[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
Today you might have made your breakfast before taking a copy of the Turkish Daily News, and might even be sipping coffee while reading this story. For hundreds of millions of Muslims all around the world, though, that would be out of question. Today is the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, and all observant Muslims are expected to refrain from eating and drinking until sunset. It is a religious duty which has been kept unbroken since the 7th century.
In the beginning
Ramadan existed before Islam as one of the twelve months of the Arabic lunar calendar. Thus there have been endless Ramadans in the Arab desert for centuries, but the one in 610 AD would be a unique and fateful one. In this month, Muhammad of Mecca, who had been only a decent merchant until then, received his first message from God. According the Muslim tradition, angel Gabriel approached him in a cave during a time of meditation. “Recite,” the angel commanded, “In the Name of your Lord who created man.” And not just the life Muhammad but also the whole human history changed forever.
Although Muslims believe that their faith is not a novelty in history but just the latest form of Abrahamic monotheism, that first revelation became the genesis of Islam as an independent religion. Those who belived that Muhammad was really the messenger of God slowly grew in numbers and started to challenge Mecca’s idolatrous cults by proclaiming the core of their faith: “There is no god but The God.” (The Muslim term for God, “Allah,” comes from the root “Al Ilah” and literally means “The God.”) The revelations continued for twenty-three years, during which the Muslim community grew from a few fragile individuals into a powerful state which dominated the whole Arabian peninsula. And the revelations turned into a book called the Koran.
In its verse 2:185, the Koran signifies the Ramadan. “The month of Ramadan is the one in which the Koran was sent down as guidance for mankind,” it reminds, “with Clear Signs containing guidance and discrimination.” And then it orders Muslims to honor the holy month by fasting:
“Any of you who are resident for the month should fast it. But any of you who are ill or on a journey should fast a number of other days. Allah desires ease for you; He does not desire difficulty for you. You should complete the number of days and proclaim Allah’s greatness for the guidance He has given you so that hopefully you will be thankful.”
That’s why Muslims abstain from drinking, eating, smoking and sex during the thirty days of the holy month. It might be quite a challenge, especially in summer, when the days are long and the thirst is strong. (Since the lunar calendar is eleven days shorter than the solar one, Ramadan rotates slowly across the seasons.) Those who are not able to stand the hunger or thirst are supposed to buy food for the poor. The duty to God has to be honored this way or another. After all, for a devout Muslim, religion is not only about finding easy comforts for the all-demanding self. It also implies a deeper relief to be found in the sacrifices made for God.
A Social Setting
Of course Ramadan is not only about religious observance. There is also a very colorful culture built around it. For centuries the holy month has been the most joyful and celebrated time of the year in Muslim societies. In the Ottoman Empire a tradition of evening-time “Ramadan recreations” developed, which included circus-type shows and theatrical comedies. Today these traditions are still alive among the more devout and conservative segment of the Turkish society. And, besides all, there are also rich “iftar” suppers, in which hungry fasters rush to enjoy God’s blessings.
Ramadan also helps organizing charitable works. In fact in the whole idea of fasting, according to one interpretation, there lies not only a spiritual but also a social purpose: Each Muslim experiences hunger for a month, which will make him more empathizing for those who are less fortunate. No wonder that Ramadan is also the time to give alms. The “zakat” and “fitre,” the two types of charity that Muslims are obliged to give to the poor, is generally given during the Ramadan. One rule is that they should not be given to family members and close relatives. The believers need to reach out to society. In cities big “iftar tents” are organized by individuals, foundations or companies, under which free dinner is served for all those who fast – and, perhaps, not fast. Families and friends invite each other for iftars and especially the needy are supported by gifts and alms.
Eminent Turkish sociologists Şerif Mardin speaks of “two nations” in Turkey — one defined by secularism, the other by Islam. Although there are many shades and grades, which Prof. Mardin also notes, this is basically true, and the way that these two “nations” regard the Ramadan is most significant. For Turkey’s observant Muslims, Ramadan is really the most precious time of the year in which religious emotions reach to new heights. For the secularists, it really doesn’t mean so much, and they even get frustrated to see restaurants that stop serving lunch or alcohol during the holy month. In the recent years, a distinction also evolved in the way these two “nations” refer to the three-day feast that takes place at the end of the Ramadan. For the Islamic-minded, it is simply “the Ramadan feast.” The other group prefers to call it “the feast of sweets.” And for them, it doesn’t signify anything more than three days of vacation, and perhaps a trip to Europe and discount wines from duty-frees. But there are also many Turks who fall in somewhere between these two “nations.” They stop drinking during Ramadan and fast as much as they can, but at the end of the holy month, they rush to back to rakı and meze.
During this Ramadan, we will see all sorts of such Muslims and the various ways they greet, or not greet, their Ramadan. And we will how verses of a 7th century book, the Koran, still deeply influence the hearts of millions of believers, and give meaning to their lives. With all these complex senses and messages, Ramadan is indeed a stimulating time. It perhaps really is, as the Turkish saying goes, “the Sultan of the eleven months.”