Increasing cultural awareness – Ramadan

As Ramadan begins this week, Becky wanted to learn more about what is involved in this important celebration

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Becky Hughes, Community Co-Ordinator at Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Becky Hughes, Community Co-Ordinator at Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors

Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was first established in Horsham, West Sussex in 1855. The company now has three further offices across the county – in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint – and serves an increasingly diverse population.  With funerals no longer fitting the blueprint of a church service followed by a churchyard burial, the team is keen to understand more about a variety of cultures. As this week marks the beginning of Ramadan, Community Co-Ordinator Becky has taken the time to learn about the traditions involved…

The annual celebration of Ramadan is incredibly important, as it represents one of the five pillars of Islam. Through a month-long observance of a variety of practices, Muslims reaffirm their dedication to their faith, and spend time contemplating their relationship with God, as well as supporting their communities.

The most commonly-understood element of Ramadan is that it involves fasting during daylight hours – even water and medications are forbidden through strict observance – but the reality is that fasting is merely one practice which is undertaken. Ramadan takes place during different dates each year, as it is linked to the Islamic lunar calendar, rather than the Gregorian calendar.

The dates of each year’s Ramadan often cause great debate within the Muslim community, and this disagreement dates from the very earliest days of the religion, when contemporary technologies made judging the phases of the moon more difficult than it is for us today. Early Muslims were reliant on their own eyesight – plus the weather and their geographical position – in order to determine the beginning of Ramadan. With human eyesight being what it is, this has meant that there have been debates and inaccuracies, which in the modern era are eased by the use of satellite technologies.

Prior to the availability of satellites, there was typically a member of each community who was regarded as having the best eyesight, whose duty it was to observe the skies each night, and determine when Ramadan would begin. Ramadan is the ninth month of the lunar calendar, and each month starts with the New Moon. This can be incredibly hard to spot with the naked eye, hence the debates as to when the month would begin – many people chose to wait for the first sliver of moon to appear, which again is open to both debate and geographical position. Part of the reason for waiting for the crescent to appear is due to a statement being attributed to the Prophet Mohammed to this effect – there are those who also believe that this is why the star and crescent is the symbol of Islam, though these are widely understood to have been in use prior to this.

Another modern challenge with regard to Ramadan is the fact that migration and choices about religious observance mean that Muslims live outside of the traditional regions of Islam’s geographic origin – this year’s Ramadan falls in the northern hemisphere’s spring, but when it is further into the summer, this presents a significant challenge for those living in the far north of Europe, where daylight hours can exceed 20 of 24.  Similarly, those who live in incredibly warm, dry climates, may find it difficult to sustain the incorporated water fast during the summer months.  For Muslims, this is part of the concept of Ramadan – in addition to affirming one’s commitment to God, followers are meant to experience a greater appreciation of the suffering of others, by putting themselves through these restrictions.

Muslims are expected to maintain their usual daily schedule whilst fasting, not taking time off from work or education, or cutting back on any duties. However, there are some people who are exempt from fasting, namely children, pregnant women, the elderly, those who are ill, and those who are travelling. These groups in particular are expected to observe the traditions of Ramadan in other ways, such as by committing themselves to prayer and Quran studies – often forgoing consumption of other media such as music, films, TV and books during the month – and supporting charities. Muslims are also supposed to curb other negative behaviours during Ramadan, including swearing, gossiping, complaining, and experiencing jealousy. All of these practices are designed to bring observers closer to their faith, and be more mindful of those who suffer difficulties in daily life, by increasing their compassion for these situations.

A typical day during Ramadan involves waking up whilst it’s still dark in order to have a large meal – known as suhoor – to see you through the day, eating protein-rich foods and drinking as much water as possible until the sun rises. Depending on the time of year, some may then choose to go back to bed for a little while when the sun comes up, before getting up again to go about daily activities. The evening call to prayer then allows Muslims to break their fast, with a small meal known as iftar prior to going to prayer. As Muslim prayers tend to involves being quite energetic – there’s lots of dynamic movement – a large meal is inadvisable, having fasted all day! During Ramadan, the evening prayer service involves special prayers only said during this month.

After the prayer service, a larger meal will generally be consumed. This is also often usually shared at the homes of friends or family members. Sadly this year, this practice will be curtailed due to the ongoing pandemic – last year, the Muslim Council of Britain encouraged families and friends to make use of video calls in order to experience time together during social distancing. Unfortunately for Muslims living in the UK, the entirety of Ramadan in 2021 will be subject to social restrictions – households are not due to be able to meet indoors until 17th May at the earliest; Ramadan began on 12th April, and will conclude on 12th May. There has also been criticism from some members of the Muslim community of the Government’s decision to re-open fitness and retail spaces on the first day of Ramadan – many people feel that this excludes them from these activities due to their religious observations limiting their ability to participate in them.

The end of Ramadan is marked by Eid al-Fitr – the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast. Eid is again marked with specific prayers, and donations to those in need. Gifts are exchanged and feasting takes place.

Although Ramadan sounds incredibly serious – and is – many Muslims look forward to it, as it is also a time of celebration, given that the start of it signifies the time they believe that God revealed the first verses of the Quran to Mohammed. With over one billion Muslims living across the world, many say that they feel a powerful sense of connection during this shared time of fasting and observation of traditions, as the community shares an experience such as this.

Learning more about Ramadan observations has made me keen to be more compassionate of others choosing to observe this. It’s quite an incredible commitment, particularly when we consider how much of our lives revolve around eating, drinking, and other temporarily-forbidden activities. I hope that those who are celebrating this year are able to enjoy their season, despite the continued social distancing restrictions. I, for one, have taken heart thanks to believing that, although we have had several experiences taken away from us – and some of them for two years in a row – this will hopefully not last forever, and we will be able to celebrate together again in 2022.

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Written by Becky Hughes

Community Co-Ordinator

April 14, 2021

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