Timeless Ramadan Rituals: and the Sweet Gift of Eid

For many Muslims across the world, the Ramadan of 2020 was a very different time of fasting. It was smaller in scale, less colorful and much less festive with the cancelation of public gatherings. But nonetheless, the spirit of Ramadan persevered, with many of its timeless rituals bringing joy to the daily lives of fasting Muslims.

Traditional rituals add a unique flavor to religious observances. Some traditions are new, while others are old. Here in this blog, we rediscover some of the enduring traditions across the Islamic world.

Each Ramadan begins with the sighting of the crescent, and ends with a crescent, welcoming Eid Al-Fitr. In Egypt, there is a tradition called “the judges’ bench” which is located over the Muqattam Hills, where these religious scholars meet to observe the crescent clearly. It us also where Badr Al-Jamali mosque is located, where its minaret is used as an observatory to view the phases of the moon.

The 19th century British scholar, Edward Lane, described the celebratory procession devoted to observing the crescent. Lane visited Egypt many times, most notably in 1833 when he gathered the material for his book: “An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians.” The book was a best-seller and is still in print.

He wrote: “In the evening of the day above mentioned, the mohtesib, the sheykhs of several trades (millers, bakers, slaughtermen, sellers of meat, oil-men, and fruiterers), with several other members of each of these trades, musical bands, and a number of fakeers (paupers), headed and interrupted by companies of soldiers, go in procession from the Citadel to the Court of the Qadee (judge), and there await the return of one of the persons who have been sent to make the observation, or the testimony of any other Muslim who has seen the crescent. The streets through which they pass are lined with spectators.”

He further described the crowds as proclaiming: “O! Blessing! Blessing! Bless the Prophet! On him be peace!”

Lane added: “When information that the crescent has been seen has arrived at the Qadee's court, the soldiers and others assembled there divide themselves into several parties, one of which returns to the Citadel: the others perambulate through different districts of the town, shouting: ‘O followers of the best of the Creation! Fasting! Fasting!’”

Back to the present day: the fanous: the lantern, an enduring colorful symbol of Ramadan, has been visible on the streets, at home and even virtually. Why lanterns in particular, we might wonder? It is said that the Fatimid caliph, Al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah, entered Cairo during Ramadan at night in the year 969 and was welcomed by its residents with torches and lanterns. Since then, it has been customary for the streets to be lit with lanterns to facilitate the movement of people and commercial activity in the markets that remain open until late at night during Ramadan. Lanterns were the kaleidoscopic street lights, lighting the way between sunset and dawn during the holy month, until electricity emerged, transforming lanterns from an actual device to a symbol that spread everywhere. Some café owners replace their modern lighting with Ramadan and ‘Id lanterns, as well as many public places, to give the place a beautiful timeless festive feel.

As for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, among of the most prominent symbols of Ramadan are the Iftar tables set up across laborers’ neighborhoods or in mosque tents and even the holy Grand Mosque in Makkah as an act of charity. There is also the tradition called “Fukuk Alriq” which means to break one’s fasting by drinking water and eating dates, then praying and then sitting down to the full iftar. Another feature of the months are the dishes known as “Ramadan Ghabqat” which are special preparations of nuts and desserts given at gatherings of friends and families at the suhoor pre-dawn meals.

When it is the middle of the month, everyone, especially children, prepare for Gargee’an. This is a ritual marked with nuts, sweet treats, and joyful gatherings of children where they sing traditional songs. The neighbors also share the Ramadan customs by sitting down to a variety of delicacies: this tradition is called the “Naqsa," and involves everyone sharing some of their dishes.

Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan, traditions relate to strengthening relationships. Before Ramadan, people visit family members and make peace with those they fought or quarreled with. Others leave the big cities and go back to their hometowns and villages to reconnect with distant relatives. As soon as Tarawih prayers end, children leave the mosques and start knocking on doors while they recite religious chants that include prayers and compliments to their neighbors in exchange for sweets and money. This ritual is similar to Gargee’an except that it occurs all throughout the holy month. Iftar tables also are also set up at mosques as an act of charity.

In Indonesia, rituals start just before Ramadan, and have usually started before the end of Sha’ban. House owners start decorating their houses with ornaments and begin visiting grand open markets where they buy their supplies for the holy month. Moreover, as soon as the start of Ramadan is announced, people start drumming Indonesian drums, called the bedug, as a form of celebration.

No matter how the cultural celebratory rituals vary, once ‘Id al-Fitr is announced, people in all Muslim countries pray ‘Id prayers, don new clothes, some will apply henna on their hands, all will prepare gifts for children and some will visit the graves of their loved ones. With public gatherings kept to a minimum this year, homes will be the center of the celebration. Most will put extra efforts into decorating them, and welcome ‘Id with a special ‘Id breakfast and its traditional pastry sweets such as ma'mool (shortbread cookie filled with dates or nuts), baklava (layers of filo pastry laced with butter and chopped pistachios and nuts) and aseeda (wheat flour dumpling with honey).

One traditional sweet dish in Saudi Arabia is debyazah. Cooking debyazah can begin up to three days before ‘Id. The sweet dish is made of fresh nuts, including almonds, pistachios and pine nuts. Dried fruits are also added, including figs, apricots, dates and raisins.

Across other parts of the Arab world, there are the famous ‘Id cookies. Palestinians bake a form called graybeh, stuffed with either pine nuts or almonds. In Syria and Lebanon, a form of ‘Id biscuits is made stuffed with dates or walnuts. The same ‘Id biscuit are known in Iraq as klaicha. In Egypt, they are known as kahk — the delicate exterior is powdered with sugar, while common fillings include walnuts, although some prefer the cookies with no fillings.

In other parts of the Muslim world, the traditional warm, sweet vermicelli milk spiced with cardamom and saffron known as sevia (pronounced “sev-ay-a”) is popular in countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Many things may have changed this year due to COVID-19, but not the peaceful spirit of Ramadan and the joyful ‘sweet’ time of ‘Id. Ithra will mark Eid Al Fitr this year with a celebratory parade that will pass through neighborhoods in Khobar, Dhahran and Dammam. In a time of social distancing, the initiative offers the public comfort, a sense of unity and enjoyment from the safety of their own homes. The parade will feature wagons adorned with elements demonstrating Eastern Province culture as it passes through different cities near Ithra during its six-hour procession.

For those nostalgic for some of the classics, Ithra Theater will broadcast a tribute to musical legends Asmahan and Umm Kulthum that will be shown on TV on the Rotana Music channel.

By Noura AlBarrak