Along with shahadah (confession of faith), salat (prayer), zakat (alms or charitable giving) and hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime), fasting from eating and drinking during Ramadan (sawm), the ninth lunar month of the Islamic calendar, is one of the Five Pillars of the religion. Muslims also refrain from smoking, sexual relations and swearing throughout the month.
Traditionally, Ramadan is said to be the month during which the prophet Muhammad penned the verses of the Quran. Layalat al-Qadir, which falls during the last ten days of the 28-30 day fasting period, is said to be the anniversary of the “night of power” when the prophet was inspired to inscribe the holy book’s words. On this night, Muslims gather in mosques around the world, from Indonesia and Malaysia to Pakistan and Iran, to recite these words until the sun comes up.
On July 9 Muslims around the world began this period of fasting – from dawn until dusk – which continues until August 8. Some excellent photos from Ramadan this year can be seen here and here. During this time, the goal is to focus all thoughts and energy on Allah (God). Certain exceptions are granted, such as for the ill or pregnant.
For those who break the fast without meeting one of these conditions of exemption, however, the act is treated as a crime in countries that operate under Islamic law. Breaking this regulation can result in anything from fines and community service to jail time. In a bid to curb the city’s expanding waistlines, Dubai officials are taking advantage of the holiday this year by offering residents a gram of gold for every kilogram lost during the holy month.
While all of this talk of restraint may sound tough, there is relief. When the sun sets and bellies grumble, rest assured food is on the dinner table. The transition, from fast to feast, is marked by iftar – the act of breaking the fast. This is often achieved by biting into a date – fresh or dry – or drinking some water. Once iftar has been completed, the fun begins.
For some, it’s the simple things like olives, dates and orange juice that stand out. Along with lentil soup, these are the simple options most associate with the holiday. But the options are myriad. Layered eggplant, zucchini and tomato casserole; tabblouleh with marinated artichokes and baby spinach; grape leaves stuffed with pine nuts and spiced rice; molokhia with spiced chicken served over a bed of rice; okra and tomato stew with veal shank; kebabs of all types. The list goes on. There are desserts too – which feel necessary after blood sugar dips from a day without sustenance.
A look online for Ramadan recipes almost suggests that the occasion is more about digging into a month-long gourmet spread than self-control. But the sunrise-to-sunset cycle holds valuable lessons for the food-obsessed West, according to an article in The Independent, from health benefits to ethical reasons. The article quotes an excerpt from Steven Poole’s book, You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up With Gastroculture. Poole writes: “Western civilisation is eating itself stupid. The literary and visual rhetoric of food in our culture has become decoupled from any reasonable concern for nutrition or environment.”
There is truth to this. But no one can hold out forever. When Ramadan comes to an end Eid Al-Fatur is the first day that follows and coincides with the new moon. On Eid, families recite a prayer (Salat al-Eid) and yet another wave of festivities begins – this one defined by eating, gift giving and merrymaking.
But roughly 11 months later, Ramadan rolls around again and the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims take another break from the cycle of consumption.