I’m not a muslim but my husband and his family are. I have been living in Turkey for 12 years and thought I’d share with you what I have learned about Ramadan.
Ramadan (known as Ramazan in Turkey) is the holiest month of the year in the Islamic calendar, being the month in which the Muslim holy book, the Quran, began to be revealed by God through the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. However, the month is perhaps best known because for Muslims it is the month of fasting, one of the five pillars of Islamic practice.
As the Islamic (Hijri) calendar is lunar-based, Ramadan begins about 10 days earlier each year. This year the fast will begin the evening of Thursday, July 19, 2012, and ends in the evening of Saturday, August 18, 2012. It will be amidst a scorching July/ August (we are havig a heatwave at the moment), and the long summer days mean that the fasts, observed from dawn until sunset, will be about 16 hours long. In the Islamic tradition, fasting means letting nothing pass the lips: no food, drink, chewing gum, tobacco smoke, not even licking an envelope or postage stamp from sunrise to sunset. Observant Muslims also refrain from sexual intercourse during daylight in the holy month. It is also recommended that fasters put in extra effort to avoid sins, such as lying and cheating. Most Muslims, whether strictly observant or not, use the holy month and the stricture of fasting to help them examine their lives, to remind themselves of virtues like charity, compassion and forgiveness. Muslims who are sick or have a medical or physical condition that would make fasting harmful for them (such as pregnancy, diabetes or mental illness) and nursing mothers are religiously exempted from fasting Ramadan.
A typical day for a faster in Turkey begins before dawn. In the middle of the night drummers circulate through towns and villages to wake sleepers so they can prepare Sahur, the big early-morning meal to be eaten before the fast begins again at sunrise. They tend to make their noise around 02:30 and 03:00 am, and they make sure everyone hears them. If you don’t want to awaken, you need to have earplugs, close your windows, or both :). Sahur is the name of the pre-dawn meal eaten to fortify for the upcoming day without food.
Ramazan is also a time of celebration, and after sunset the feasting begins with a ceremonial “break-fast” light meal called Iftar.
It always includes freshly-baked flat pidebread, and usually soup, pickled vegetables, olives and other easily-prepared edibles. Elaborate dinners are held later in the evening, many restaurants offer special banquet-like Ramazan menus at night and some restaurants which normally serve alcohol may refrain from doing so during the holy month, offering fruit juices and other drinks instead. The iftar marks the end of a day’s fast and leaves the worshipper free of the restrictions of the daytime (except, of course, for sinning) until the next dawn. Suhur and iftar meals are generally eaten in company if at all possible, whether in family homes, school dorms or workplaces.
If you’re in Turkey during Ramazan, it’s polite to refrain from eating and drinking in public during daylight hours. Rather, do it inside a restaurant, tea house, cafe (some of which will be operating as normal), or other private or semi-private area. Muslim restaurant and cafe staff, who may be fasting themselves, will understand if you are non-Muslim and will be happy to serve you. Some eateries may cover their windows with curtains so as not to distract those fasting by the sight of others eating. Restaurants are less busy at lunch, and there’s even less Turkish tea in evidence, which is amazing! Although in the tourist areas you probably won’t notice any difference.
Fasting is a physical act with deep intended spiritual meaning, as fasters take a step toward understanding people in need by depriving themselves of essentials like food and water for a brief period of time. In addition to fasting, many observant Muslims spend more time during this month focusing on the Quran and performing extra prayers, as Ramadan is known as well as a great time of forgiveness from God for transgressions. At mosques, believers gather nightly for a special prayer (terawih) performed only during Ramadan, the prayers precede each day of fasting. As days in the Islamic calendar begin at sunset, tonight will be the first night of terawih prayers at mosques, preceding tomorrow’s first fast.
Although focused around a serious spiritual element, in Turkey Ramadan is also a time of festivity. Friends and relatives visit one another frequently for iftar dinners and even suhur meals, and local municipalities and civil organisations organise iftars, festivals, book fairs and other activities for children and adults after the sun has set.
Charity is also a major characteristic of this month and believers with sufficient financial resources must donate a minimum amount to charity (this year around 7 tl ), but many donate much more than this, and Turkish charity groups organise sales or fete’s for monetary and food aid that is distributed in Turkey and around the world during Ramadan. Many individuals, businesses and even municipalities also host public iftars to feed those who are unable to afford a decent iftar meal.
Ramadan begins with the sighting of the new moon, and ends with the sighting of the new moon that marks the beginning of the next month in the Islamic calendar, Shawwal. The holy month culminates with a three-day holiday, Eid al-Fitr, known as Ramazan Bayramı in Turkish, but thats another post.