As we approach the Holy Month, Time Out looks at the meaning of Ramadan
Time Out Bahrain staff
In pursuit of some detailed information on Ramadan we spoke with Shaikh Esam, who sits on the Shari’a advisory board of a number of banks and financial institutions in Bahrain and teaches at a number of Islamic Centres affiliated with the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. Shaikh Esam is also the vice chairman and Shari’a (meaning Islamic law) advisor to Discover Islam in Manama, where we asked our questions about the holy month and its associated activities.
What is the meaning of Ramadan? Ramadan is the name of the ninth lunar month on the Islamic Calendar. We go by the 12 lunar months; one purpose behind this is that it facilitates our seasons of worship based around the four seasons of the year. Since it’s a lunar calendar each year goes backwards by 11 days, as the lunar calendar is 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar. Every 33 years or so it does a full rotation around the four seasons so, wherever you live on Earth, everyone will have their fair share of long or short days and hot or cold weather. Ramadan is also the month that the Koran was revealed to the Prophet. This year it will start approximately on August 22 and in 33 years, it will probably be around this time again.
How do you know when it actually starts? Well we don’t know for sure if it will be the August 22, as we have a margin of error of one day. Each month of the lunar calendar begins with the sighting of the moon. We know with the laws of astronomy that we can calculate exactly at what point the sun rises and sets, so we know at what point the new moon begins. However Shari’a law says it’s not enough to know when a new moon is born as you must physically sight the new moon. So if it’s the 29th and cloudy or dusty and you cannot see the moon, we fall back on the fact that there is a maximum of 30 days in a lunar month and the day following this, is the beginning of the new month.
What is the meaning of Ramadan to Muslims? Ramadan is about worship and the ritual of fasting. Islam is based on five important pillars of which the fourth pillar is about fasting. To understand the pillars you need to understand what Islam means. Islam is an Arabic word that means to submit willingly to the commandments of God. You surrender to God by surrendering to his laws and we measure the acceptance or rejection of this submission with these five pillars. The pillars are:
1 First Pillar – “Shahadah” to declare with conviction and acceptance that there is no one worthy of worship other than Allah. The second part of this pillar is to declare that Mohammed is his messenger. Meaning we don’t choose how to worship Allah, we worship him as conveyed by Mohammed; we are bound by his instructions and teachings.
2 Second Pillar – “Salah” to establish the five daily prayers in their set forms and their special times which correlate to the position of the sun – sunrise, sunset. We pray five times a day to show that we are conforming willingly and to remain observant of the commandments and away from temptation.
3 Third Pillar – “Zakah” (charity). Anyone who owns a minimum threshold amount and retains this minimum threshold for one lunar year is obliged to pay out 2.5 per cent (the rule of thumb) of this threshold, for charitable purposes.
4 Fourth Pillar – “Sawm” to fast for the complete days of Ramadan, to abstain absolutely from any intake of food and drink between the break of dawn and sunset. Fasting has two dimensions; the abstinence from natural acts and the uplifting, cleansing and purifying spiritually.
5 Fifth Pillar – “Hajj” to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca during the season of the pilgrimage, once in your lifetime, if you are physically and financially able.
“Observing as-sawm (fasting) is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may become Al- Muttaqun (pious)”. Al-baqarah 2:183.
So, in Ramadan we fast from Fajr (dawn prayer) to Maghreb (sunset prayer). The purpose in Ramadan is not to harm yourself but to go through an exercise in spiritual discipline and uplifting. You are abstaining from what is permissible to train yourself that at all times you should abstain from what is impermissible generally. It’s an exercise in self discipline. So by the act of fasting you are reminding yourself of this issue of abstinence, which is an exercise in spirituality. Ramadan is also a season of intense devotion to activities. For example, we have congregational night prayers performed at the masjid (mosque). There is lively spiritual activity with people citing the Koran, praying and togetherness where you will have very powerful and moving sermons. It’s festive spiritually.
Are there exceptions from fasting? People are exempt from fasting while travelling, but should make up for it at another time. If you are sick or elderly and it is dangerous, then it is not acceptable to fast. Women who experience their monthly cycle are forbidden from fasting as it’s an extra drain, but they also make it up later on. Fasting is recommended throughout the year for Muslims, in fact it’s suggested to fast three days every month. This can be consecutive or not and it is to maintain the discipline of fasting.
How can non Muslims participate during Ramadan? They can do it out of curiosity to get a feel for what fasting is like. I have friends that tried it as a challenge. Of course Muslims are not superhuman beings, but if you are not used to it the first few days will be a challenge. People can fast a few days, perhaps at the beginning or in the middle of Ramadan. Of course, we celebrate the break of fast at Iftar and Gabga; these are festive experiences available to everyone.
Can you go to the cinema during Ramadan? In respect to the cinema the issue is about what is being shown. If what is being viewed is immoral or indecent one shouldn’t go whether it is during Ramadan or not. It is more improper to attend such a movie during Ramadan because it’s a holy month and you are abstaining from what is permissible, so you are reminding yourself to abstain from what is impermissible even more. The standards for which they rate films now have certainly dropped in the past 20 years or more. There is foul language, indecent exposure that is being shown and is inappropriate for children.
What is the dress etiquette during Ramadan? During Ramadan people have to be more concerned about decency and modesty in their attire. The standards of decency and modesty are revealed in the Koran, these norms of decency do not change but society does change, so we do need cues for our attire.
What is Iftar? Iftar is the break of fast at sunset after the fasting during the day, as opposed to Sohoor which is the meal that is taken before the break of dawn. Most people will break the fast with some dates and water following the example of the Prophet, PBUH, and then they pray. Usually after this they will begin the Iftar feast which often starts with the family at home before venturing out to Majlis (gatherings in homes), Iftar tents or the Gabga activities. Most of the mosque’s will offer Iftar in their courtyards especially for the less privileged and expats that are away from their families. This is wonderful mezze with local dishes and in usual Arabic style, everyone is welcome!
Are restaurants open during Ramadan? During the daytime restaurants are closed and only open after Maghreb (sunset prayer). Often it’s their dining services that are not operating during the day but you can often place phone orders. The larger hotels have the Iftar tents and don’t serve alcohol at all through the month of Ramadan.
What is Eid Al Fitr? Eid Al Fitr is the first day immediately following Ramadan. Ramadan ends after either 29 or 30 days as does every month in the lunar calendar. It is the first day of the 10th month of Shawwal and begins with the new moon. On Eid Al Fitr Muslims are obliged to celebrate and therefore are not allowed to fast on this day (it’s forbidden). You are celebrating that you are blessed by Allah to have been given the opportunity to fulfill the month of fasting and you’ve completed it. So, out of gratitude to Allah, you express your rejoicing and you wear new clothes and people socialise and celebrate. It is about happiness and joy and we have special sweets, food and drinks. They also give out a lot of money as gifts (not as charity) called Eidis, which comes from the word Eid. Shaikh Esam Mohamed Eshaq, Discover Islam, Al Baraka Building, Old Palace Rd, Manama (next to Ashrafs) 1753 7373 www.discoverislam.net.