Ramadan is a special month. Not only does it mean a radical change in terms of eating habits, sleep hours, and other mundane activities, but it also entails a significant transformation at the spiritual level. Among Muslim adults these changes are natural and welcomed with enthusiasm. To non-Muslims, the entire concept of depriving oneself from food, drink and sensual pleasures from sunrise to sunset for thirty successive days may sound odd and unbearable especially when the lunar month of Ramadan coincides with July or August as it does this year. But fasting is not an isolated practice and is in fact part of a religious system based on complete submission to the One Maker. Ramadan enhances other regular practices such as praying, giving for charity, helping the poor etc. which may slacken during the rest of the year. During Ramadan, fasting is complete only if the person fasting holds an upright conduct and abstains from such customary deeds as may cause harm to others in their presence as in their absence. Muslims are incited to read the Quran, reflect on its meanings, and abide by its teachings. During the Ishae (evening) prayers, Mosques receive more than the usual numbers of worshipers; carpets are spread out in the vicinity to cater for the new or returned believers. Line after line they stand in a solemn posture listening to the Imam‘s recital of the verses of Quran echoed through loud speakers, bowing when he bows and prostrating when he prostrates. These collective prayers may last for over an hour during Ramadan and consist of eight Rak’ahs in addition to the mandatory four Rak’ahs of Ishae.
Fasting is obligatory for any Muslim reaching the period of puberty. The significance of fasting is to show total obedience and submission to God in such matters as apparently may not sound comfortable but which in verity hold great benefit for the person fasting in physical and moral sense. Fasting involves considerable suffering particularly for those used to the enjoyment of life’s pleasures and is a both a trial and a training to curb their desires and experience the sense of privation and hardships felt by the poor and unprivileged in ordinary times.
There is a great deal of cultural meaning to Ramadan besides devout worship and penitence. The rituals that are associated with fasting in Ramadan differ from one Muslim country to another. Even within the same country, there are significant differences between different regions in terms of meals prepared for the evening breakfast, and social activities undertaken during daytime or the evening, indoors or outdoors. In Morocco Harira (traditional soup) is the chief meal served with an array of appetizers, pies both sweet and salty, desserts, dates, figs, and various types of juices. It is a real feast for the gourmet.
Moroccans who live abroad feel greater nostalgia for their native towns and villages during Ramadan than any other time of the year. This yearning for home has much to do with the social ambiance created around the table amid family and relatives or in the noisy company of old friends and colleagues outdoors. After the Ishae prayers, the streets resume their bustling rhythm and cafes receive masses of nocturnal customers.
I was in Fez a couple of days ago and performed the Friday midday prayers in the famous ancient al-Karaouine mosque. It was an extremely hot day. After the end of prayers most of the worshippers continued to be seated inside the mosque, some rushed to the fountain situated at the center of the mosque to pour water on their heads, arms, and feet.
At one corner of the mosque overlooking the open courtyard, a group of worshippers started reciting the daily portion of the Quran in chorus. They were young men mostly and chanted in tandem. Their recital had almost a mesmerizing effect on the listeners. As I crossed the threshold of al-Karaouine mosque, their voices continued to reverberate in my ears for a long time. Ramadan in Fez had a special flavor despite the unbearable heat.