COVID-19 changed the way we observed our social rituals for the last two years. In Ramadan, our community activities and prayers were altered by physical distancing or closed mosques. However, we only praise and thank Allah for everything for He knows and we know not. May Allah make things easy for everyone who went through a tough time, forgive all those who passed away due to the coronavirus, and give success to the Ummah. Ameen.
Alhamdulillah, as we get back to normalcy, we are reissuing the special issue, in which we have put together the cultural side of Ramadan. Some aspects of our cultures certainly reflect excessive indulgence in food and other worldly delights, which can contradict the purpose of Ramadan. Striking a balance and focusing on the purpose of fasting is necessary to take full advantage of this blessed month.
Al-Madinah al-Munawwarah becomes livelier during Ramadan. During this blessed month, all the markets and shopping centers around the Prophet’s Mosque
ﷺ are crowded with visitors and are opened till late at night.
Ramadan in Madinah, the blessed city of the Prophet ﷺ, is truly amazing. Imagine everyone around you tries his utmost to be as nice as possible, as generous as possible. Muslims standing at the gates of the Prophet’s Mosque
ﷺ invite strangers to break the fast with them. Some people distribute water and dates to those leaving the mosque and others tell each other that they love them for the sake of Allah.
Recitation of the Qur’an is heard from all corners of the city – offices, stores, homes, and cars –all day long. In the evenings, the most beautiful recitations emanate from the sacred mosque for taraweeh prayers.
Finally, in the last ten nights of Ramadan, everyone joins the night prayer at the Prophet’s Mosque striving to have their sins forgiven and hoping to catch Laylat-ul-Qadr.
THE ARABIAN GULF
The people living in the Arabian Gulf – KSA, UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar in particular – share an almost identical culture. With the advent of Ramadan in the Gulf, working hours are reduced, which makes the streets, shopping malls, markets, and entertainment centers quite crowded. Women purchase special spices for this month, prepare milk and rice, and produce clarified butter from the milk of cows and sheep, which they distribute to their friends, family and neighbors.
The Gulf lodges millions of expat residents from various Arab and Muslim countries, who try to replicate the distinctive customs and traditions of their homelands in Ramadan. The citizens, on the other hand, revive their age-old traditions and customs. However, the profession of al-musahhir (the man who used to wake up people for suhoor before daybreak) has completely vanished.
Mosques usually witness an overwhelmingly large number of worshippers. Religious discourses are held either before the time of breaking the fast or after the taraweeh prayer.
Muslims here prepare for Ramadan by buying various traditional food and drinks such as Harees, which consists of mashed wheat mixed with meat, clarified butter and ground cinnamon.
Other essential items on the menu in Ramadan are Thareed, which consists of tiny pieces of bread with gravy poured over it, and Machboos, which is a spicy meat and rice dish.
Muhallabiyyah, which consists of rice and milk topped with saffron and cardamom, Madhroobah and Luqaymaat (sweet dumplings), which is similar to Luqmatul-Qaadhi, and ‘Awwaamah are popular sweets.
After the taraweeh prayer, men meet together for a meal called al-ghibqah and the women also meet after taraweeh for a casual gathering. During al-ghibqah, dishes like Mehammar, which consists of fried fish and rice cooked with sugar, Hareesah and Madhroobah are served.
The ghibqah nowadays is served very late, close to the time of suhoor. In contrast, ghibqah in the past was served not later than ten at night, and contained popular snacks and special sweets.
The people here are known for their generosity and spending in charity during normal days. During Ramadan, charity increases multifold. Iftar, arranged by the wealthy, is served for the needy in all mosques. Besides, when the time of iftar approaches, a variety of snacks is distributed among the fasting people on the road who are unable to reach their homes in time to break their fast.
The streets of Cairo will come alive a few minutes after the sunset adhan, with vendors selling everything from basboosah (a traditional dessert made of semolina flour, yogurt, and coconut) to faanoos (lantern) to jasmine on a string. Colorful paper banners will hang between buildings signaling that the greatest month has come again.
Dried plums, apricots, and dates will circulate the kitchens of the Big Mango city. Children and adults alike will delight in the traditional qamar-eddeen, a thick apricot drink made from sheets of apricot paste. The shelves of food stores will once again be home to the “hair-doughed” kunafah and syrup-drenched qatayif sweets.
Everyday, Egyptians remember the significant aspects of Ramadan by setting up tents and places in the streets where the needy can have iftar for free. The taxi drivers in their old, black-and-white cars are cheerful as they zoom around the Tahreer Square area or down the Alexandria corniche looking for customers.
Being the largest country in Africa with a rich culture and hundreds of tribes, Sudan is a continent in microcosm. Customs and traditions are as diverse and extreme as the country’s climate which ranges from barren deserts in the north to lush rain forests in the south. The people are united in using Arabic as a common language but their cuisine is a blend of the many backgrounds and ethnic groups as well as the foreigners who influenced the country’s history.
Ramadan is eagerly awaited in Sudan and preparations begin weeks in advance and rise to a fever pitch in the last few days before the month begins. Apart from prayers, religious classes and open-air iftar parties, works of charity and other voluntary fund-raisings are common during the month. Life is completely transformed in the country of over 40 million where Muslims are the overwhelming majority.
The tradition of hospitality is as important in Sudan as it is in other Arab countries but it is especially prominent during Ramadan. Immense respect is shown to a guest and communal iftar is widely observed throughout the country. People prefer to take their iftar meals outside in open grounds. The male population of a neighborhood or village assembles in a designated location — usually outside the home of the eldest person or the tribal chief — for iftar and to perform congregational maghrib prayers.
This tradition of open-air iftar is deeply rooted in the society and, according to some elders, it was originally intended to attract travelers and other guests who happened to be passing at sunset. Unfortunately, the tradition is slowly dying out in large cities.
Ramadan has its own special dishes and some of these are found in virtually every household. A Sudanese meal is seldom free of meat. The country is a major livestock exporter. The most common dishes are mulah waika (cooked dry okra) and mulah rob (curdled milk) taken with kisra (omelet-like pancake made of millet or sorghum). The way kisra is prepared differs from one place to another with people in the western part of the country preferring porridge over the thin layers of kisra common in the north. There is also salatet zabadi (cucumber/yogurt salad), shorbet adas (lentil soup) and kofta (ground meatballs).
Sudanese cooking is usually simple with few spices added. Salt, pepper and lemon are the main seasonings. The meal is considered incomplete without shatta — a hot spicy condiment made of crushed red pepper with lemon juice and garlic; it is served with every meal.
In the northern provinces, people prefer gurrasa (thick pancake of wheat flour) taken with mulah bamya (okra lamb stew).
There may be several dishes at the meal but usually no forks and knives are used although spoons are provided. Meals are usually eaten from a common bowl, especially in the case of kisra, porridge and gurrasa.
A common Ramadan soft drink is abreh which may be either red or white. This is a slightly sweetened, refreshing drink made of thin flakes of sorghum flour. Other drinks include lemonade and fruit juice with guava, grapefruit, orange and mango. Because of the hot weather, abreh is served throughout the year.
The iftar meal would not be complete without tea or coffee. Usually, loose tea is used and infused until it is deep red in color; cinnamon is then added. The Sudanese have a distinct way of preparing coffee, which gave the country some of its fame. Known locally as jabana, coffee is prepared by first frying the beans in a special pot over charcoal and then grinding them with cloves and certain spices. The coffee is boiled in hot water and served in tiny cups from a small clay kettle known as aljabana. It is from this word that the process of drinking coffee took its name.
Ramadan in Palestine is far from a bleak time, although the people are under the most trying circumstances imaginable.
At the beginning of Ramadan, purchases are restricted to mostly basic needs such as vegetables and meat – traditional Ramadan sweets like dates and pastries are to be carefully rationed to be able to last through the month.
Gaza’s children light colorful lanterns to celebrate Ramadan, but parents nowadays cannot afford even small toys, as Gaza sinks deeper into poverty. May Allah make it easy for our brothers in Palestine and free them from occupation.
Around 4 am drummers walk round the village from house to house beating their drums and calling on everyone to wake up. Everyone’s favorite for suhoor is soup with tuo zafi, a soft meal made from maize flour.
Just before sunset people gather in mosques and read the Qur’an as they wait for the adhan to mark the end of the fast. People bring fruit and water to the mosque to share with each other and invite friends and relatives to their houses where they share a meal after sunset.
Ramadan is the only month when the members of the family meet, every evening, around a table of delicacies. Women prepare special dishes such as harira, which is rich in calories and spices, and is generally used to break the fast. It is usually followed by dates or honeycombs chebbakia (wafers coated in honey) or brioche (layers of pastry stuffed with fresh cheese and soaked in honey).
Other delicacies include baghrir (Moroccan pancakes), m’semmen (wafers coated with honey and butter), harcha (containing semolina), sellou (an almond mixture ground with flour and other ingredients), caab ghzale (horn of gazelle cake in stuffed layers of ground almonds,) briouate (pastry stuffed with shrimps or meat), and the national drink, the Moroccan mint tea.
For Moroccans, Ramadan is a month of piety, worship, and spirituality, and a festive period as well, especially after iftar.
Children are initiated into fasting during the last ten days and after breaking the fast, boys and young girls dress in beautiful traditional clothes.
In the evening after iftar, most people eat dry fruits with tea and dine on the national dish. For many pious Moroccans, this period is marked by a particular spiritual intensity; they spend their nights reciting the Qur’an.
Ramadan is special in Tunisia, where life takes a different course, marked with special customs and traditions. Families decorate the front of their houses and mosques are given an extra coat of paint. Minarets are lit up with lamps.
Tunisians also call Ramadan the “month of meeting,” because family members find themselves around the same table every day at iftar. Many families residing close to a mosque offer worshippers milk and dates before prayer and the iftar meal after. In cities, caravans of solidarity are organized to provide iftar for the poor and needy.
Mosques are frequently overflowing, they are so full that men, women and young people have to pray in the streets and neighboring public spaces. Women prepare hlalem, a traditional paste used for a soup called bssissa, which is consumed everyday. It is a nutritious mixture of corn, coriander, chick-peas, and olive oil. Another popular dish is brik, a triangular wafer stuffed with eggs, meat or fish and fried in oil.
In Turkey, a typical day during Ramadan starts with drummers walking around the neighborhoods with big double-headed drums to wake up people for suhoor. A common Ramadan rhyme they sing translates to:
Come on wake up
What do you find in this sleep?
Make wudhoo’, perform your prayers
May there be a place in Paradise for you!
Suhoor meal consists of a typical Turkish breakfast, bread and tea. During the day, people go back to their daily routines and there is no special scheduling at the workplace during Ramadan. However, rush hour usually starts earlier during Ramadan because everybody tries to go back home early for iftar.
Cannons are fired, and the adhan starts simultaneously from thousands of minarets, most strikingly in big cities like Istanbul, where the whole city is galvanized. Mosques with more than one minaret are illuminated at night and sayings are written on the ropes stretched between the minarets of mosques. It is a Ramadan art in Turkey called mahya.
Around large mosques, hundreds of vendors start serving cotton candies, sweet corn, roasted chestnuts, pastries, and herbal teas as Iftar to fasting people. At the courtyards of big mosques like Sultan Ahmed, you find enormous book fairs where Turkey’s leading religious publishers present their latest publications.
During the time of the Ottoman Empire, pashas, government ministers, and the rich held community iftars in their homes throughout the month. The homes were opened to the public to feed the poor. Today, however, Ramadan tents are set up in the large squares of the cities. Philanthropic and charity foundations also set up their own Iftar tents and host fasting Muslims.
During Ramadan, there is often more frequent food shopping than usual. Even though there is no set menu for Ramadan, there are still a few special items associated with it. Dates, for example, which Turkish people are oblivious to most of the year, start to be displayed everywhere in great piles. Another Ramadan special is the “pide bread” in the bakeries. This is a flat, soft bread sprinkled with black seeds. People wait in long lines in front of bakeries to get this bread right before the iftar.
A typical iftar menu of an ordinary Turkish home starts with olives or dates to break the fast. The fresh Ramadan bread accompanies the soup. Then come rice, meat and vegetables. Iftar ends with dessert, mostly gullac, and Turkish tea.
People try to recite Qur’an more than usual. Housewives especially get together everyday for small study circles and read at least one part of the Qur’an everyday.
Eid is very special for everyone. It is always a good idea to stay in the mosque from fajr to the Eid prayer because there is usually not enough space for everybody, especially in large cities.
During the Eid days, shops are closed but public transport buses are free for three days as everybody begins the round of visits to family and friends—a tradition which lies at the heart of the Turkish way of Eid celebration.
Even people who were not on talking terms are brought together during the Eid. Children kiss the hands of the adults as an act of respect and get money from them to get Eid gifts for themselves. The elderly give handkerchiefs and Turkish delights to the kids. The night before Eid the minarets of mosques display the mahya: “Elveda Ramazan (Farewell Ramadan)”.
Ramadan traditions vary across the different regions of Albania. Some of the customs of Shkodra in northern Albania are described below.
The lodra sounds and wakes everyone from their sleep. The lodra is a double-ended cylinder drum covered in sheep or goat skin. The drummer hits each end with different sticks, resulting in a two-tone beat.
The drummer is traditionally from the Gypsy community and it is customary to give him food or money in recognition of his vital service. He might also be invited for suhoor or iftar.
There are many similarities between Albanian and Turkish food. However, Albania has some unique dishes like byrek, a flat flaky pastry pie containing meat, spinach or curd, pastiçe, pasta with a milk, cheese, eggs and butter sauce, and petulla, fried dough with sweet or savory filling such as jam, cream sauces or cheese.
The drummer comes around once again to announce Iftar. Iftar is such a strong tradition that they are also offered by some Christians to fasting Muslims and attended by Christians as social gatherings.
Those who know and practice their religion attend the prayers and occupy the mosques throughout Ramadan and attend taraweeh prayers at the end each night.
During the years of strict Communism, all religious practices were banned and the prayer almost disappeared. However, nobody knew if one was fasting and many maintained the fast by giving the excuse that they had previously eaten when offered food during Ramadan.
EUROPE & NORTH AMERICA
In the West and other non-Muslim countries, the mosque performs a different function than it does in Muslim countries. It is more than a place for prayer and the Friday sermon; the Islamic center is the hub of the entire Muslim community. It is a meeting point for friends and the center of excitement during Ramadan. Thus, many break their fast in the mosque rather than at home.
Many large mosques are a cultural melting pot of Muslims from different ethnicities and backgrounds. This creates a truly multicultural Islamic atmosphere, not to mention the international iftar from different cuisines during Ramadan.
Growing Islamophobia in many western countries has made it challenging for Muslims for practice their faith. Muslims are somewhat under pressure to constantly explain themselves and find their place in the society. Hence, Ramadan becomes a time for reaching out to non-Muslims in an act of daʽwah.
Because Muslims are so few in these countries, there are no apparent signs of Ramadan in most places unless one is living in neighborhoods or cities with a high concentration of Muslims.
Muslims invite imams and scholars from Islamic countries and prepare the mosques to receive a great number of Muslims, who come to perform the taraweeh prayer and attend lectures during Ramadan.
There is a great deal of debate over the sighting of the new moon and the beginning of fasting, in view of the differences among the Islamic blocs over the method of verifying the sighting of the crescent. Some organizations have resorted to calculation methods and predetermined Ramadan dates for many years to come. It is difficult to determine the first day of fasting in the absence of a unified decision-making process. Most Muslims prepare for Ramadan based on the institutions they follow.
Masjids in the Balkans witness great crowds in the days of Ramadan as Muslims visit them from everywhere. Yards and playgrounds, like the commercial hub in the middle of Sarajevo, witness a great number of people praying. Luminous balconies of minarets and vividly decorated shop windows sparklingly illuminate Sarajevo. In Mostar, Muslims pray in thirty-seven different places.
The Mufti of Mostar leads the worshippers in prayer in the cultural center of the University of Mostar. In Zvornik, the Mufti of the Eastern province of Bosnia leads people in prayer in the largest Masjid in the region.
Masajid in Bosnia witness an unparalleled attendance of youths and adolescents, with young people occupying the first rows when performing the five prayers and taraweeh. Many have iftar at the masjid before performing the maghrib prayer.
Just before sunset people crowd into Bascarsija Market to break fasts, and they can hardly find free seats in already full restaurants.
The recitation of the Qur’an after dawn in Begova Mosque, which is the central mosque in Sarajevo, is a tradition preserved for centuries now. The tradition has never ceased to be carried on even during the intensive skirmishes of the war in 1990 as well as during the communist era.
At dawn people head towards the mosques to perform fajr prayer. There are also women as many as men joining the congregation. Women pray in separate places reserved for them.
In Baghdad, people would be awakened by the sound of a man walking the streets shouting “Suhoor, suhoor!“, in an effort to wake up his fellow believers for the pre-dawn meal. Neighborhood children also come knocking on doors with their faanoos (lantern) – a personal wake-up call in exchange for some sweets.
In the minutes leading up to the Maghrib adhan, the smell of barbecue wafts through the city, as most people cook their kebabs out on the grill. Those who are breaking their fast eat some dates and yogurt first, then after offering the prayer in the mosque, return for soup and kebabs. Residents send whatever food they have made to their neighbors, so no one goes hungry in Ramadan.
Ramadan in the largely desert country of Turkmenistan is a different thing altogether. Due to living for decades under oppressive Communism, many Muslims in Turkmenistan and other countries of the former Soviet Bloc did not freely celebrate Islamic occasions.
Muslims in Turkmenistan comprise an 87 percent majority and many of them fast and live the month as if it were their last. They celebrate the Gadyrgijesi, or the Night of Nights, the night in which the Noble Qur’an was sent down. In Ramadan 2001, in response to the requests of local Muslim elders, Eid al-Fitr was declared a day off.
The iftar in Turkmenistan usually consists of herb-filled pastries and cornmeal pancakes, porridges with beans or pumpkin, or rice pilaf with dried fruit. There is no abundance of restaurants, so the food will be bought in the markets or cooked at home. Ramadan in Turkmenistan is somewhat sober and is spent focusing on family affairs and remembrance of Allah.
The excitement starts when people first catch sight of the Ramadan moon. There is a hustle and bustle in the streets deep into the night as people start preparing for the month of fasting by stocking up on essentials. The men head to the mosques for taraweeh prayers, while the women start preparing the suhoor (pre-dawn) meal.
To wake everyone up for suhoor a man tours the neighborhood before dawn, banging on an empty tin. The noise is loud enough to rouse people. The tin he uses is a cheap replacement for the more traditional drum.
Most Pakistanis prefer something substantial for breakfast, such as paratha (buttery flaky flat bread) eaten with a curried dish of their choice. Jalebis (crisp fried orange spirals soaked in sugar syrup) in milk are also a favorite. Whatever the choice of breakfast, it is always followed by tea.
Food shops and restaurants generally open during suhoor time then close for the day, only re-opening around at sunset.
Normal working hours change in Pakistan so that people go to work earlier than normal in order to return in time for iftar.
For Iftar, every home is sure to have pakoras (fried vegetable fritters) to open the fast, in fact iftar would be incomplete without them! People also enjoy fruit chaat (spiced fruit salad), dhai bhaley (spicy dumplings in yoghurt), and samosas.
Restaurants have special menus for suhoor and Iftar, so many people go out to eat during Ramadan. After the Iftar meal, men go to pray taraweeh prayers at the mosques, while women may gather in a local house to pray together. Everyone returns home to finish the day with tea.
Muslims have a special history in India. Muslims ruled India for hundreds of years before the British and have positively influenced every aspect of life in the country. Muslims come from various backgrounds and cultures within India itself. While every Indian Muslim culture has its own flavor, we chose for this article Ramadan in the popular city known for its biryani, Hyderabad.
During Ramadan, homes and streets are filled with a hustle and bustle that is different from the usual grind of daily life. Ramadan here has a flair that is lively in the evenings and quiet and almost lulled during the day. In fact, most shops and restaurants close during the day, only to open a few hours before the iftar.
While men spend their days visiting the masjid for each of the five prayers, the taraweeh prayer and even spending a few nights in iʽtikaaf, women spend their time in worship within the home and are busy cooking special iftar, suhoor, and dinner meals. Ironically, though Ramadan is about abstaining from food and drink during the day, much of the day could be spent preparing meals and making accommodations for the Eid celebration, which includes grand feasts of elaborate dishes and sweets.
Women begin preparing the meals and the clothing for Eid even as Ramadan has just begun. Part of this is because of an old tradition, when resources were scarce and needed to be stockpiled, and part of it is just sheer excitement of an upcoming blessed holiday.
Women and girls may spend a great deal of time deciding what they will wear for Eid, gathering clothes and jewelry in anticipation of the big day. Also, the Eid festivities require a great deal of food, especially when one intends to feed extended family and friends, and send food and sweets to neighbors. Therefore, many households in Hyderabad bustle with cooking and cleaning processes all month long, not just from the day-to-day meal preparations, but from the upcoming Eid celebration that could be weeks away.
But let not the Hyderabadi’s appreciation for good food and dress fool you; their worship and dedication are just as energetic and vibrant as their biryani (a rice pilaf). In Hyderabad, culture plays a large role in how Ramadan is spent. Many men will spend the end of the month traveling from one local mosque to another, ensuring that they witness and participate in as many taraweeh prayers as possible.
During the last days of Ramadan, the shopkeepers distribute the clothing in front of their shops for free to the needy as Eid gifts (as a form of charity).
Malaysian Muslims receive the month of Ramadan with great joy and unequalled happiness. They change their style of living during this honorable month. Reciting the glorious Qur’an, remembering Allah and staying at mosques are their main concerns. Muslims exchange congratulations on the advent of Ramadan. On this great occasion, local authorities sprinkle streets with water, prepare clean yards and public squares and hang electric lamps in the main streets.
As for the way of receiving Ramadan in the countryside, Muslims here celebrate the occasion through gathering at mosques and congratulating one another. The rich and well-to-do traders normally arrange iftar feasts at mosques and in the streets.
All family members attend prayers in the mosque regularly. Schools for teaching the Qur’an are widespread all over the country. The government encourages these schools to intensify their courses during this month. They teach Fiqh, Tafseer, Aqeedah, Arabic language, and the Qur’an. Malaysians conclude the month of Ramadan with completing the recitation of the Qur’an not only in mosques and schools, but also on TV and Radio. They then start preparations for Eid al-Fitr.
Muslims are about 15% of Singapore’s population. Every year during Ramadan, the Geylang Serai (a replica of a Malay village with traditional houses of olden times) comes alive with street bazaars after taraweeh prayers. Most Muslims live or gather here so it is always filled with large crowds. The street bazaars and night market are called ‘pasar malam’ and are filled with people selling festive items.
A wide variety of food is also sold at the bazaar. This includes kueh-mueh (Malay cakes and pastries), otah-otah (grilled fish paste in banana leaves), cakes, buns, breads, curry, noodles and delicious curry puff pastries. During the night, the whole place is lit up with glittering lights and decorations, giving the area its much-cherished ethnic flavor.
The Jalan Sultan area of the city is another hub of activity during Ramadan. The oldest mosque in the city, Sultan Mosque, is a national monument. The whole area is decorated with bright lights and a wide variety of food is sold.
Most Muslims buy food in Geylang Serai or Jalan Sultan to bring home for iftar or suhoor. Even non-Muslims enjoy this festive season.
One dish which is only served during Ramadan is a rice porridge cooked in every mosque to give out to Muslims after ʽasr prayers.
When the sun sets on the first day of Ramadan, Muslims in South Africa gather in huge groups to eat elaborate iftar while dressed up in their best attire.
Many eat iftar out since there is an abundance of halaal restaurants especially in Durban, Capetown and Johannesburg.
Most Muslims living in South Africa are of Indian descent because colonists brought their ancestors over from Gujarat and other regions of India to work on sugar cane plantations. Their iftar is no longer mere traditional Indian dishes but a mix of everything from pasta to curries to brownies.
Other Muslims came from Indonesia and Malaysia to reside in the Cape Town area, where their traditional spices and cooking have found way into mainstream Capetonian cuisine. The salty, seaside breezes of the Waterfront Cape remind believers of the Greatness of their Creator.
Although the new government has been in place for more than a decade, one remnant of apartheid remains. Mostly everyone in South Africa has been brought up surrounded by his or her own kind of people, so communities still tend to keep to themselves, including Muslims from different backgrounds.