A religious observance of devotion as well as a cultural exploration of beliefs instilled in the whole of humanity, an observance of fasting as exemplary as the celebration of feasting, the month long experience of Ramadan might be exclusively Islamic but it surely is one of the most amalgamating of all experiences on earth. Most notable in its fasting and feasting traditions, Ramadan however incorporates however many other aspects that are as interesting and as integral to its essence. Dwelling in diverse elements and continuing through many beliefs and customs and rituals and practices, Ramadan though is celebrated throughout the world in its universal identity of pious goodwill. Here’s how this most popular of religious observances spans out in its traditions all over the globe-
One of the most common of symbols associated with Ramadan, so much so that it bears even the marker of identity in its name is some sort of a traditional lantern, the Fanous Ramadan. Originating in Egypt but now a dominant cultural element of the Islamic world particularly during its month of uncompromising devotion, the Fanous dates back centuries ago. Believed to have originated during the times of the Caliph Al-Muizz Lideenillah when he was greeted by lantern holding Egyptians upon his arrival at Cairo during Ramadan, these intricately patterned folk lanterns are believed to symbolise untiy and joy.
Developed from the torches used in the Pharaonic festivals celebrating the rising of the star Sirius, the fanous had evolved from being a symbolic display of reverence and goodwill to encompass within its light other pure, feel- good aspects of Ramadan. It is particularly delightful a sight to cherish every Ramadan of children walking the streets with their lanterns, singing merrily while asking for gifts and sweets, in a unique crossover with another uniquely traditional way of the celebrations.
In the ever vibrant expanses of the subcontinent of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the celebration of Ramadan sees its culmination in a manner that is very distinctive and joyful. The sighting of the new moon that marks the end of Ramadan and the setting in of the Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations have been interpreted in a rather celebratory manner by Muslims from the Asian subcontinent. Grand and happy and lively celebrations marks the period of the night after the final iftar when families and friends gather in open areas to sight the new moon and wish each other chaand raat mubarak.
People throng markets, even as particularly enthusiastic women and girls gets into the spirit of the festivities by donning mehendi on their hands and feet even as they round up their shopping for pretty fares of dresses and bangles and jewelry and bags. Gifts and sweets are also bought, for sharing with near and dear ones, and are also prepared at home for the next day celebrations of the all important occasion of Eid. Bustling cities come to a life even more vibrant, late at nights, as shops decked up with festive lights and stuff remain open till late, crowded by revelers and the like, in a socio cultural celebration of Ramadan that is almost akin in its cheer and vibe to the more globally popular phenomenon of the Christmas Eve.
A Ramadan ritual that happens to be more spiritual than celebratory stems from the nation of Indonesia. Every Ramadan, Indonesians undergo a purification of the body and mind, in a tradition that is known as padusan. Particularly in the region of Javan, from the dialect of which the name of it derives as well, padusan is a beautiful amalgamation of the cultural and the religious. Before the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, Javanese Muslims purify themselves by plunging into streams or waterfalls and bathing in the cold water, thereby symbolically purging themselves free from all impurities. Springs hold a spiritual significance in Javanese culture and the beginning of Ramadan only further embodies this deep connect of the soul as every Muslim person perform the ritual of cleansing the soul and body for a more religious experience of fasting and prayer.
Haq Al Laila
If you thought a Chaand Raat reminiscent of Christmas would be the only cross cultural element defining Ramadan, think again. In the UAE, Ramadan sees close links with Christianity again, courtesy the tradition of Haq al Laila. Very closely interpreted as the custom of trick-or-treat, this however is a celebration that finds expression not during the holy Islamic month but rather on the 15th day of the month before.
Considered very integral to the Emirati national identity is this vision of brightly dressed young boys and girls going about neighbourhoods, singing and frolicking, as they collect sweets and nuts in tote bags called kharyta, invoking the blessings of Allah for one and all. As a tradition that is aimed at making children more aware about the importance of Ramadan in the Islamic world, Haq Al Laila perhaps is one of the most standout traditional observances of it, dwelling in a space where the desire for devotion and the celebration of it synchronises so perfectly.
Midfa Al Iftar
Translating literally as the Cannon for Breakfasting, Mifda al Iftar is one of the most ancient of traditions so important to Ramadan in Egypt and across the Middle East, particularly Lebanon. With a history that is as peculiar and interesting, the Midfa al Iftar traces its origins to an accidental shot at sunset fired by Mamluk ruler Khosh Qadam while testing a new cannon, unintentionally leading his people to interpret it as a new signaling of the end of the day long fast. Even hailed by the Egyptian masses for what they considered a new innovation, the Ottoman king soon came to make this a tradition, also upon prodding by his daughter Hajja Fatimah for the same.
Interestingly, Hajja Fatimah is also the term by which this tradition goes locally, even as it made its way across other countries in the Middle East over time after its inception some two centuries ago. Though once feared lost after cannons came to be confiscated as weapons, the tradition has since then be revived and continued, making for quite an unlikely way of going about the Ramadan month in all its uniquity.
Just as integral as the breaking of the fast with Iftar in Ramadan is also the commencement of it after the early morning ritualistic meal of sehri. While waking up for sehri in itself encompasses a lot of the devotion that Muslims pursue in their observance of the day long fast for a whole month, there have been traditions in the Arab world that facilitate this moment of significance throughout Ramadan. In many countries like Jordan and Egypt as well as others, it is the Mesaharaty or the night caller who goes about this ritualistic calling of all Muslims to wake up and have their sehri before dawn. A quintessential Ramadan drummer, who walks about the neighbourhood streets softly beating out his drum while chanting traditional songs as a very symbolic gesture of community feeling and unity, all rooted in the ultimate reverence for Allah.
Also known as Al Tabbeil in other parts of the world, the Mesaharaty does it all without any regard for monetary compensation, but it still is customary to reward him with gifts at the end of Ramadan for his dedicated efforts throughout the entire length of the month. Moroccans know this sehri caller as the nafar, who dresses up in the traditional attire of a gandora, slippers and a hat while going about his morning duties. Dating back to the 7th century when a companion of the Prophet Muhammad would roam the streets at dawn singing melodious prayers, the nafar is still known by other names like the sehriwalas in India, old Delhi to be more specific, where they go about with sticks and canes knocking on the doors of houses to wake people up, in what is the continuation of a centuries old tradition.
Somewhat similar to the Haq al Laila in essence though occurring during the month of Ramadan itself, precisely on the 14th day of it is the Kuwaiti tradition of Garangao or gerga’aan. Celebrated since the earlier times two weeks into the fasting spree, the fun occasion sees traditionally dressed children roam about neighbourhoods after the iftar meal, singing and seeking out gifts and sweets, as an endearing means of spreading love, happiness and affection among adults and children.
Derived from the Gulf word Gara, meaning a click or snick, the sound of iron pots carrying the sweets hitting each other while serving the sweets, this really enticing celebration of Ramadan is also known by other names in other countries like Karkee’aan or Qariqaan in Saudi Arabia, Garangashoch, At-Tablah or Qarnakosh in Oman and Barrat by Kurds. Religious as well, the celebration is as significant as it marks the birth anniversary of Imam Hasan ibn Ali, the second Imam in Shia Islam, and is therefore celebrated also in mosques by holding religious sermons, as well as through carnival like celebrations in much of the capital cities of Eastern Arabia. Another reason Gerga’aan is so significant is that because it was one of the first observances of Ramadan in Islam beginning when Fatima, the first daughter of Prophet Mohammed, distributed sweets to people two weeks into the holy month.
Roadha Mas isn’t really an exclusive Ramadan tradition as such. In fact, it is what Ramadan is known as locally in the picturesque region of Maldives in South Asia. But what makes this mere translation of the Islamic month of reverence and fasting a really unique marker of the underlying spirit is the mode of its observance.
While cleaning and decorating home and preparing for feasts and food indeed are a part of Ramadan celebrations in Maldives, much like everywhere else, the experience in this archipelagic nation is somewhat varied. Reciting of Ramadan centric poetry called Raivaru by poets are a distinct part of what encompasses Roadha Mas, with the Maldivian traditional form of poetry in its distinct rhythmic pattern and of course in its exclusive Ramadan identity making for a huge chunk of the cultural experience of the spiritual experience in the country. Amore universal experience of Ramadan is Maldives would be the feasty celebration of Maahefun, where Muslims celebrate the taking of their last meal with family and friends before the advent of the month long period of rigorous fasting.
Al Siniya and Mheibes
Iraqi customs during Ramadan that are a unique expression of observance there is most standout in the playing of a couple of traditional games. Most popular is the game of Al Siniya where men gather after the Iftar meal to play this game of The Tray with family and friends. Played out between two teams with a dice hidden under one of the several overturned copper cups on a tray, Al Siniya is different played out also as Mheibes or the ring game in other parts of Iraq where the players have to guess the person who is holding the ring secretly, based entirely on body language. A game of deceit then, in whatever way it is played out, this secret play is what makes Ramadan celebrations all the more varied and interesting in the Middle Eastern country.
Perhaps more spiritually significant than culturally celebrated is Ramadan in Indonesia that sees yet another very dignified tradition relating to it. Known as nyekar, this is a ritual that precedes the fasting exercise by a week and sees Javanese Muslims visiting the graves of their dead ancestors and relatives to seek their blessings, by offering flowers and praying. Another related ritual is the nyandran where Javanese also make food offerings to God and the dead while visiting the graves, even as they seek the blessings of Allah for fortune and good health. Much like the padusan tradition of purification, the nyekar ritual is also one emblematic of the belief of spiritualism so deeply embedded within the Javanese culture.