Ramadan, Islam’s holy month of fasting, has been observed and celebrated by Muslims around the world for more than 14 centuries. In the seventh century, Prophet Muhammad stated that Islam is built upon five pillars and that fasting in Ramadan was one of them. Today, nearly a quarter of the world’s population mark or observe the fast during daylight hours, giving great respect to the Islamic month in which the holy book of Islam, the Quran, was revealed to the Prophet.
What does Ramadan mean?
Ramadan literally means ‘intense heat’, denoting the scorching summer month to which it was originally ascribed. It formed part of the pre-Islamic Arab calendar well before Islam came to Mecca, the holy city in today’s Saudi Arabia, in the seventh century.
Muslims embrace Ramadan as the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Moonsighting – the practice of spotting the new moon on the first night of each Islamic month with the naked eye – is a tradition that has endured to this day, as Muslims across the world wait in anticipation and excitement for the birth of the Ramadan moon.
The practice of fasting was familiar to the pre-Islamic Arabs, as the Quran mentions: “You who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may be mindful of God.” (Quran 2:183)
It was during Ramadan that the very first revelation of the Quran occurred. This took place in 610 AD, when Muhammad retreated to a cave on Mount Hira on the outskirts of Mecca for secluded contemplation. The timing of this initial revelation is given special significance as the “night of power”: “We have revealed it (Quran) in the night of power. And what will explain to you what the night of power is? The night of power is better than a thousand months.” (Quran 97:1–4)
The Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad over a period of 23 years, and the verses instructing Muslims to fast the entire month of Ramadan came in the latter half of that period. During the first 12 years in Mecca, the Muslim minority faced torture, tyranny and persecution from the Qurayshi ruling pagan tribe, with many losing their lives. The surviving Muslims migrated to the city of Medina in 622 AD, over 300km away. Two years later, the verses about fasting in Ramadan were revealed, with Prophet Muhammad establishing the holy month’s practices in the sanctuary of their new home.
How did the practices of Ramadan begin?
The early Muslim community would awake for the pre-dawn meal, known as suhoor, and refrain from eating, drinking and marital relations until sunset, when they broke their fast (iftar), typically on dates. As well as spiritual discipline and increased worship, fasting placed a strong focus on improving behaviour, as Prophet Muhammad stated: “If a person does not avoid false talk and false conduct during the fast, then God does not care if he abstains from food and drink.”
During the final years of his life, Prophet Muhammad began to perform extra night prayers in Ramadan called taraweh. His companions started joining him in the mosque and as the numbers grew, the Prophet became concerned they would regard it an obligation, so he continued his prayers alone at home. Ten years after the Prophet’s death, the leader of the Muslims, Caliph Umar saw Muslims scattered around the mosque praying the extra night prayers in separate groups, and established a congregational prayer to unify their worship. Since that time, congregational taraweh has become a defining feature of Ramadan, and one through which the Quran is recited in its entirety.
One particular dietary development that aided worshippers to perform the long night prayers was coffee – possibly derived from the Arabic word qahwa originally meaning wine, or from quwwa, meaning power or strength. When coffee was cultivated in Yemen in the 14th or 15th century, it was first consumed in zawiyas, or spiritual centres, and helped Muslims stay alert for their nightly Ramadan vigil.
How has the observation of Ramadan changed through history?
While the core rituals and significance of Ramadan have remained unchanged since 622, the spread of Islam over the globe gave texture and diversity to the global Ramadan experience. In Ottoman times, drummers in Turkey woke people for the pre-dawn meal, and similarly in Morocco, a nafar (town crier) dressed in traditional Moroccan robe and leather slippers roamed the streets rousing people to the sound of an instrument, like a horn, trumpet, or daff. These special Ramadan callers were also to be found in Syria, and future Tunisia and Algeria.
In Egypt, a Ramadan lantern or fanoos, probably originating during the Fatimid dynasty of the 10th-12th centuries, became a symbol of the sacred month – perhaps to symbolise the spiritual light and blessings that Ramadan brings. Today, intricate lanterns are seen lighting up homes, shops and lining the streets. Egypt was also said to have instigated the ‘iftar cannon’, or ‘midfa al-iftar’, where a cannon was fired to dramatically announce the time for breaking the fast. This tradition is said to have begun around 200 years ago, although some historians trace it further back to the Mamluk period of the 15th century, when the sultan in Cairo was test-firing a new cannon at the time of sunset prayers. Locals thought the sultan was signalling the time to break their fast, and seeing how much joy it brought his people, the sultan made it a daily Ramadan routine.
Ramadan also entered the sphere of poetry and captured the imagination of Sufi poets, acting as their muse while they penned love poems to the holy month. The famous 13th-century Persian Muslim mystic poet and scholar, Jalaluddin Rumi, wrote: “O moon-faced Beloved, the month of Ramadan has arrived. Cover the table and open the path of praise.”
Prophet Muhammad stipulated that the Muslims feed the poor in this month. Towards the end of Ramadan, zakat-al-fitr, or ‘alms of the breaking of the fast’, was a duty on every able Muslim, and equated to a portion of dates or barley given directly into the hands of the poor. Over time, the bartering system translated into a monetary one, and now a Muslim gives a minimum of £5 to mosques or charities for distribution to the poor on their behalf.
It was incumbent that the zakat-ul-fitr be distributed before the festival of breaking the fast, known as Eid ul-Fitr, which marks the close of Ramadan. Prophet Muhammad appointed it as a day of community and celebration, beginning with a special communal prayer. It was tradition to begin the day with eating something sweet, which has given rise to the fond nickname of the ‘Sweet Festival’, or ‘Sweet Eid’. In the Prophet’s time, Eid morning began with a simple breakfast of dates, but the spread of Islam through different lands departed from the humble beginnings and gave rise to a variety of sweet dishes. Like sheer-kurma, a milky dessert of vermicelli, nuts and dates which is popular in the Indian subcontinent, or cambaabur, the Somali Eid bread covered with sugar and yoghurt.
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What was initially practiced by around a hundred early Muslims in the seventh century is now emulated by 1.8 billion people around the world, who continue to follow the Prophetic tradition while marking Ramadan in their own culturally unique ways.
Remona Aly is a journalist and broadcaster with a focus on faith, lifestyle and identity. She is also director of communications for Exploring Islam Foundation.
In 2020, depending on the sighting of the moon, Ramadan is expected to begin in the evening of Thursday 23 April and will end on Saturday 23 May.
This article was first published on HistoryExtra in April 2020