RAMADAN, AT ITS core, is a celebration of life. During Ramadan, we celebrate that we are alive to act on the opportunity that Allah has placed before us: to shed the burden of our misdeeds, to earn His pleasure, to better ourselves.
In Ramadan, Muslims all over the world are seizing the opportunity of life, participating in the same forms of worship. And even though our worship if the same, our faith is the same, and our intentions are the same; we, as an ummah, are diverse.
The foods we prepare are vastly different. The languages we speak are many. The clothes we wear are varied. Even the way we gather and celebrate differs. Muslims around the world add their own cultural flare to the holy month of Ramadan.
So, this Ramadan, let’s not only celebrate life; let’s celebrate its diversity. Let’s get to know each other this Ramadan. As God said in the Quran:
O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another … [Surat Al-Hujurat, 49:13]
Ramadan in the Middle East
In the cave of Hira, in the month of Ramadan, in the year 610, the Prophet received the first verses of the Quran, the final message to humanity from Allah. The revelation of Islam had begun and Ramadan traditions would begin to take shape.
Today, Saudi Arabians celebrate the holy month of Ramadan with a heavy emphasis on tradition. Muslims gather around the Ka’ba and some of the largest iftars are hosted in the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and the Haram in Mecca.
In the birthplace of Islam, traditional fashion even plays a role in Ramadan celebration. According to the Arab News, “Jeddawi fashion lovers for once leave their fashionable branded clothing and instead opt for traditional thobes to get into the feel of Ramadan. ‘One of the best things about Ramadan is the clothing. Many women are on the hunt to find the best thobes to wear to family gatherings. We don’t usually wear thobes throughout the year but we always make sure that we wear them during Ramadan so as to uphold its traditional aspect,’ said graphic designer Aseel Jazzar.”
Many people bemoan the thought of Ramadan becoming just another consumer holiday. But in Saudia there is a traditional, religious motive behind the extra consumption during Ramadan. In an interview, Delina Partadiredja, a writer for <aMuslima.com>, asked a Saudi supermarket clerk about the increased spending during the holy month. He made it clear that if families aren’t feeding extended family and guests, they “cook a lot of food then donate it in the mosque nearby. So that people who stop and spend Maghreb in congregation in the mosque would be guaranteed not to starve.”
From the birthplace of Islam, the religion quickly spread through the Middle East to Africa, Asia and to the West. Today each region, each country, each culture enjoys its own way of doing things and this is highlighted with the coming of the holy month.
Ramadan in Asia
According to Chinese Muslims, “Islam was first brought to China by Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas, who came to China for the third time at the head of an embassy sent by Uthman, the third Caliph, in 651, less than twenty years after the death of Prophet Muhammad.”
Today, China is home to 21 million Muslims from a number of different ethnic groups, including the Uygur, Kirgiz, Kazak, and Uzbek. Niujie Street in the southern part of the city of Beijing celebrates the month of Ramadan by decorating “with national flags and red lanterns, and [the street is] thronged by tens of thousands of Muslims issuing from mosques or standing in long queues to buy Muslim food at outdoor stalls.”
Hang Xian, 61 year old Chinese Muslim, says, “Many Muslims share traditional food [such as prepared nuts, cakes, mutton] with their neighbors, and distribute gifts to poorer Muslims.”
In the Southeast Asian country of Malaysia, Islam is the predominant religion of its inhabitants and has been since the 15th century. As early as the seventh century, Muslims traders were doing business in the area and as a byproduct of living Islam the traders introduced Islam to the country.
The faith was slowly and peacefully adopted by the coastal trading people.
Today, Ramadan is observed in a uniquely Malaysian style. At the end of the day of fasting, Malaysian Muslims attend berbuka puasa or iftars. According to Urban Adventures, “in Kuala Lumpur, the mosques around the city will have their own berbuka puasa spreads. They’ll normally have something simple, like a sweet drink, and maybe some dates and kuih, our local cakes […].”
Farah, a Malaysian Muslim tour guide says, “All the hotels put on Ramadan buffets and all the restaurants will be fully booked, and there will be crowds at gerai gerai, our local street food stalls. And when you go to Pasar Ramadhan (the street food bazaar), you want to buy everything because you’re so hungry.”
Najmia Zulkarnain, a Malaysian designer and merchandising executive told Aquila Style, “My day ends with a gathering of close friends and family to enjoy and celebrate each night with prayers and delicious food. Some of my favourite iftar foods are samosas, yoghurt, fruit salad and kebabs. Nothing beats a healthy and wholesome meal!”
The relatively young nation of Pakistan shares its Islamic heritage with that of India. According to Lost Islamic History, “Even before the life of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) in the 600s, Arab traders were in contact with India. … Naturally, when the Arabs began to convert to Islam, they carried their new religion to the shores of India. The first mosque of India, the Cheraman Juma Masjid, was built in 629 (during the life of Prophet Muhammad) in Kerala, by the first Muslim from India ….”
Today, Pakistan is home to the second largest Muslim population in the world and Ramadan is a ubiquitous celebrations. During Ramadan in Pakistan, all work is scheduled around the fast, opening and closing early; all restaurants are closed during sunlight hours; and bazaars are open late to accommodate those who wish to be active during non-fasting hours.
According to the publication Travel & Culture, “an interesting scene that is see[n] in the streets of big cities like Karachi is that 20 – 10 minutes prior to opening of the fast there is usually very fast moving traf[f]ic which suddenly stops and all roads are seen nearly empty just before the Azan (call to prayer) when all people start eating […].”
Asma Mazhar, a Pakistani, feels the tug of her culture during Ramadan as she prepares a traditional dish called fruit chaat. She tells Gulf News, “the recipe that I learned from my grandmother is so simple yet tasty. It is made from guava, banana and orange juice. Then we add ground black pepper, rock salt and sugar. These days we add pomegranate, grapes and a bit of chaat masala or mixed spices to add more flavour to it. This dish is common to India and Pakistan, and it has a strong nutritional value.”
Ramadan in Africa
The conquest of Egypt led by ʿAmr ibn al-ʿAṣ in 639–642 CE was the beginning of the introduction of Islam to the Egyptian people. It was not until the mid-10th century that the country became majority Muslim, as the conquest did not include forced conversion and citizens were allowed, under Islamic rule, to keep their previous faith, if preferred.
Today, Egypt’s population remains predominantly Muslim and an Egyptian Ramadan is celebrated with much fanfare. Perhaps the most well known of Ramadan traditions in Egypt is the fanous or ornate and colorful lantern.
Legend has it that “Egyptians welcomed the arrival of Caliph Mo’ezz Eddin Allah to Cairo in 969 by lighting hundreds of lanterns. Since that time, the fanous has been a staple of the many traditions that characterize the holy month of Ramadan. According to some tales the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, who wanted the streets of Cairo illuminated during the nights of Ramadan. He ordered all the mosques to hang fawani’s (lanterns) that could be lit by candles. Another account tells of the Fatimid Caliph’s going out into the streets to sight the crescent moon of Ramadan, accompanied by children holding fawani’s and sing[ing] Ramadan songs.”
While fanous light up the Egyptian evening once the sun has gone down, Al-Mesarahaty, or night callers, wake up residents for their pre-dawn meals. The Egyptian tradition alerts the sleeping residents of the time for suhur with the beat of a drum.
According to Oglivy Noor, the night caller, “in some small villages […] may even stand in front of each home and call each inhabitant by their name in order to wake them. In larger places he may stand on each street and bang his drum to wake people. One of his traditional songs is ‘Suhur, suhur / Es ha ya nayem/ Wahed el dayem/Ramadan Kareem/ Es ha ya nayem, wahed el Razzaq’ which translates loosely as ‘Wake up you who are sleeping, pray for eternity, Happy Ramadan, God is the One who sends you your sustenance.’”
With a history similar to that of Egypt, Tunisia was introduced to Islam through conquest. According to Zahrah Awaleh’s work The History of Islam in Africa: A Historical Overview, “In 640 CE `Amr ibn Al-`Aas […] assumed other lands of the Byzantine Empire along the Mediterranean, where the peoples had been exploited and non-Romans were second-class citizens. Ibn Abi Sarh […] continued the march across North Africa to Western Tunisia […].”
Today, Islam is observed by 99% of Tunisians and Ramadan has a special place in Tunisian culture. For Wafa Derouiche, her traditional Tunisian dishes make her feel connected to her homeland during Ramadan. Derouiche told Gulf News, “The dishes I prepare during Ramadan, such as brik or chorba, are very Tunisian. Having these meals is a way for me to revive the connection to my country. I invite my friends, who are mostly non-Tunisians in the UAE, and introduce them to my culture. They enjoy it a lot.”
Islam was introduced into South Africa by exiled Muslim rulers. According to The History of Islam in Africa: A Historical Overview, “The Cape of Good Hope was a refreshment station for the Dutch East India Company (DEIC) and a place to send exiled and dethroned rulers from its eastern provinces. Many of these political exiles were some of the first Muslims in South Africa, an example being Sheikh Yusuf of Mucassar (Indonesia). … Sheikh Yusuf is considered the founder of Islam on the Cape of Good Hope.”
Today, Islam remains the religion of a minority of South Africans. But Ramadan enjoys a robust celebration in the country, complete with its own traditions.
In the Germanic language of Afrikaans spoken in South Africa, the word “Maan Kykers” holds special significance for the Muslims awaiting Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. The word literally means “moon watchers.. According to Mvslim, “Ahead of the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims in South Africa wait for the Maan Kykers to spot the moon … The Maan Kykers meet at one of Cape Town’s beautiful high peaks to determine whether Ramadan or Eid is upon us. They’re the first to inform the Muslim community whether Tarawih prayers and Sehri will be observed for the next lunar month. Their confirmation message spreads all over the country.”
Combining the holy month with the most popular sport in the country, many Muslim youths in South Africa spend Ramadan evenings burning off excess iftar fare and youthful energy in indoor football matches. Ramadan football games are a popular staple especially in Johannesburg where young people participate in the nation’s most popular sport on weekends and after tarawih prayers.
Ramadan in Europe
Islam was introduced to regions that would become known as Russia as early as the 7th century. According to The Muslim Observer, “… Islam is an inalienable part of Russian history and culture, given that more than 20 million Russian citizens are among the faithful.”
These 20 million plus Muslims belong to ethnic groups who are indigenous to this Eastern European country, including those from former Soviet regions: Azeris, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz. In a very Russian Ramadan one can find stalls around mosques selling a number of uniquely Muslim wares, including dates, caps, tasbeeh beads, prayer rugs, scarves, and more.
Most Russian Muslims prefer small gatherings with family for light iftars. According to Russian Beyond the Headlines, “in Russia’s predominantly Muslim republic of Tatarstan, Muslims bake pancakes [for Ramadan].”
Islam reached Spanish shores in 711 CE when Muslim forces conquered the Iberian peninsula that is known today as Spain and Portugal. According to the BBC, “Islamic Spain was a multi-cultural mix of the people of three great monotheistic religions: Muslims, Christians, and Jews. … Islam brought a degree of civilisation to Europe that matched the heights of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance.”
Over the next seven centuries, Islam flourished and spread in Spain, until 1492 when Granada was conquered and the inquisition began. Today, the landmarks of Al- Andalus remain, but the Muslim population is a minority at roughly 2% of the Spanish population.
Among this minority Muslim population in Spain, Ramadan is a celebration of immigrants. Against the backdrop of a European country, Pakistani, Moroccan, Sub-Saharan, and Asian cultures are highlighted in the holy month.
Nassir Mehmood told the Associated Press that “[he] and his wife Nazir moved to Spain from Pakistan twelve years ago. […] Nassir explains that […] ‘At the breaking hour of fast we eat dates and drink water and juice. Then we eat vegetables, pakora, chicken curry, and chapatti bread.’”
With many Muslims in Spain away from home and family, Ramadan celebration is centered around the masjid. Amin Villoch, says, “the first day of Ramadan more than 9.000 Muslims gather at the mosques in Madrid to celebrate the breaking of the fast. Ramadan is an important factor in reuniting the community. The Islamic Center of Madrid always prepares many activities during this month for them.”
Ramadan in Latin America
Islam is nothing new to Central and South America. According to Anthropologist Diego Giovanni Castellanos, Muslims explored South America before European Christians, namely Columbus, claimed the Americas for European conquest.
In Guyana, a multi-ethnic republic situated on the northern coast of South America, around 10% of the population is Muslim, many of whom are descended from Indians who were brought over as indentured laborers. Ramadan for the Guyanese Muslims is a time to celebrate religious diversity and harmony in their country, as symbolized by its national motto: “One People, One Nation, One Destiny.”
The Guyanese’s culture is one of celebrating diversity. And in Ramadan, focus is placed on community betterment and religious cohesion. Malcolm Haripaul, Presidential Advisor on Social Cohesion, praised the Muslims during iftar in Ramadan 2016 and “joined hundreds of Muslims and non-Muslims in the annual sharing of the Iftaar and dinner for the month of Ramadan.”
Today, significant numbers of Central and South Americans are coming to Islam. In Mexico, the entire Tzotzil tribe has embraced Islam. During Ramadan, “The tribe has figured out how to respect their new religion while sticking to Mexican traditions […by] eating chicken tacos during their Ramadan fast break.”
In Chile, the South American country that lies on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, the first Islamic institution of Chile, Sociedad Unión Musulmana (the Society of Muslim Union of Chile), was founded in 1926. The Muslim population remains small there, and Ramadan is observed by mostly an immigrant community.
Fareed Maymoun, a Moroccan immigrant to Chile says that Ramadan is different in his home country where families would gather for iftar. In a country like Chile where the Muslim population is small and many Muslims are away from their homelands, Ramadan is more communal.
Maymoun said in his adopted South American home of Chile, “In the mosque a festive atmosphere is evident, people fill the halls and their children run from here to there. You hear kul ‘am wa anta bikhair, to wish many happy returns for the beginning of Ramadan.”
Chilean Muslim have also adopted some Chilean fare in their Ramadan celebration. In the masjid, mote con huesillo, a special traditional Chilean summer-time, non-alcoholic drink made from wheat and peaches, is served to those who are breaking their fast.
Ramadan in North America
It may be a surprise to some, but Islam has been practiced as an American religion for centuries. In fact, Ramadan has been celebrated in America since enslaved African Muslim reached American shores.
According to AlJazeera, “social scientists estimate that 15 to 30 percent, or, ‘[a]s many as 600,000 to 1.2 million slaves’ in antebellum America were Muslims. 46 percent of the slaves in the antebellum South were kidnapped from Africa’s western regions, which boasted ‘significant numbers of Muslims.’”
These Muslims brought with them their faith and struggled to implement acts of worship like Ramadan in this new and harsh reality. According to AlJazeera, “[…] in addition to abstaining from food and drink, enslaved Muslims held holy month prayers in slave quarters, and put together iftars – meals at sundown to break the fast – that brought observing Muslims together.”
Today, Islam in the US is growing by high birth rates, conversion, and immigration rates. This mixture of cultures celebrating the same holy month ensures a variety of traditions are incorporated. According to AlJazeera, “In the US today, Ramadan dinner tables are sure to include staple Arab or Pakistani dishes. Yet, many Muslim Americans will break the fast with tortas and tamales, halal meatloaf and greens. Muslim diversity in the US has reshaped Ramadan into a multicultural American tradition.”
Ramadan in the US is a microcosm of Ramadan around the world as peoples from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East bring their traditions and share in the fare and style of their new homes in the West.
When asked what do you want the world to know about your unique celebration of Ramadan? American convert to Islam, Barbara Forbes-Rhouni, said, “that we [Americans of Irish background] can hold it down during Ramadan, too!” Forbes-Rhouni says that when she has, “made a ‘hot corn’ side dish that is always a hit at the masjid!”
In the US, Canada (and Western Europe) alike, this is typical of many masajid that host diverse communities of Southeast Asian, Arabs, Africans and those of African descent, Latinos, indigenous people, and Caucasians. In Ramadan, diverse communities gather, and culture is shared and enjoyed by all.
While Ramadan entails abstaining from food and drink during the hours of sunlight, many people bring out their old family recipes and in the hours when the sun has set, use these recipes as a way to communicate their uniqueness, the culture, their heritage to any who will join.
As Maria Asaad from Bahrain says, “Food brings people together; it represents our culture and speaks for us as well.” The same can be said for clothing, decoration, and the ways we gather and celebrate. We are all unique and communicate that to the world in brilliant colors. And we can celebrate that while remembering to whom it is we belong and will return.