Ramadan is the name of the ninth month in the Muslim calendar, the one in which the Koran was revealed to the prophet Mohamed in solitary meditation in the cave of Hira. Tradition dates the occurrence to the twenty-sixth day of the holy month, 610. Mohamed prescribed fasting for the whole month fleeing from Mecca to save his life and continue to preach the new religion. It was in Medina that the verse, “Do not fast until you see the new moon and do not cease fasting until you see it”, was revealed to him. So how exactly does the fasting work? It consists of abstinence from food, drink, tobacco and sexual intercourse from dawn to sunset. The difficulties involved in achieving this depends on the season in which Ramadan takes place and on the degree of individual addiction to coffee, tea, tobacco, hashish and alcohol.
At first Mohamed imposed the Jewish fast of Kippur on Muslims, but following a dispute with the Jews of Medina, he replaced it with the month of Ramadan. Originally Ramadan occupied the summer month prior to the abolition (decreed by the prophet just before his death) of the intercalary period whereby it became possible to establish the lunar months in relation to the sun. With the adoption of the new system, Ramadan began to shift and ‘scale’ the seasons. The lunar year divided into 12 months (29 or 30 days) is shorter than the solar year and lasts 354-355 days. The Islamic year consequently ends about eleven days before the end of the Gregorian calendar and the beginning of the two years only coincide every 33 years.
The passage from one month to the next is announced by the appearance of the new crescent moon, a thin sliver of light. In the night sky of the Arab peninsula, clear virtually all year round, it is easily visible to the naked eye, whereas here in Paris where I live and work the sky tends to be cloudy!
Nowadays it is possible to measure time with the utmost precision and to forecast calendars for centuries to come, but the tradition of studying the sky on the presumed eve of Ramadan lives on among Muslims. Not with sophisticated modern apparata but with their own eyes, they seek to sight the crescent moon —hilal in Arabic—that heralds the beginning of the holy month. On the night of the last day of the month of shaaban, it is still possible in rural areas to witness the fantastic sight of groups of men, accompanied by religious authorities, sitting silently on hilltops, their faces turned to the sky. This night is known as ‘the night of doubt’. In the event of bad weather—rain, fog, clouds—believers are forced to wait until the next day: on the one hand, to be sure not to fast on the last day of the month of shaaban, which is forbidden (just as it is forbidden to fast during feast days and pilgrimages); on the other, because getting the first day of Ramadan wrong would mean shifting ‘the night of destiny’, which has to fall between the 26th and the 27th of the month, cited in the Koran as the night of peace and salvation, a night ‘more opulent than a thousand moons’. ‘Therein descend the angels and the spirit by permission of their Lord for every matter’ (Koran, XCVII). For many believers, this night represents a spiritual vigil which only comes to an end with the rising of the sun.
The definitive start of Ramadan is announced on radio and television in the various Muslim countries. On many occasions the fast does not begin on the same day everywhere since some countries follow the scientific calendar published at the start of the year, whereas others prefer to stick to the direct sighting of the moon. Often Muslims abroad have to come to terms with a dilemma when the date set by their own country fails to coincide with the one imposed by the religious authorities of the country they live in (in France, for example, the decision is announced by the Imam of the Great Mosque of Paris).
In recent years, Ramadan has taken place in the winter, with the longer nights and shorter days reducing the effective period of abstinence—or at least in the Mediterranean, where, roughly speaking, fasting starts at 6.15am and ends at 5.15pm.
On the last day of Ramadan, the rite of sighting the new moon—which this time marks the end of fasting and the start of the Feast of Fitr and the month of shawwal—is repeated.
Ramadan means hunger and thirst, but also much, much more. Abstinence from nicotine, caffeine and even alcohol tends to make people short-tempered. In Islamic society, the days of Ramadan are characterized by the bad mood—not to mention bad breath—of the men folk in particular (luckily, not all!), street brawls, an increase in the number of road accidents, widespread gastro-intestinal ailments, and a slowdown in activities in every walk of life, food and cake sales excluded. All these factors combine to create a very special atmosphere in both public places and private spaces. Incidentally, Ramadan is a beneficial period for heavy drinkers, offering them a chance to detox (even though they invariably go straight back to their bad habits once it’s all over!) and give their livers a rest.
In Tunisia, food markets, usually frequented mostly by women, attract a high number of men throughout the month. The quality of their shopping has to reflect the importance of the holy month: hence meat, fish, eggs, vegetables bread are all bought fresh au jour le jour. Shopping is an activity that helps to make the time go by and attenuate the long wait for dinner. In the afternoon, the women of the house busily prepare all the typical Ramadan dishes—in total silence to avoid disturbing their snoozing men. It takes a heap of willpower to stay in a house invaded by aromas from the kitchen, when your empty stomach is grumbling.
Abstinence is followed by no-holds-barred eating and drinking, somnolence by wakefulness, and retreat by visits to friends and relatives and celebrations. Women dedicate part of the night to these visits and shopping (in the course of the year, they never go out alone, so this for them, is a moment of great freedom and promiscuity), while the men sit at cafés playing cards or smoking the narghilè.
The longed for Ramadan table is always set—with hot and cold savories, jugs of water, fermented milk, Coca-Cola and bread—ready for the moment in which the fast is broken. The meal features meat, vegetables and fruit, and is followed by coffee. It is then normal to take a break before moving on to cakes, creams, tarts and drinks. The feast goes on into the early hours
Oddly enough, people get fat as they fast! But in my opinion, they put on weight because, during Ramadan, they perform fewer physical activities, because their metabolism is upset, and because they have no time to ‘burn up’ the sugar and fat they consume just prior to going to bed.
The Ramadan table can’t lack for anything and normally ends up being far richer than necessary. Diners taste all the dishes, drink gallons of water and, at the end of the meal, complain because there are too many leftovers. The fact is that another typical characteristic of Ramadan is waste!
Every day new dishes have to be prepared and the leftovers from the night before are thrown to the cats. The tradition of abundance is a symbol of generosity and well-being—as well as being a demonstration of the power head of the household. Today, though the extended families and patriarchal get-togethers of the past are few and far between—especially in towns and cities—the desire to respect the tradition lives on.
Lilia Zaouali is a lecturer in anthropology of the Islamic world at the University of Jussieu, Paris
Photo courtesy Philip Greenspun
Adapted by John Irving