Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Thursday begins the ninth and most holy month for Muslims around the world, Ramadan; a month of abstention, spiritual reflection, and some intense celebration as well. It is believed that the Qur'an was revealed during Ramadan, the most important night being laylat al-qadr (around the 27th day) when the first verses were revealed to the Prophet. The etymological roots of the word Ramadan relate it to heat, so the ninth was probably the hottest month out of the year, and in pre-Islamic times was known as a month of truce. It is required of every Muslim able to withstand the rigors of fasting to participate in the ritual denial of food, liquids, cigarettes, and sex from dawn till dusk - fasting, or sawm in Arabic, is one of Islam's five pillars. Those who can fast but don't are expected to provide meals for thirty people throughout the month as penance.
I experienced Ramadan in Egypt, and fasted for a day to see what it was like. Of course, I didn't wake up before dawn for prayers and a little meal, so I was starving by mid-afternoon. I also didn't get to experience the spiritual aspects. Everywhere you looked people were reading their pocket-Qur'ans and focusing on what was happening inside as opposed to out (I received nary a sleazy comment nor dirty look that month, making it my favorite).
My university classes had been reshuffled so that they either fell early in the morning or late in the afternoon, which gave people the time to go home in midday and sleep. I'd get out of classes near dusk, and the streets would be quiet and empty. People are either in their homes, or at large outdoor gatherings located near a mosque, such as the Husayn Mosque in Khan al-Khalili. Every spot at the long tables set up outside is taken. Following the dusk prayer, known as maghrib (which refers to the sun setting in the west), the Iftar (breaking of the fast) feast begins. Food is distributed and people heartily devour it, spending a long time at the table and lingering afterwards late into the night over ahwa, coffee. People visit one another in their homes, bringing food and especially sweets like ba'lawa (you might know it as baklava - I became addicted to this stuff after moving to Egypt).
So, this next month I'll focus primarily on foods of the Muslim world, and hey, maybe I'll throw my own Iftar.
For some more info, here's the article on Ramadan from the Routledge Religion and Society Encyclopedia.