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August 19, 2009

Ramadan Memories

Dr. Munir El-Kassem

As far as I can remember, Ramadan always brought with it a distinctive cultural flavour.

In addition to the spiritual components which no doubt captured the most attention, people were still able to find enough time to welcome this month with a great deal of creativity.

In the country where I lived as a child, it used to be rather difficult not to smell the excitement in the air as Ramadan prepared to pay its annual visit. The festivities would usually start by stocking on essential Ramadan food items like dates, dried apricot sheets, olives, pickles and many other specialized items that people used to eat only during Ramadan.

The neighbourhood mosque would light up with special strings of light bulbs that would temporarily give people a welcome break from the darkness of the narrow streets and alleys.

As a child, I was fortunate to hear the Azan from the minarets of the many mosques around our neighbourhood resonating with the call to the five daily prayers.

In Ramadan the Azan for Fajr (Dawn) prayer would be preceded with a special call in the middle of the night alerting people to eat their Sahoor (pre-dawn) meal.

Some mosques would have special supplications echoing from the minarets as lights would start to appear from the small apartment windows announcing that special Ramadan night activity.

I also still remember that old man who used to roam the streets of our neighbourhood during the nights of Ramadan hitting his tambourine with a stick and calling those who were sleeping to wake up to the remembrance of God .

As a child, it used to be quite exciting to get up during the night to eat what my mother had prepared. She used to get up an hour earlier than everyone else to ensure that all our needs were met. What used to be quite fascinating and spiritually fulfilling as a child, was the reading of the Qur’an together as a family before we would walk with my father to the mosque to pray Fajr behind the Imam.

During weekdays we would go back to have a little snooze before getting up for school to start another Ramadan day. On weekends we would sit for the study circle with the Imam to review many aspects of the religion of Islam.

Ramadan evenings were no less exciting than the pre-dawn times.

An hour before Iftar (fast breaking), we would start smelling goods with a special Ramadan aroma. The streets would gradually get deserted except from those selling specialized Ramadan items like ice cold juices and mixtures of raisins and nuts.

Half an hour before Iftar, the local radio station would broadcast specially prepared Ramadan programs, including, of course, religious talks and Qur’anic reading followed by the Azan for Maghrib (sunset) prayer.

Immediately before the Azan, a canon would be fired from the hilltop to announce Iftar time. It was our tradition that we would break our fast with three dates and a drink of water. Iftar dinner was usually eaten after performing Maghrib prayer.

The culmination of our daily routine during this holy month would be by joining the congregation to perform ‘Isha (night) and Taraweeh prayers.

Lailat-ul-Qadr (Night of Determination or Power) was always a night to anticipate. More than any other night, the neighbourhood mosque would be packed with people and the worship would intensify as the believers asked God for His mercy and forgiveness.

What made Ramadan a true cultural festival was the fact that all Muslims did things in unison, thus enjoying the feeling of belonging to the community of the faithfull.

As Canadian Muslims, we owe it to our children to develop certain activities that will capture their imagination and strengthen their Islamic identity.

Ramadan provides us with a unique opportunity to implement what we teach our children throughout the year. I am not here advocating to practice innovations, but I strongly feel that in order for our children to foster a firm Islamic identity they need to practice Islam through familiar methods, not imported ones.

We find that children learn more during recreational activities than in formal educational settings. Therefore, we should not hesitate to develop annual activities that will attract our children to Ramadan with all its acts of worship including fasting, prayers, and charity.

Over the last thirty three years of my life in Canada, I have experienced the good and the bad when it comes to understanding Islam by both Muslims and non-Muslims.

On the good side, I have seen young Muslims born in this country as well as many non-Muslims showing genuine desire to learn about Islam in an objective manner, away from the sensationalism of media coverage.

Whether it is at schools, colleges, churches or interfaith meetings, many non-Muslims ask relevant questions that deserve objective answers.

On the bad side, I feel disheartened by the insufficient amount of Islamic knowledge (or knowledge about Islam) among a sizable sector of Western communities. 

I hope alternative media like The Canadian Charger will bridge the gap in a most efficient way.  As we say in Arabic: “Ramadan Mubarak (Have a blessed Ramadan).”

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