By SHERYL DIXIT
The holy month of Ramadan is being observed by Muslims around the world
Islam is the world’s second largest religion after Christianity, with over a billion followers. A milestone period in the Islamic calendar is the holy month of Ramadan which commenced on June 18 this year. Having lived in the Middle East as an expat for a number of years, I was lucky to experience the principles of Ramadan, and they were impressive. The concept of this holy month is about purification, self-sacrifice, charity, abstinence, self-control, inner reflection and refraining from evil actions, thoughts and deeds.
During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food, drink or physical activity from sunrise to sunset. But I learned that Ramadan is more than simply abstinence, its also a time of spiritual cleansing and inner reflection, while making a conscious effort to abstain from evil thoughts, words and deeds. Fasting and abstinence during daylight hours gives the person a chance to introspect and reflect on their lives through intense worship, besides giving to charity and doing good deeds.
All Muslims who have reached puberty and are in good health are expected to fast. The sick and elderly, those travelling, pregnant and nursing women are exempt, although the rule is to make up for the missed fast days after the holy month. In the Middle East, those fasting are allowed to work shorter hours during the month of Ramadan, an essential adjustment to compensate for this period falling during the hottest summer months with the longest daylight hours.
Several of my Muslim friends also felt that experiencing hunger helped create empathy with those less fortunate, made them feel gratitude for what they already have, tested their self control and gave their bodies a break from the routine of mealtimes is also a true realiasation of what the less fortunate go through.
While fasting for so many hours can be challenging, friends and colleagues observing Ramadan were unanimous in their opinion that the first week is the hardest. After that, the body adjusts to a new routine of nourishment, and the following weeks are fine.
The concept of fasting and abstinence is not individual to Islam; Christianity also advocates these principles during the 40 days of Lent, prior to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter. However, the modern focus is generally on sacrifice of eating meat, imbibing alcohol or both, during this period. Hindus fast in celebration of Navaratri, Karva Chauth and other festivals or in accordance with their tradition in relation to the deity they worship, while Jews and Buddhists also fast on specified religious days. Interestingly, Sikhism does not advocate fasting within its tenets. Some people fast once or twice a week for health reasons, allowing themselves only fruit and water through the day, and ending their fast with a light vegetarian meal.
I used to enjoy attending Iftaar parties, signifying the breaking of the fast immediately after sunset. These events were organised at least once during Ramadan by most offices in deference to their Muslim staff, and was a highly popular and anticipated event. The array of delicacies was a treat to all, with some functions presenting a whole roast lamb or kid in a bed of savoury pilaf, a traditional festive meal in much of the Middle East. Many Muslims break their fast with dates, which are not my favourite fruit, so I would opt instead for a bowl of a semolina-based sweet, generously replenished with dried nuts and sultanas. But there were a variety of bread, meat, chicken and fish dishes, grilled vegetables, savoury soups, and a mind-boggling set of desserts. Most of the people fasting were sensible in their intake of food going easy on their digestive system, and watching in amusement while some of us non-fasting folk would overindulge with a vengeance! Non-Muslims were always welcome at these parties, and it was a treat to sample traditional delicacies from Egypt, Sudan, Oman and Syria, among others under the ambience of a darkening sky.
In my twenties, Ramadan was a favourite time of the year to test our tastebuds. A group of us friends would drive down to Mohammed Ali road in Mumbai at dinnertime, to sample various delicacies in its many alleys crammed with food stalls. Our friends, veterans of many Ramadan sojourns, would invariably lead us to their favourite ‘miya-bhai’ who would recognise them and offer us the tastiest and freshest morsels. From kebabs to chicken skewers to double ka meetha, the sheer range of special cuisine was incredible as we sat on rickety plastic stools at makeshift wooden tables under the neon glow of streetlights. Night turned to day in that area, with stalls selling everything from linen to clothes to electronics as families casually shopped for Eid as if it was 11am, instead of 11pm!
At the conclusion of Ramadan, Muslims wait in anticipation for Eid-ul-Fitr, which commences at the sighting of the new moon. Following devotional prayers, celebrations then begin as they should – with heartfelt greetings, visiting family and friends and enjoying a feast of great food. In the Middle East, Eid-ul-Fitr is celebrated across three days, which are also declared a public holiday.
Here’s wishing Muslims in Australia and around the world a holy Ramadan and Eid Mubarak to come!