Friday, July 12, 2013

Ramadan Reflections

Picture taken at sunset on the first night of Ramadan.

Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, serves as month of fasting, prayer, and sacrifice for Muslims around the world.  As one of the Five Pillars of Islam, it lies at the heart of Muslim tradition.  The dates of this month change from year to year on the Gregorian calendar due to the Islamic calendar's foundation in lunar phases which means that Ramadan moves roughly eleven days earlier each year.  This year in Istanbul, Ramadan started at sunset on Monday, July 8.

Since finding out that I would be traveling to Istanbul, I have been absolutely thrilled with the prospect of being in Istanbul for the first few days of Ramadan.  Ramadan is something that is discussed in the classes I teach and students always have lots of questions about how Ramadan works.  In the past, I have taught my students the fundamentals, as I best understood them.  Basically, I focused on the fact that many Muslims abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan.  Many try to eat and drink something before sunrise and the beginning of morning prayers, as well as break the fast with large family or community meals after sunset.  Ramadan is a month of prayer, fasting, and avoiding other vices and sinful practices.  More than anything else, it is an opportunity to sacrifice, practice self-control, develop greater awareness of the challenges of the poor and hungry, and deepen one's personal relationship with God.

Students are always fascinated with the challenges of such a lengthy period of daily fasting.  In particular, they realized that depending on the calendar, Ramadan can fall during the long daylight hours of the summertime (like this year) or require significant shorter days of fasting in the winter.  We do discuss that fasting is something that can be found in many world religions and also draw the parallel between Ramadan and the fasting/sacrifices of the Lenten season in the Christian tradition.

However, the reason that I wanted to write this blog entry is due to the fact that I've learned so much about the culture and customs that surround the month of Ramadan here in the Istanbul area.  Here are some observations:

  • Ramadan creates an incredible sense of community.  This becomes clear when one witnesses the iftar or fast-breaking meal.  As sunset nears, people begin to gather in parks, squares and other communal spaces throughout the city to share in a meal together.  Many bring a picnic dinner and have everything set out and ready for when the local mosque or TV announces that the fast has ended for the day.  For many, the first thing they do is open a bottle of water and drink for the first time in 15-16 hours.  It has been profoundly moving to watch hundreds or even thousands of families begin eating and drinking at exactly the same time.  In addition to families, I've seen construction coworkers, waiters, and others working together prepare and break the fast together before they get back to their duties.   

    Thousands breaking the fast together in the Hippodrome.

  • Ramadan entails a tremendous degree of sacrifice, but also incorporates a feeling of celebration each evening.  It is very cyclical in that sense.  This appears to be one area wherein the Christian season of Lent and Islamic season of Ramadan differ.  Lent is a 40-day linear season of sacrifice and prayer that leads to Easter, while the cycle of fasting/breaking fast occurs each and everyday during Ramadan.  That distinction being drawn, it is important to note that Ramadan and Lent share much in common with regards to being seasons of increased prayer, attention to proper behavior, and increased attention given to charitable works and contribution.

  • While I can't comment on other cities throughout the Islamic world, the mosques, public spaces, and businesses of Istanbul very much embrace Ramadan with formal celebration.  I've witnessed the lights hung on the minarets of mosques around the city, as well as the lights spelling holiday greetings that span the space between minarets.  I've seen public spaces in the hippodrome and at Taksim Square where massive iftar feasts have been prepared to feed thousands.  Nearly every green space in the city is prepared for the picnics of families.  There is even a craft market that opened in the Hippodrome during Ramadan full of artisan crafts, baklava, Turkish Delight, ice cream, and other snacks.  On Istiklal Street, a trolley transports "Ramadan Rock Bands" up and down the street to entertain people.  Near my hotel, a small amphitheater presents concerts or other entertainment programs each night.  Finally, restaurants throughout the city may be a bit slower throughout the day as people are fasting, but many have special iftar fixed menus that include soup, bread, dates, olives, salad, rice, meat dish, desert, and tea for a set price.  Even fast food restaurants like McDonald's make special accommodations during Ramadan to open at 2:00am or 3:00am in the morning so that people can eat before the sun rises.
Entrance to the Craft Bazaar on the Hippodrome.

Soup, salad, and appetizer portion of a fixed menu iftar meal at a cafe on Istiklal Street.

Part of the iftar fixed menu meal I had included Kofte (lamb and beef meatballs).

McDonald's make accommodations throughout the city to open early enough for people to eat before the fast begins.

In witnessing the first few days of Ramadan here in Istanbul, I have to say that I have a whole new appreciation for the depth of sacrifice, but also the incredible sense of togetherness and celebration brought about by the season.

1 comment:

  1. Great Post! It was a great experience fasting with you for one day during Ramadan! Our Iftar meal was... let's just say, a memorable learning experience! Ha!