book for Muslims. To observe Ramadan, Muslims fast from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. They break their fasts at the end of each day by sharing meals with family and friends. In addition to avoiding eating and drinking, Muslims are supposed to refrain from smoking, sexual activity, unkind or impure thoughts and words, and immoral behavior.
In Islam, fasting is a way to cleanse the soul and empathize with the poor and hungry. Muslims still go to work and attend school during this time, but some choose to participate in other practices, such as reading the entire Quran, saying special prayers, and going to Mosques more frequently.
Not all Muslims are required to fast. Only those who have reached puberty and are in good health must fast. Other people who are not required to do so, including the sick, the elderly, travelers, pregnant women, and nursing mothers. Although they are exempt, they must make up for the missed fast days. They can either fast at a later date or help feed the poor.
Even though Muslims are required to fast during the daylight hours, they can eat two meals per day, one before dawn and one after sunset. The pre-dawn meal is called Suhoor (pro. sue-HOR), and the meal after sunset is known as Iftar (pro. IF-taar). Traditionally, they eat a date to break the fast in the evening. Iftars are often elaborate feasts with friends and family, and the types of food served vary by culture.
This image is sourced from The Food Heritage Foundation. For more information, please visit www.food-heritage.org.
Even though Muslims do not eat during the daylight hours, they can eat before sunrise and after sunset. For Suhoor, Muslims eat a variety of healthy foods to help them fast during the day. These include Manakeesh (pro. MAHN-uh-EESH), eggs and omelets, labneh (pro. LEHB-nae), cheese, fava beans, fruits, and vegetables. These foods include enough protein, fiber, and other nutrients that help them fast for up to 15 hours.
Once the sun sets, it is time for Iftar. A traditional Iftar menu includes a variety of dishes. For the main courses, options include stews and stuffed vegetables. Sides include cheese rolls and fatayer (pro. fah-TAI-yehre). The meal will typically begin by eating one or three dates. Eating dates helps them remember the Prophet Mohammed, who broke his fast with three dates and water. Nutritionally, the fiber and natural sugars help restore the blood sugar after fasting.
After the dates, soups are often next. They replenish fluids and provide additional nutrition in an easily-digestible form. Fasting people can develop indigestion if they eat too quickly after going without food for the entire day. Soups help prepare the body to digest food later on in the meal. Juices like Jallab (pro. gel-LAHB), Amar al-Din (pro. AH-mahr al-DEEN), and Tamarind (pro. TAH-mah-rihnd) are also consumed before or after the meal to replenish lost fluids.
Salads are often next. The fresh vegetables in salads provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals after a long day of fasting. Fattoush (pro. Fah-TOOSH) is one of the most popular salads during Ramadan. It is loaded with fresh vegetables and topped with fried or baked bread, pomegranate molasses, and olive oil.
The main course comes next. These often vary from country to country. In Lebanon, for example, Iftars include stews, stuffed vegetables, Moulouhkiyeh (Pro. Moo-HEE-ya), Rez aa djeij (REHS AD-jay), Kibbeh bil Sanieh (Pro. KIHB-bayh bill sahn-AE), and many others. These dishes provide a balance of starchy foods, vegetables, and proteins. Side dishes, such as cheese rolls, Fatayer, Sambousek (pro. sam-BO-sehk), and Hummus bi Tahini (pro. HOU-mus bi-TA-hih-nee), are also served.
Lastly, it is time for dessert. A variety of sweets are prepared and consumed during Ramadan. In Lebanon, the most popular desserts are Kellaj, Mafroukeh, Chaaybiyet, Qatayef, and Daoukiyeh. Here is more information about each of these desserts:
One of the most popular desserts is Kellaj. Kellaj (pro. kehl-AHDGE) is a fried pastry dough filled with Ashta (pro. AASH-tah). The pastry is then drizzled with sugar syrup and topped with ground pistachios and candied orange blossom.
Mafroukeh (pro. mah-FREW-keh) is a dessert made from a dough that consists of semolina flour, butter, and sugar syrup. The dough is then covered in Ashta and roasted nuts. It can be served on a plate or molded into a shape.
Chaaybiyet (pro. chah- BUY-eht) consists of layered pastry filled with Ashta. They’re often shaped in a triangle, and they’re drizzled in sugar syrup and decorated with crushed pistachios and candied orange blossoms.
Qatayef (pro. kah-TAY-ehf) is a dough that resembles a pancake. They can have different fillings, such as walnuts and sugar, sweetened Akkawi (pro. ah-kah-wee) cheese, and Ashta. Once they’re filled, they are then fried and dipped in sugar syrup.
Daoukiyeh (pro. dow-KEY-yeh) is a popular dessert, especially in Beirut. It consists of a layer of Ashta and cashew nuts between two layers of pistachio paste.
Now that we have a better idea of the types of foods served during Ramadan, let’s discuss the dishes for Eid al-Fitr.
Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, and it unites Muslims around the globe. The holiday is considered the first of two canonical feasts of Islam. They celebrate it during the 1st three days of Shawwal, the 10th month of the Islamic calendar. They also engage in many practices during this time, such as communal prayer, receptions, and visits with loved ones. They exchange presents, wear new clothes and visit the graves of relatives. One of the most crucial aspects of Eid al-Fitr is the food. Below are just a few of the foods that Muslims around the world eat during this time:
Laasida (pro. lah-SEE-dah) is a popular breakfast dish in Morocco. It looks similar to rice pudding, but it consists of couscous, butter, honey, and seasoning.
Tagine (pro. tah-ZHEEN) often finishes the day in North Africa. It’s most commonly made with chicken, but it can also be made with mutton and dried fruits.
Sheer Khurma (pro. SHEAR KHUR-mah) is popular in countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Sheer Khurma is a creamy dish made of toasted vermicelli-esque noodles, and it’s sometimes topped with almonds or dried dates.
In Indonesia, one of the most popular dishes is called Lapis Legit (LAH-peace LEHG-it). The dessert is the result of Dutch colonization, and a similar dessert is also popular in the Netherlands. Lapis Legit is a thousand-layer spice cake that is considered one of the most time-consuming dishes to make. Each layer is poured and broiled in an oven before being assembled into the finished product.
Bolani (pro. boh-LAWN-ee) is a traditional Afghan dish. It is a flatbread stuffed with either leafy greens (such as spinach), potatoes, pumpkin, or lentils. Bolani is one of a few savory Eid dishes.
Ghraybeh (pro. GRAY-beh), which loosely translates to butter cookies, is popular in Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq. These cookies include unique ingredients and are called different names, depending on the country. Palestinians call them Ghraybeh, and they have either pine nuts or almonds in the recipe. In Syria and Lebanon, they are called Mamoul (pro. MAH-mool), and they typically include walnuts or dates. In Iraq, these are called Klaicha. In Egypt, a similar cookie is called Kahk (pro. kahck), and they have honey-based fillings.
In the UK, one of the most popular dishes is Biryani. Biryani (pro. bur-YAWN-ee) is a highly flavored meat and rice dish. Chicken is typical, but it can feature mutton, lamb, goat, even fish. Raita (pro. rah-YEE-tah) (a cucumber, mint, and yogurt dip), salad, and pickles often accompany the dish.
Even though we spent a lot of time focusing on food, there is more to Ramadan than its dishes. There are other traditions to discuss, which we will explore in the next section.
Ramadan is much more than just fasting. It is a holy time where culture, faith, and history intertwine. Around the world, Muslims participate in unique, vibrant celebrations which people of all ages enjoy. Each country has its different traditions:
In Indonesia, Muslims perform rituals to cleanse themselves before Ramadan begins. Muslims in Central and East Java keep a tradition called Padusan (pro. pah-DOO-sahn), meaning “to bathe” in the Javanese dialect. In this ritual, they immerse themselves from head to toe into springs. Culturally, these springs hold a deep spiritual significance. Now, however, many people purify themselves in nearby lakes or swimming pools or within their homes.
In many Middle Eastern countries, cannons are fired daily to signal the end of each day’s fast. This tradition is known as Midfa al Iftar (pro. meed-fah all IF-tar), and it’s believed that it began in Egypt over 200 years ago. The practice made its way to other countries across the Middle East. Even though many feared that the tradition was lost, it has since been revived.
In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), children participate in a custom known as Haq al Laila (pro. HAHCK all LIE-lah), which takes place on the 15th of Sha’ban (pro. SHAH-bahn), the month before Ramadan. Children roam the streets and dress in bright clothing to collect sweets and nuts and sing traditional songs.
In Pakistan, after the final Iftar, women and girls flock to local bazaars to buy colorful bangles and paint their hands and feet with intricate henna designs. In response, shopkeepers decorate their stalls and stay open until the early morning hours. Women also set up makeshift henna shops near the jewelry shops to attract customers. These events are called Chaand Raat (pro. SHAHND Raht) boost community spirit, and participants show their excitement for Eid the following day.
In Morocco, Nafars roam the streets. A Nafar (pro. nah-FAHR) is a town crier who marks the start of dawn with his melody while donning the traditional attire of a Gandora (pro. gahn-DOOR-ah), slippers, and a hat. The townspeople select him for his honesty and empathy. To awaken the town, he walks down the street while blowing a horn to wake them up for Suhoor. This tradition recalls how the Prophet Muhammed's companion roamed the streets at dawn while singing melodious prayers.
So far, we have discussed how Muslims traditionally observe Ramadan. However, with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Muslims have had to rethink how they observe Ramadan. In the next section, we will explore how they adapted their celebrations in the age of Covid-19.
Ramadan and Covid-19
The first case of Covid-19 was reported in December 2019, although evidence later suggested that it had begun circulating as early as November 2019. By the time Ramadan came that year, the World Health Organization had declared the public health outbreak a “global public health emergency,” the United States had declared a national emergency, and more than one-third of humanity was under a lockdown. The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives, including religious traditions like Ramadan. Many of these traditions help build community, which has not been possible under the pandemic restrictions. As a result, religious communities have had to get creative.
By March 2020, Covid-19 had spread rapidly across the world, including in the United States. In response, country after country instituted tight lockdowns and restrictions to stop the spread of the disease. Last year, Ramadan lasted from April 23rd to May 23rd. For many people, it began in the middle of the lockdown.
As a result, many Ramadan traditions were canceled or moved online last year. As of this writing, the FDA granted emergency approval to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines; the Johnson and Johnson vaccine has submitted its data to the FDA for emergency approval. Despite the vaccines and lower case counts, officials are still concerned that the United States could experience another Covid-19 surge. We still need to be careful, and it is unlikely that we will reach herd immunity by April 12th, the beginning of Ramadan. With all of this in mind, these traditions will likely change again this year.To get a better idea of how the pandemic will affect this year’s celebrations, let’s take a look at what happened last year.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), virtual activities were (and still are) preferable for social and religious gatherings. Social distancing of at least six feet and wearing masks were (and still are) necessary precautions to take to reduce the spread.
As a result of the pandemic, countries around the world reacted in different ways:
Egypt banned all Ramadan activities, including group Iftars and charity tables.
Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore banned Ramadan bazaars, which negatively impacted small businesses that heavily relied on Ramadan sales.
Many countries banned group prayers and temporarily closed mosques.
Jordan suspended special evening Tarawih (pro. tah-RAW-wih) prayers at mosques and encouraged people to offer them at home.
Iran, one of the hardest-hit countries at the time, also encouraged people to avoid group prayers.
Saudi Arabia still held Tarawih prayers, but King Salman ordered them to be shortened and held without public attendance.
Pakistan allowed group prayers at mosques, but everyone had to maintain a distance of six feet from one another, and they were encouraged to bring their own prayer mats.
Jerusalem closed the Al-Aqsa (pro. all-ACK-sah) Mosque compound to Muslim worshippers, but the call to prayer still took place five times a day, and religious workers were allowed entry.
Mosques adapted to the circumstances by live-streaming sermons, Quranic recitations, and prayers. They also organized religious lectures via Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube.
The pandemic also changed Ramadan in other ways. Food consumption usually rises during Ramadan due to the Suhoor and Iftar meals, which leads to a greater demand for food. However, in the early days of the pandemic, there was widespread panic buying and shortages, and many feared that the demand from Ramadan would exacerbate these problems.
There was also a concern that the absence of community-building activities would dampen the spirit of Ramadan. For example, greetings are usually done with hugs and handshakes, Suhoor and Iftar meals are often shared with extended family and friends, and they serve large Iftar meals to the poor at mosques. Due to the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 guidelines, many of these aspects had to be canceled or heavily modified. Handshakes, hugs, and sharing meals in-person were no longer possible. Muslims still found ways to give to the poor, but these methods had to be heavily modified. In some countries, nonprofit organizations delivered individually-boxed Iftar meals to the poor instead of serving them buffet-style in Ramadan tents or mosques. In other countries, however, mosques decided to cancel Iftar meals. Because charitable giving is a crucial part of Ramadan, health and religious experts encouraged people to donate to nonprofit organizations online.
Even though this is not an exhaustive guide, I hope this article gives you a basic understanding of Ramadan. It is a special occasion marked by fasting, history, tradition, food, and community. Even with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Muslims have still found ways to observe Ramadan and make the occasion meaningful while still being safe.
To all of our Muslim readers, have a happy, safe Ramadan!
If you enjoyed this exploration of Ramadan and Middle Eastern Culture, consider taking a language class with ReDefiners World Languages! Not only do we teach languages, but we also teach you about how to navigate cultures, resulting in better-formed global citizens. We offer online and in-person classes in Arabic, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and English. We also offer group classes and individual lessons to meet your learning needs. To learn more about our courses, please visit our website or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.