The holy month of Ramadan is much more than a month of fasting, being an empowering combination of faith, history, and culture. Each year, millions of Muslims worldwide celebrate the month in various ways, practising abstinence during this period and honouring long-standing traditions and practices ranging from Indonesia’s bathing rituals to Egypt’s lantern-lighting.
A new book by author Nidaa Hassan, Ramadan Around the World, discusses how various countries celebrate Ramadan, unraveling the way deeply-rooted Ramadan customs and traditions have been sustained and passed on over the years. They represent Muslim communities globally, including some differences that may occur.
What follows is a sample of just some of the practices that have come to be associated with the holy month of Ramadan across the Muslim world.
FAWANEES IN EGYPT
Despite their cultural rather than religious symbolism, the fanous (plural fawanees) or Ramadan lanterns, are a trademark of Ramadan celebrations in Egypt.
Every child will carry a colourful fanous while excitedly singing and roaming the streets during the holy month. Children hold their lanterns while walking around their neighbourhoods, singing Ramadan songs or asking for candy.
There are numerous stories about the origins of the lanterns, one dating back to the Fatimid Dynasty. It is said that the Egyptians were ordered by the military to carry candles at that time, which they put in wooden frames to light up the dark as they greeted the caliph Al-Muizz li-Din Allah on the first day of Ramadan in Cairo.
As the years went by, the wooden frames developed into plastic, glass, and metal ones of various designs all over the country. In fact, the fanous is no longer exclusive to Egypt: it has become a global symbol of Ramadan.
A child reciting the Quran
Intrinsic to Ramadan traditions in most Arab countries is the mesaharaty, or night caller, who wanders the streets to wake people up for Sohour, the meal before dawn in Ramadan that prepares people for the day’s fasting ahead.
A local who is familiar with the neighbourhood, the mesaharaty often calls out the names of residents while beating a drum. The selflessness of this role is an example of the good values and faith that are typical of Ramadan.
“This tradition, which has spread across the Middle East, dates back to the seventh century CE, when a companion of the Prophet Mohamed would roam the streets at dawn singing melodious prayers. The sounds of these prayers swept through the streets, spreading an air of tranquility and gratitude as believers woke up from their slumber to prepare for the fast. It is now undoubtedly one of the most beautiful Ramadan traditions in Egypt,” commented Hanaa Fathi, a Cairo doctor born in the 1950s reminiscing about Ramadan.
HAQ AL-LAILA IN THE UAE
In the UAE, Ramadan celebrations start on the night of 15 Shaaban, the Islamic month that precedes Ramadan.
Haq Al-Laila is a religious tradition that is a little like the US Halloween tradition of trick or treat. It is part and parcel of Emirati culture and identity, and it helps to raise awareness about the holy month. Haq Al-Laila is also a reminder of simpler times when family relationships and social values were even more firm.
Other Gulf countries also celebrate this tradition when children put on bright clothes, collect candy and nuts in their kharytas (tote bags), and sing jubilant Ramadan songs while wandering their neighbourhoods. One of the songs is Aatona Allah Yutikom, Bait Makkah Yudikum (Give to us so that Allah will reward you and help you to visit His House in Mecca).
QARQIAAN IN KUWAIT: Similar to Haq Al-Laila, Qarqiaan is a traditional celebration in Kuwait that aims to teach children the significance of Ramadan. In the middle of the holy month, they spend three days wandering the streets in traditional outfits.
There are girl songs and boy songs, both of which are often customised by the children to address who they are singing to. Those songs, along with rewards for youngsters who fast with candy, create an exuberant atmosphere during the holy month.
NAFARS IN MOROCCO
“This tradition, which has spread across the Middle East to Morocco, dates back to the seventh century, when a companion of the Prophet Mohamed would roam the streets at dawn singing melodious prayers. When the nafar’s music sweeps through the town, it is met with gratitude and thanks, and he is officially compensated by the community on the last night of Ramadan,” said Yasmine Guermoudi, a Moroccan writer, of this Ramadan tradition.
Like the mesaharaty in Egypt, nafars walk the streets of Morocco during the holy month to wake up Muslims for Sohour. Each of them wears the traditional Moroccan clothing of a hat, gandora (a Moroccan tunic), and a pair of slippers.
The nafars are not randomly chosen, as certain qualities —such as compassion and integrity — are required. At the end of Ramadan, official compensation is given for their role in embracing this old Moroccan tradition.
MHEIBES IN IRAQ
After Iftar, the meal to break the fast each evening during Ramadan, large numbers of Iraqis of various age groups meet up to play mheibes (rings).
This traditional, male-dominated Ramadan game requires two teams ranging from 40 to 250 players. At the beginning of the game, the leader carrying the ring should hand it to another player without drawing others’ attention. The opposing team has to decide where the ring is by deciphering body language.
It is difficult to specify the origins of mheibes despite its historical and cultural significance. The Iraqi government used to organise local competitions that brought together citizens from all over the country. Even though the event was interrupted by the wars in Iraq, individual members of society have managed to revive it to pass on to new generations.
Playing games at a coffee shop in Iraq
MIDFAA AL-IFTAR IN LEBANON
In many Arab countries, cannons are fired at sunset during the holy month to announce Iftar.
This tradition started in Egypt centuries ago during the rule of the Ottoman ruler Khosh Qadam. People think that this new way of announcing Iftar was introduced when Qadam mistakenly had cannon fired in Cairo at sunset. He was thanked for it, however, and he was urged by his daughter Haja Fatma to consider firing the cannon every year as a tradition for announcing Iftar.
Despite fears of losing the tradition after the 1983 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the centuries-old tradition of Midfaa Al-Iftar is still used in the country to announce the end of the fast. The older generations of Lebanese say the tradition makes them nostalgic for their childhood.
“Many Middle Eastern countries including Lebanon adopted the Midfaa Al-Iftar as the official signal to declare the end of the day’s fast when cannons were used by the Ottomans to mark Iftar all over the country. Lebanon has special Midfaa Al-Iftar cannons dating back to the 19th century that are used today solely for this purpose,” commented Pascale Menassa, a Lebanese journalist.
“The tradition was feared lost in 1983 after the invasion that led to the confiscation of some of the cannons, then considered as weapons. But it was revived by the Lebanese army following the war and continues even today, evoking nostalgia among the older generations who can remember the Ramadans of their childhood.”
FAKDAT RAMADAN IN PALESTINE
In spite of the turmoil and bloodshed in much of Palestine, young Muslims still hang up cheerful flags and lights to celebrate Ramadan.
People’s interest in charity increases, as the holy month reminds people of the importance of core Islamic values such as generosity, sharing, cooperation and goodwill. Neighbours exchange Iftar food, and banquets are held in neighbourhoods not only by locals but also by foreign organisations to include Gaza Strip refugees. Family gatherings are essential when people exchange visits, meals, and groceries to express their warm feelings and gratitude.
“In Ramadan, generosity and goodwill increase, social relations improve, and people are, more than at any other time, eager to help each other. Palestinians in Ramadan also get invited to join their relatives and friends for Iftar. They share food and sweets as a sign of cooperation, love, and charity. One of the famous customs is fakdat Ramadan, where families visit their married female members at their houses to have Iftar together and bring food, groceries, and desserts. In turn, those women visit their families, accompanied by their husbands and children, so that they could feel the warmth of family gatherings,” Assalah Zagha, a Palestinian NGO director, said.
SOHOUR DRUMMERS IN TURKEY
In a striking resemblance to Egypt’s mesaharaty, Muslims in Turkey wake up to the sounds of the Davul drums at Sohour time.
This is a tradition that dates back to the Ottoman Empire, when more than 2,000 drummers would walk down the streets of the country to wake people up. The drummers wear old Ottoman-style clothes such as the traditional fez and vest.
Some generous locals give drummers bahşiş (tips), and others ask them to join them for Sohour. The Turkish government has lately issued official cards for drummers as a sign of gratitude and to urge the upcoming generations to sustain the centuries-old tradition.
PADUSAN AND NYEKAR IN INDONESIA
Rich in lakes and lagoons bearing spiritual implications related to Javanese culture, Indonesia embraces unique forms of celebration during Ramadan.
Muslims in Central and East Java perform certain rituals before the start of the holy month; they cleanse their bodies and souls by bathing and submerging their whole bodies in the water, which is called padusan (bathing), to prepare themselves for fasting and praying in Ramadan.
The ritual was introduced in Indonesia by a religious group called WaliSongo that joined the first missionaries spreading Islamic teachings in Java. Religious leaders and local elders used to choose holy waterways to do padusan; however, Muslims now seek the pools and lakes of their choice, or simply practice the ritual in their own places.
Similarly, nyekar is another pre-Ramadan Muslim practice in Indonesia. With reference to old Javanese beliefs, the holy month is considered as the end of one life cycle and the start of a new one, which is why Javanese Muslims carry out nyekar to pay their respects to deceased family members. This ritual has been passed on over the years. Some rural people choose to offer presents to departed family members.
An Indonesian man swims at a natural pool where Javanese Muslims perform Padusan
WOMEN’S GATHERINGS IN BANGLADESH, INDIA, AND PAKISTAN
The night before Eid Al-Fitr, known as ChaandRaat (moon night) on the subcontinent, is one of joy and festivity for Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani Muslims.
Family members and friends celebrate the last day of Ramadan by exchanging traditional sweet and sour dishes. Women go shopping after Iftar to purchase bangles and draw henna designs on their hands and feet. Henna booths are set up near jewellery stores to grab the attention of women who want to apply it. Muslim communities feel united and thrilled while celebrating both Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr, and markets and bazaars are typically crowded with shoppers until the early morning of the following day.
SEHERIWALAS IN INDIA
In Old Delhi, an ancient Ramadan tradition that reflects the cultural heritage of the former Muslim Mughal Empire is the seheriwala (also known as zohridaar).
Seheriwalas sing out the name of God and the Prophet Mohamed while roaming neighbourhoods around 2:30am during the holy month to wake Muslims up for Sohour. They knock on doors and the walls of houses using canes or sticks. This tradition has been passed on from one generation to the next despite the decreasing numbers of seheriwalas.
Ariana Jupta, a young Indian poet, reminisced about the atmosphere in the crowded markets on ChaandRaat. “It is one of community spirit and is lively and jubilant in anticipation of Eid the following day. The henna application remains a long-standing Ramadan tradition in the South Asian countries to date. In the light of this tradition, the local bazaars are exuberant with excitement for the Eid, and all this collectively uplifts the community spirit. Shopkeepers decorate their stalls and stay open until the early hours of the morning. Local women set up makeshift henna shops close to jewellery stores, so that they can attract customers out shopping and apply henna on the spot,” she said.
MOON-WATCHERS IN SOUTH AFRICA
A common Ramadan tradition across many countries is the sighting of the first crescent of the moon, which marks the beginning of the new month.
In South Africa, maankykers (moon-watchers) are officially selected by the local Muslim Judicial Council to spot the new moon by the naked eye at the Sea Point Promenade shore in Cape Town. Muslim communities eagerly await the maankykers’ declaration so that they can start celebrating Eid Al-Fitr.
BALLADS IN ALBANIA
Ever since the days of the former Ottoman Empire, Roma Muslim communities have been celebrating Ramadan in their own special way in Albania, and fasting and Iftar are both announced to the sound of traditional ballads.
Locals roam the streets while playing their lodras (double-ended home-made drums made of goat or sheep skin). Some Muslim families celebrate the start of Iftar by inviting the drummers over to play the songs in their houses.
RELIGIOUS STREET THEATRE IN IRAN
Religious rituals take place all over Iran in the holy month, which makes Ramadan even more unique and memorable.
The 19th and 21st of Ramadan, the days of the assassination and martyrdom of the Imam Ali for Iran’s Shia Muslims, are when Iranians throughout the country mourn the first Shia Imam. On these nights, many religious groups in Iran start their memorial ceremonies to pay their respects to Imam Ali and mourn his assassination.
Thousands of black-clad, chest-beating, and head-slapping participants pass through the cities of Iran during the 21st day of Ramadan, congregating in emotionally charged ceremonies, while religious street theatres, free food-givers, and traditional Persian sharbats (lemonade-like drinks) on tables decorate the streets of every city.
Fantastic stews, sweets, fresh dates, traditional Azari cheese with vegetables and nuts, all accompanied with a glass of tea to wash them down, are what you can find on any dinner table in Iran during Ramadan.
“As a kid I looked forward to sitting with the rest of the family around the linen on the floor, full of colourful food and sweets and breaking the fast which usually started with dates and hot tea. The singing of the prayer Rabbana in Arabic by the prominent Iranian singer Mohamed-Reza Shajarian was a mark of the time,” said Tahniat Darbandi, an Iranian TV producer.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly