History of Ramadan and the Experience in Istanbul

Ramadan or Ramazan, in Turkish, is by far the most famous of the Muslim holidays and definitely the longest. The muslim calendar is lunar and is about 11 days shorter than the Gregorian Calendar. So, that’s why you’ll see the dates change every year. Ramadan is one month and is a physically and mentally arduous experience. For some, it’s also a spiritually enriching one as well.

Some basic facts about Ramadan:

  • 29 or 30 days every year
  • Culminates in a 3 day long holiday of eating everything you can. In Arabic this is commonly called Eid. This is referred to as Şeker Bayramı (Festival of Sweets) or just Bayram in Turkish.
  • Most famously you cannot eat during the daylight, drink water (or anything else), smoke, or participate in pleasures of the body. This practice is called Oruç in Turkish.
  • There are many exemptions: sickness, old age, pregnancy and breast feeding, prepubescence, menstruation, or traveling all exempt you from having to fast. Though, I believe some of these only mean you need to make up the lost day later, feed someone less fortunate, or give enough money to charity to afford one day’s worth of food. This practice is referred to as fidyah in Arabic.
  • Suhur is your morning meal. You can often expect to be woken up for it by people walking down the street banging a loud bass drum.
  • Iftar is the nightly meal and you can often get it free at mosques (or Camii in Turkish)
  • Niyetliyim – The phrase you say to those who offer you food or drink during the day. The closest translation I’ve been told is, “I’m intended.”
  • It’s the fourth of the Five Pillars of Islam. It is mandatory in some countries with punishments ranging from a small fine to imprisonment.
  • Kaffaraah means atonement and that if you deliberately break your fast you need to fast for 60 straight days or pay for the food of 60 people for one day.
  • Laylatul-Qadr commemorates Mohammad’s revelation of the Qu’ran. While meditating he allegedly was spoken to by the Archangel Gabriel who motivated him to create the holy book.
"Sultan Ahmed Mosque mahya3" by Uğur Başak - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sultan_Ahmed_Mosque_mahya3.jpg#/media/File:Sultan_Ahmed_Mosque_mahya3.jpg

“Sultan Ahmed Mosque mahya3” by Uğur Başak – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sultan_Ahmed_Mosque_mahya3.jpg#/media/File:Sultan_Ahmed_Mosque_mahya3.jpg

This year is a rather intense year for fasting as June 20th was the third or so day of Ramadan and also was the longest day of the year. So far the meals have been at approximately 3:30 AM and 8:40 PM this year. So, you have about seven hours to eat and have to go through the long hot hours of the afternoon thirsty and hungry. Personally, I’m trying to do it for about a week until I travel back to the States (using that travel exemption!). I’ll let everyone know how it goes. I’ve know a few non-Muslims who have done the entire month a few times.

Which kind of brings me to the next point and that’s why you fast. You see people from other faiths (or no faith) attempt it and while the holiday is intended for Muslims other religions throughout history have employed fasting and the meaning is similar.

  1. Achieve taqwa (Turkish: takva) and it’s essentially the purification of your soul and mind to be closer to God. By being selfless and fasting for Allah.
  2. Shows self-discipline. It supposedly develops one’s mind from the physical to the moral and therefore to the spiritual level by suppressing carnal desires.
  3. To help you empathize with those less fortunate than you. By stripping yourself of indulgences you are supposed to better understand the plight of poverty and thus make you a more ethical person and help you achieve taqwa.

With all that said, Ramazan in Turkey can actually be a normal, if not quiet, time. It’s a nice change of pace for a bustling city of 16 or so million people. Many people don’t fast or try it for a few days and give up. It’s business as usual with a lot of places. Offices remain open, as do restaurants. In more conservative areas you probably want to avoid eating, drinking, or smoking in public. Though, no one will say much, you may get some stares either because that person is irritable from hunger or because they are just so hungry that they can’t take their eyes off your sandwich.

When Ramadan (the 9th month on the Islamic calendar ends) the holiday begins and that’s when most people leave for vacation. It’s a public holiday in Turkey and busses and trains are free. There are often big feasts with friends and family. Before you eat you are supposed to donate food to the poor equal to every member of your household before the Bayram prayer (it’s worth noting now that prayer is very important during Ramadan as it is in other days in Islam, with Iftar coming after the evening prayer and Suhur before the 1st). The first day of Bayram you wake up extra early to pray and go around in your best clothes. Children will come around and kiss your right hand and press it to their foreheads and then you are supposed to give them candies or small amounts of money, kind of like Halloween.

It’s really an interesting time and a great insight into religious devotion and purpose, as well as just culturally. I’ll check back in a few weeks to let you know if I failed or not. Also, I’ll admit to not being a religious scholar. I know I’m missing a lot but if there are any glaring inaccuracies feel free to leave a comment.

Ramazanınız Mübarek olsun!

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