Photo by HAMEED ULLAH on Unsplash
Every year members of the faith of Islam observe the holy month of Ramadan in commemoration of the revelation of the Quran to the prophet Muhammad. The period of observance takes place within the 9th month of the Islamic or Hijri calendar, which being a lunar calendar is subject to changes every subsequent year.
In 2019 Ramadan began this Sunday last, the 5th May and will continue until Tuesday June 4th, so here are some interesting facts about the holy month;
in Arabic the word Ramadan means ‘burning’, and might be considered to relate to the burning of an empty stomach as a result of the obligatory observance of fasting during the month. The fast, or Sawm, which in English means ‘abstain’, is practiced between dawn and sunset and is probably the most commonly known practice of observance undertaken by Muslims at this time.
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Perhaps less well known is that fasting extends beyond the refraining from eating and drinking during the period to include abstinence from sexual intercourse, which might include any kissing that could be considered motivated by desire, since the fast is essentially a time to control the urges of the body in devotion to Allah.
Exemptions from Sawm are only permissible if travelling, for the elderly, sick or if pregnant or in menstruation, but must be compensated by making a donation to the needy known as Fidyah. This differs from Kaffara, which is a similar donation but made for reasons of deliberate breaking of the fast.
During Ramadan a Muslim will strive to increase their Taqwa, which is Arabic for the cognisance of God or truth by acts of piety. Charitable works and good deeds are undertaken in addition to fasting, all in an effort to purify not just the body but also the soul and to create equilibrium between the inner and outer being of the individual.
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Evening attendance at mosque is increased during Ramadan with nightly prayers called Tarawih being undertaken, although this is not mandatory and more people will come together communally in the evenings for iftar, the early evening meal that breaks the daily fast.
Standard obligations under Shari’a law to refrain from lustful thoughts, conflict and fighting, as well as ignorant and offensive speech are further re-enforced during Ramadan.
Considered a guidance for mankind, the Quran is said to have been revealed first to the prophet Muhammad during Ramadan. This is marked by Laylat Al Qadr, the holiest night of the year.
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In a significant example of petitio principii, evidence for this occurrence is detailed in the Quran. Although that may be enough to give logicians nightmares for Islamic theologians and Islam in general this forms the foundation of observance of the practices undertaken during this time in respect of the divinity of the revelation.
Some historical scholars however, cite earlier examples of practices including fasting that pre-date the birth of Islam which occurred around 747CE, as evidence that the foundation principles are adaptations. As with all things theological, debate rages on the veracity of all claims.
During the month it is traditional to greet one another with well wishes by saying ‘Ramadan Kareem’, meaning “have a generous Ramadan” or ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ which translates to “A blessed Ramadan”. At the finale of Ramadan it is customary to say instead ‘Eid Mubarak’.
A tradition of lantern decorating known as Fanous, a term transliterated from the Greek is also common. Popularised for use during Ramadan in Egypt during the caliphate of Al-Muizz Lideenillah 953-975CE, these oil or candle burning lamps have a much older origin reaching back to festivals in ancient times honouring early Kemetian gods including Horus, Isis, Seth & Osiris.
Fanous - Lanterns burned at Ramadan
Fanous are said to symbolise hope being both a ‘light in the darkness’ and representing ‘the light of the world’.
In non-Arabic countries such as Malaysia or the country with the largest Muslim population, Indonesia, various practices occur during Ramadan dependent upon regional customs.
These include a parade in the Javanese city of Semarang which involves a representation of the mythical Warak ngendog, a hybrid creature with elements of horse, rhino, dragon, giraffe, goat and bird, the bathing in hot springs in a ritual known as Padusan, and in Jakarta the setting off of firecrackers.
In some countries, particularly the Gulf states, failures to observe particulars of Ramadan are punishable with fines or even prison time. Under the Salafi of Saudi Arabia one might also expect to be flogged or even deported in the event of failed observance.
- Regional Difference
Due to its spread to many regions of the world beyond the area of its founding in the Middle East, the month of Ramadan and its observance of fasting between the hours of sunrise and sunset presents greater challenges for those Muslims living in less equatorial regions, such as Iceland, Norway and New Zealand.
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Muslim communities in these countries sees vast differences in duration from the average fast time of 11-16 hours with daylight in the northern cities lasting up to 22 hours or even occasions of continuous night or day, with barely 11 hours reached for some antipodean locations.
Allowances are made for these extremes by permitting those located in these areas to be guided by the sunrise and sunset of the nearest city, or simply to observe instead ‘Mecca’ time.