Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Ramadan, the Holiest Month for Muslims

Ramadan sudan
Sudanese men sit together as they are served Iftar (fast breaking meal) at sunset during Ramadan, at their protest outside the army headquarters in the capital Khartoum on May 10, 2019. Photo: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED / AFP

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim or Hijri calendar and the holiest month for Muslims. It has a central place in their lives spiritually, historically and culturally. During Ramadan, Muslims around the world hold rituals and ceremonies that are not held in other months of the year. Some of these rituals and ceremonies are specific to certain countries.

‘Ramadan’ is derived from the word ramdaa, which in Arabic means ‘intensely heated stones’ because Ramadan falls in the hottest months. Ramadan has great virtue for Muslims because it is the month when the Koran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in a cave called Hira as he was worshipping in seclusion. The Koran (Surah al-Baqarah, verse 158) says about this event: ‘It was the month of Ramadan in which the Koran was [first] bestowed from on high as a guidance unto man and a self-evident proof of that guidance, and as the standard by which to discern the true from the false’.

Laylat al-Qadr or Night of Power marks the night the first verses of the Koran were revealed to Mohammad. It holds particular significance for Muslims as they believe their prayers are answered on this night, although there is no consensus on exactly when this night falls in Ramadan.

Muslims are obliged to fast during Ramadan – the fourth pillar of Islam – by refraining from eating, drinking, sexual intercourse and other whims between sunrise and sunset, i.e. between the prayers of fajr and maghrib. The exceptions to this obligation are sickness, travel and menstrual periods in the case of women. However, the fasting days missed must be made up at another time of the year or an animal sacrificed for breaking the fast. In the Koran, God says: “Hence, whoever of you lives to see this month shall fast throughout it; but he that is ill, or on a journey, [shall fast instead for the same] number of other days.” In another verse, God says: “O you who have attained to faith! Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, so that you might remain conscious of God.”

Some days during Ramadan have a special status for Muslims due to their association with historical events. One of these is the Battle of Badr, the first war between Muhammad and his followers on the one hand and the Quraysh tribe and its allies led by Amr bin Hisham, on the other hand, in the second Hijri year (624 CE). The battle was named Badr after the place where it took place and ended in victory for the Muslims.

It was also Ramadan when the Muslims fought the Mecca Conquest, when the Muslims expelled by the Quraysh tribe returned to Mecca in the eighth Hijri year (630 CE). Similarly, the Battle of Ain Jalut took place in Ramadan, when Egyptian Muslim forces led by Saif al-Din Qutuz defeated the Mongols in 658 Hijri (1260 CE).

Many of the virtues of Ramadan and the virtues of good deeds therein are mentioned in the Prophet’s Muhammad’s hadiths and the Koran. Therefore, good deeds are done in abundance during Ramadan, especially reading from the Koran and taking part in individual and collective charitable works in Islamic countries. In addition, Muslims observe many more rites and rituals than in other months, such as the tarawih prayer – also referred to as the qiyam (night) prayer – which is performed between the isha and fajr prayers. It is only observed by Sunni Muslims whereas Shia Muslims consider it to be bidah (a false innovation).

Itikaf, the practice of staying in a mosque for a certain amount of time or number of nights, devoting oneself to worship, is widespread during Ramadan. Itikaf is most common during the last ten days of Ramadan, which are believed to be the most rewarding and virtuous days. Muslims who choose to perform itikaf do not leave the mosque until the practice finishes. They spend their time praying and reading from the Koran.

Ramadan starts with the sighting of the crescent moon on the last days of the month of Shaban. The beginning of Ramadan differs from one country to another due to the different dates of the moon. How the month is celebrated also differs between countries. Sudan holds a zaffa celebration on the first day of the month, involving a procession of police officers and musical bands.

In Egypt, people hang decorations in the streets and buy lanterns for children to hang in the streets, a custom that dates back to the Fatimid era. There is also a Ramadan cannon, the firing of which signals the start of iftar, when the fast is broken. Moreover, the country is famous for its charitable iftar banquets, where people serve free food to passers-by, travellers or needy people in the streets. There is also is a tradition of screening special television series known as ‘riddles of Ramadan’. In several countries, including Egypt, a masharati is responsible for waking Muslims before dawn to eat suhur, the meal consumed before fasting begins. The call is a joyful one as the masharati is surrounded by children as he plays a little drum and recites funny lyrics.

In Morocco, Ramadan is also marked by joyful rituals, notably the celebration of children who are fasting for the first time. Laylat al-Qadr is celebrated on the evening of the 26th day of Ramadan, when decorations and music become widespread and girls and women decorate their hands with henna. Young girls fasting for the first time are placed on a small covered seat while boys are put on horseback, all of them wearing traditional Moroccan dress, kaftans for girls and djellabas for boys.

Special foods and drinks are typical for Ramadan. In Egypt, tamarind and liquorice are widely consumed, in the Levant they drink jullab (fruit syrup), in Morocco a lentil and chickpea soup called harira as well as nuts and dried fruits. Sweets are also common, such as kunafa in Egypt and shabakiyah in Morocco. Families often gather to share meals.

Before the end of Ramadan, every Muslim must pay zakat al-Fitr in the form of food and money to the community. The value of the donation paid is determined annually in each country according to that country’s standard of living.

Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan and takes place on the first three days of Shawwal, the month following Ramadan. It is characterized by manifestations of happiness as Muslims celebrate their fulfilment of the fourth pillar of Islam. On the days of Eid, Muslims wear new clothes, and families, neighbours and friends visit each other. The practice of idiyah, giving children money as gift, is prevalent in some countries such as Egypt.

Eid is preceded by Waqfah Night, during which the moon of Shawwal is sighted. This night is also characterized by celebrations and has inspired many artistic expressions. For example, the song ‘On the Night of Eid’ by the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, which centres on feelings of togetherness and joy, can often be heard during this time.