Ramadan is the holiest time for Muslims all around the world, and followers devote all their time this month to fasting from sunrise to sunset, praying, self-reformation and self-reflection, charity and community. Although Muslims from different countries and origins may have cultural and traditional differences, some practices remain the same. Ramadan only commences upon the sighting of the new (crescent) moon. Everyone participates in the pre-sunrise meal, Suhoor or Sehri, ensuring that they eat the last morsel before the call to the morning prayer, Fajr. During the course of the day, one cannot eat, drink or smoke. The fast is complete in the evening, at sunset, when the call for the evening prayer, Maghrib, is called out. It is advised to break one’s fast with dates and water, if one doesn’t have dates anything sweet, or simply water will also do. All Muslims pray the special prayer’s for Ramadan at night, that is Tara’weeh. Eid-ul-Fitr, which is the grand feast that marks the end of Ramadan, is celebrated after the sighting of the new moon for the month of Shawwal. These are just some of the many similarities in the cultural and traditional practices related to Ramadan that all Muslims around the world follow, however, every country has its own unique set of traditions and cultural practices that devotees from other countries may have never even heard of. Here are some of the unique and unknown practices that Muslims from different countries participate in during the holy month of Ramadan.
Light it up
Most Islamic countries decorate public squares, streets and mosques with beautiful light displays. This is a way of beckoning the month of Ramadan. It is believed that on the gift night of Ramadan in AD 968, the Egyptian city of Cairo was being visited by the Fatimid caliphs and their way was lit up by hordes of Egyptians holding lanterns (fanoos in Arabic). This is one story on the origin of the use of lanterns and lights during Ramadan, however, another account states that it was one of the Fatimid caliphs who ordered the imams of mosques to light the religious structures as most Muslims spent the night praying there during the holy month. After Ramadan the lights would be stored and kept to use for the next year. In India too, mosques and areas with a majority Muslim population are adorned with lights, and in certain parts where the Muslims are a minority and the adhaan (azaan, call for prayer) for Maghrib isn’t announced, mosques generally light up a green or white light, sometimes even burst a cracker or blow a loud whistle to let the Muslims in the particular area know that it is time to break the fast.
Indonesia has the highest Muslim population in the world and Ramadan is celebrated with much pomp and fervour in this country. Children are often spotted playing with firecrackers, and these play quite a significant role in Ramadan festivities. In Bali and West Java, a sort of reverse Thanksgiving takes place, and people get together and eat while they apologise for their past mistakes to their loved ones. In another tradition called Ziarah, reminiscent of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations, Indonesians from certain parts of the country visit those loved ones who have already passed on. This serves the purpose of remembering and praying for those who have left the world, and also to remember about one’s own afterlife.
Believers from the island of Java, which lies between Sumatra and Bali, bathe in holy springs to prepare for fasting in a ritual called Padusan. In Java’s capital city, Semarang, a model of a Warak ngendog (translating to egg laying bird), a hybrid creature resembling a horse and a dragon, is paraded around during the Dugderan festival, which marks the beginning of Ramadan. The Warak ngendog is a representation of the three Muslim communities in Semarang: Chinese, Arab and Javanese. Toys of the Warak ngendog are also sold during the Dugderan festival.
India and Pakistan
Once the Eid moon is seen at the end of Ramadan, also referred to as Chand Raat by people of Indian and Pakistani origin, women flock to markets to buy colourful bangles and ornaments to match their outfits. They decorate their hands with henna to celebrate Eid.
Waking up with songs
A mesaharati, a dawn caller, beats a drum while walking through neighbourhoods in the Middle East during Ramadan to wake people up for Suhoor, or the pre-fast meal. The kentongan slit drum is used for the same purpose in Southeast Asia. In certain parts of India, like Mumbai and Delhi, this is observed too, where the mesaharati plays songs on the daphli. It is an ancestral tradition in India, and the numbers of mesaharatis here is dwindling. Muslims usually gift the mesaharati money, clothes and food for his services during Ramadan.
Not fasting is a crime
Failing to observe Ramadan fasts is a crime and punishable offense in some Muslim countries, and not just for Muslims but non-Muslims too. Those who are not fasting are expected to eat within the confines of their homes as eating or drinking in public can lead to serious punishments. In Kuwait, those found eating, drinking or smoking will either be fined no more than one hundred Kuwaiti dinar, face a month – no more – of incarceration, or both. The punishment for the same in the United Arab Emirates is up to one hundred fifty hours of community service. However, courts in Saudi Arabia offer the harshest punishments, described by The Economist as taking Ramadan “more seriously than anywhere else”. In Saudi, the punishments for consuming food or drink in public for Muslims range between flogging, imprisonment and can lead to deportation for non-Muslim foreigners.
And if you break your fast before the call to Maghrib prayer in Malaysia, you could be arrested, and the sale of food, drink, or tobacco for immediate consumption can result in a fine of up to one thousand ringgit and six months’ imprisonment. If you are a repeat offender, the penalties too are doubled.
What are some interesting traditions in your country?