Ramazan is a holy month rooted in culture, faith and history. Across the globe, Muslims mark this time with vibrant celebrations that are unique to their region and passed on through generations. Us takes a look…
Padusan - a cleansing ritual (Indonesia)
Across Indonesia, Muslims conduct different rituals to ‘cleanse’ themselves the day before Ramazan. Several localities in Central and East Java have a purifying tradition called padusan (meaning ‘to bathe’ in Javanese dialect), in which Javanese Muslims plunge themselves into springs, soaking their bodies from head to toe.
Springs hold deep spiritual significance in Javanese culture and are an integral part of purification for the holy month. This practice is believed to have been spread by Wali Songo, a group of revered priests who were the first missionaries to communicate Islamic teachings throughout Java. Years ago, it was common practice for local elders and religious leaders to pick and assign sacred springs for padusan. Nowadays, many just go to nearby lakes and swimming pools, or purify themselves in their own homes.
Midfa Al Iftar – the tradition of firing cannons (Lebanon)
In many countries across the Middle East, cannons are fired daily during the month of Ramazan to signal the end of the day’s fast. This tradition, known as midfa al iftar, is said to have begun in Egypt over 200 years ago, when the country was governed by the Ottoman ruler Khosh Qadam. While testing a new cannon at sunset, Qadam accidentally fired it, and the sound that reverberated throughout Cairo prompted many civilians to assume that this was a new way to signal the end of the fast. Many thanked him for his innovation, and his daughter, Haja Fatma, urged him to make this a tradition.
The practice made its way to many countries across the Middle East including Lebanon, where cannons were used by the Ottomans to mark iftar all over the country. The tradition was feared lost in 1983 after an invasion that led to the confiscation of some of the cannons – then considered weapons. But it was revived by the Lebanese Army following the war and continues even today, evoking nostalgia among older generations who can remember the Ramazans of their childhood.
Haq Al Laila - children sing for sweets (UAE)
Often compared to the Western custom of trick-or-treat, the tradition of haq al laila takes place on the 15th of sha’ban, the month before Ramazan. Shared by many countries across the Gulf, this day sees children roaming their neighbourhoods dressed in bright clothing, collecting sweets and nuts in tote bags known as kharyta – all the while singing traditional local songs. The chant Aatona Allah Yutikom, Bait Makkah Yudikum, which translates from Arabic to ‘Give to us and Allah will reward you and help you visit the House of Allah in Mecca’, reverberates through the streets as children excitedly collect their bounty.
In the United Arab Emirates, this celebration is considered integral to Emirati national identity. In today’s modern society, which is often said to be more isolated and individualistic, this celebration offers a return to simpler times and highlights the importance of strong societal bonds and family values.
Singing melodious prayers at Suhoor (Morocco)
During Ramazan, Morocco’s neighbourhoods are roamed by the nafar – a town crier who, donning the traditional attire of a gandora, slippers and a hat, marks the start of dawn with his melody. Selected by the townspeople for his honesty and empathy, the nafar walks down the street while blowing a horn to wake them up for suhoor.
This tradition, which spread across the Middle East to Morocco, dates back to the seventh century, when a companion of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) would roam the streets at dawn singing melodious prayers. When the nafar’s music sweeps through the town, it is met with gratitude and thanks, and he is officially compensated by the community on the last night of Ramazan.
Drumming at suhoor (Turkey)
Ever since the days of the Ottoman Empire, those fasting during Ramazan have woken up to the sound of a drum beating early in the morning for suhoor. Despite the passage of time (and notwithstanding the invention of alarm clocks), more than 2,000 drummers still roam the streets of Turkey, uniting the local community during the holy month.
Drummers dress in traditional Ottoman costume, including a fez and vest that are both adorned with traditional motifs. As they go around with their davul (Turkish double-headed drum), the Ramazan drummers rely on the generosity of residents to give them tips (bahsis or even invite them in to share their suhoor meal. This bahsis is usually collected twice in the holy month, with many givers believing they will receive good luck in return for their kindness.
Recently, Turkish officials have introduced a membership card for drummers in order to instill a sense of pride in those who play, and to encourage the younger generation to keep this age-old tradition alive in the fast-changing country.
Lighting lanterns (Egypt)
Every year, the people of Egypt welcome Ramazan with colourful fanous – intricate lanterns that symbolise unity and joy throughout the holy month. Although this tradition is more cultural than it is religious, it has come to be strongly associated with the holy month of Ramazan, taking on a spiritual significance.
The tales of its origin differ, but a prominent account dates the birth of the fanous to one night during the Fatimid dynasty, when Egyptians greeted Caliph Al-Muizz Lideenillah as he arrived in Cairo on the first day of Ramazan. In order to provide an illuminated entrance for the imam, military officials ordered locals to hold candles in the dark streets, sheltering them in wooden frames to prevent them from blowing out. Over time, these wooden structures emerged into patterned lanterns, and are now displayed across the entire country, spreading light during the holy month.
Today, the fanous are often integrated into other local traditions. For example, during the holy month, children walk the streets with their lanterns, singing merrily while asking for gifts and sweets.
Gathering for games of mheibes (Iraq)
In the early hours of the night, after breaking fast, generations of people across Iraq come together for a traditional game of mheibes. Predominantly played by men during Ramazan, this game involves two groups of about 40 to 250 players, who all take turns to conceal a mihbes, or ring. A game of deception, mheibes begins with the team leader holding the ring, his hands draped in a blanket. The other members must sit with their fists tight in their lap, as the leader passes the ring to one of the other players in secret. In a tense exchange, their opponents must determine which of the dozens of men conceal the ring through body language alone.
Though the exact origins of the game are unknown, it has profound cultural and historical value. Decades ago, the Iraqi government would organise community-wide games, hosting hundreds of participants and bringing together locals from across the country. Although this state-sponsored practice was halted during wartime and feared lost, mheibes has made a return in recent years, as individual community members continue to pass forward the tradition.
- Compiled by Tooba Ghani