Lanterns lighting up every street, lush garlands in lively colors hanging at every corner, heart-warming aromas of delicious foods filling the air as the sunset approaches, precious rituals adored and practiced; it’s finally Ramadan again!
As the holy month begins after being awaited by Muslims across the world east and west, various cultures show their true colors through the distinctive celebrations they dedicate to this special time of the year.
In addition to the Ramadan religious rituals that are naturally the same wherever you are in the world, like dry fasting from sunrise to sunset, Tarawih prayers, etc., countries around the world celebrate Ramadan in unique ways that manifest their people’s cultural heritage and traditions.
Let’s start with the continent with the largest Muslim population, Asia. In China, there reside more than 20 million Muslims, mainly located in Zheng Yang and Henan, who break their fast with a meal that consists of two parts. First, tea is consumed followed by thirst-quenching cubes of watermelon. Then, individuals go to Maghreb prayers and come back for the main part of the Iftar meal, usually consisting of fish, rice, and an assortment of veggies and mutton.
In Indonesia, the largest archipelagic country that is home to the largest Muslim population in Asia, Ramadan is very special and celebrated with glamorous traditions. In Buka Bersama, the native word for the meal that breaks the fast, is shared with family and friends, and include plenty of food and drinks that are served only during Ramadan. One of them is the kolak pisang, which is bananas soaked in palm sugar syrup. During the month, bazaars (or pasar amal) are held by charitable organizations, selling goods at discounted prices to help the needy and poor. At the end of the month, Takbiran is a prayer celebration that heralds the Eid El-Fitr holiday, which follows Ramadan. Chants fill the air, praising Allah, and drums beat till dawn in huge public displays of joy.
In Malaysia, Muslims constitute most of the population and its multi-ethnicity, as the number of Muslims is about 12 million people – about 60 percent of the total population. Islam entered Malaysia through trade with Islamic countries and the entry of preachers. Malaysians celebrate the advent of the holy month of Ramadan starting at the end of the subsequent month of Sha’ban. At this time, they begin to buy their food needs and prepare mosques for worshipers and light up the mosques. Regional quarters and local administrations clean the streets and hang electric decorations in key areas. Muslims in Malaysia – men, women, and children, come to Tarawih prayers and burn incense, and spray fragrances in mosques.
The state organizes Quran memorization competitions in all regions and distributes prizes in a grand ceremony to the winners and their teachers. Malaysian Muslims break their fast in their homes or in mosques, where those who are able to, prepare foods that are served in mosques for group Iftars. In rural areas, however, such Iftars are provided in turns, where each person feeds the people of his village one day during the holy month in a tradition that reflects solidarity and compassion.
Among the most famous Ramadan foods in Malaysia is the Ghatri Mandi meal, the most famous Malaysian dish, as well as the “Badiq” which is made of flour, chicken, rice, dates, and oranges. The latter is used so that the fasting person can bear thirst, and provide the body with energy to help it do its work during fasting.
Boys in Malaysia are keen to wear their national clothes during this month, as they put on their rectangular hats, while girls wear long, loose clothes, and a veil. Malaysian families exchange gifts, food, and sweets in this holy month, to strengthen the bonds of love and harmony between them.
In India, the proof of sighting the crescent of Ramadan differs from one place to another due to the presence of Muslims in separate regions of this vast country. Therefore, there is a special legal body of scholars which undertakes to follow the sighting of the crescent of Ramadan. When the sighting is proven, it issues a public statement, and it is announced to Muslims across the country.
As is the case in most Islamic countries during the month of Ramadan, mosques and their minarets are lit, the Qur’an reciting circles multiply, mosques are filled with worshipers, and the lives of Muslims are renewed in this month, which breaks their daily habits and changes much of what they are accustomed to.
Iftar in India usually begins with sips of water if they do not have dates, and some eat pure salt in accordance with what some Hanafi books mention: that whoever does not find dates or water to break the fast with, breaks the fast with salt, which is usually practiced only in India.
The Indian Iftar table includes rice, dhi bhada that resembles falafel with yogurt, boiled lentils, and halim or harees which consists of wheat, meat, and broth, and all these types of food are spiced up by hot pepper. During Suhoor, it is customary to eat rice and bread, which is the main food, along with other condiments.
Drinks are topped with lemon juice and milk mixed with water, while in the state of Kerala in southern India, there is a drink consisting of rice, fenugreek, turmeric powder, and coconut for Iftar, and they drink it with spoons made of coconut shells, believing that this drink removes the fatigue of fasting, and gives the fasting person the energy to perform the nightly prayers.
The Muslims of India are keen on the Sunnah of i’tikaaf, especially in the last ten days of Ramadan, and they pay special attention to Qadr Night (the night of the Decree which in Muslim belief, was the first night the Quran was sent down from Heaven to earth). This is celebrated on the night of the twenty-seventh, as they prepare to revive by washing and wearing the most beautiful clothes.
In Azerbaijan, where Muslims represent about 80 percent of the population, preparations begin to welcome the month of Ramadan a week before by organizing horse races, which is an authentic folkloric tradition, and families congratulate each other during these popular celebrations.
Every Azerbaijani family presents dishes of food as gifts to neighboring families or presents them as a charity to the poor and needy among relatives, friends, and others. It is noticed when sitting at the Iftar table in any Azerbaijani house, that there is a dish in excess of the number of family members in anticipation of the arrival of a random guest at the Iftar.
In Uzbekistan, people await the advent of the crescent of Ramadan for eleven months, in order for their country to turn into a real festival during the days of the holy month. At sunset every day, they hear the call to prayer in Arabic emanating from minarets illuminated by sparkling lights and festive decorations.
The fasting people in Uzbekistan drink water first when hearing the Maghrib call to prayer, followed by dates, as per the Sunna (example) of the Prophet Muhammed, then they perform the Maghrib prayer in congregation, after which adults and children sit at the Iftar table, adorned with soup made of lamb with pieces of carrots, onions, and vegetables, then Samosas, which are a favorite dish for Uzbeks, followed by mantari, which is similar to a samosa but steamed.
In KSA, Saudi people celebrate Ramadan in several ways, one of which is buying large quantities of different types of dates to store them in refrigerators, in order to eat them with coffee or for Iftar.
Saudi Arabia is distinguished by the spread of Ramadan tables in the Holy Mosques of Mecca and the Prophet in Al-Madinah, and Tarawih prayers in the Haram, and they are followed up on television, so satellite channels transmit all prayers in Ramadan.
Up north, Turkey is famous for Ramadan celebrations and customs that make it distinct from other countries. Turks call Ramadan the “Sultan of all Months” and welcome it with traditions inherited from the days of the Ottoman Empire itself, which are light banners that are placed between the minarets to welcome the holy month.
Turks receive the sighting of the crescent of Ramadan with ululation, which is an old Ottoman habit, and the streets and houses are decorated with cheerful lights to welcome jolly nights of Ramadan.
Moving on to Africa, the celebrations of Ramadan have an even more distinct flavor in the Dark Continent. In Sudan, food gained its luster and color through the effects of many generations from different nationalities such as the British, Turks, and Egyptians, because they lived with the Sudanese for centuries, there is a very strong relationship between these cultures and the Sudanese one. During Ramadan, cooking in pottery, and other types of cooking and food methods, such as sand-buried ovens are used to prepare very distinctive dishes.
In Morocco, preparations for the holy month take place long before its onset, so the maximum state of alert is in the month of Shaaban. Moroccans prepare a lot of foods that will be eaten in the holy month. For example, the well-known chebakia dessert is prepared in the month of Shaaban, in addition to the sufof, which is prepared with nuts such as almonds and sesame, and an assortment of dried fruits, with butter, honey, and oil. Olives, which are prepared before Ramadan in large quantities, get pickled to adorn the dining table every day during Iftar.
Ramadan in South Africa has a special charm. Despite the small number of Muslims there, their ethnic diversity makes the holy month rituals diverse and rich, given the representation of different ethnicities of Islam in the country, each is keen to celebrate it according to its culture. The role of local Islamic organizations in the country appears during the holy month, not only to urge people to fast but also to try to implement the idea of Ramadan as a month of good deeds, handing out humanitarian aid to the poor. In the city of Cape Town, Muslims are eager to prepare collective Iftar tables for Muslims and non-Muslims. Each family prepares food and shares it with the needy at a large table that gathers all people. With Eid al-Fitr approaching, children knock on the neighbors’ doors to ask for Eid cookies and continue playing in the streets.
In Egypt, there are many manifestations of celebration that the Egyptians inherited and practice up till now, even with the progress of time and culture. These have been updated and developed over the years, and are still linked only to this venerable month.
At Iftar, don’t be astonished to hear cannon fire marking Maghreb time for Muslims to break their fast! This is one of the earliest traditions of Ramadan in Egypt. Cairo was the first city to have a Ramadan cannon, because in the year 765 AH the Mamluk sultan “Khashdam” wanted to try a new cannon and fired it, and this coincided with the call to prayer, and everyone thought the sultan wanted to alert the crowd of the time of the Iftar. When the sultan saw how happy they were with this, he ordered the cannon to be fired daily at the call to prayer.
What about Suhoor, you might wonder? Who will alert Egyptians for the pre-dawn meal that marks the end of the eating window of the day? Egyptians assigned this task hundreds of years ago to “Mesaharati,” a role that was created in the year 853 AD. At that time “Isaac bin Uqba” was the first person to perform this role, as he roamed the streets of Cairo at night in order to wake up the people to eat the Suhoor, and from here the Mesaharati began his main role associated with the month of Ramadan.
At the beginning of the holy month, people begin to decorate their streets with garlands of various shapes, and lights are scattered in the streets for 30 days starting the first day of the month of Ramadan. Such decorations began to develop with the introduction of electricity and changed much in shape and volume. History books tell us that celebrating the advent of the month of Ramadan with lights was initiated by the caliph “Umar ibn al-Khattab” when he ordered the hanging of lamps on the wall of the Kaaba square to illuminate them at night so that Muslims could complete the Tarawih prayers. Hundreds of years later, this cheerful tradition is still in full swing every night of Ramadan.
As the list of countries goes on, the unique features of the annual esteemed guest, Ramadan, go on as well. One month, one religion, yet tens, or perhaps even hundreds of traditions, practices, dishes, drinks, and arrangements are linked to the same occasion. This is how powerful the impact of culture is, and how essential it is to preserve and respect it.