By Josyn Palma
Ramadan is considered one of the holiest months in the Muslim calendar. It’s a month of fasting, reflection and community—a time for Muslims around the world to come together and celebrate their brotherhood.
In the Philippines, there are approximately 5 million Muslims, making up 11% of the country’s entire population. While most of the country’s Muslim populations live in Mindanao, some have migrated northwards to Metro Manila. Sizeable Muslim communities can be found in just about every city, so it’s no wonder that in 2002, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared the Eid’l FItr celebration as a national holiday through Republic Act 1977, in recognition and respect for our Muslim brothers and sisters.
So what exactly is Ramadan? Here are answers to some questions you may have been too shy to ask.
8. What is Ramadan and why do Muslims celebrate it?
Ramadan is known as a month of fasting, where Muslims between the age of puberty and age of seniority cannot eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. Muslims celebrate Ramadan as a means to bring the community together, as a time to reflect upon their blessings, a time to pray for absolution, and a time to pray for the year to come. It is obligatory for all Muslims to observe Ramadan, as it is one of the five pillars of the religion. Fasting is required—if you give in and take water or food through the day, your month’s fast starts over the next day.
There are exceptions to fasting—if you are a lady and have your period, are pregnant, or are nursing, you are exempted from the fast. Travelers and the sick are also exempted from the fast. However, the exemption means that you’ll have to make it up for it by fasting later, or by helping feed the needy and the poor.
Ramadan is not celebrated in isolation, either. Because the worldwide community of Muslims (in Arabic known as the ummah, or the “brotherhood”) celebrates it together, it is encouraged to celebrate with your family, friends, and larger community.
Bonus Facts: Ramadan can get pretty rough depending on the season and where you live. Because the time of sunrise and sunset depends on the hemisphere you live in, some countries fast longer than others. However, the local communities have a fatwa, or a clerical decree from a Muslim scholar, that states that they can follow the fasting timeline of the closest Islamic country, like Turkey, or Saudi Arabia. This means that if sunrise at Mecca, Saudi Arabia is at 5am, they begin the fast at 5am. If the sunset is at 7pm, then prayers begin at 7pm and the fast is broken. This significantly shortens the fasting time.
In the Philippines, the fasting times are pretty standard, as our days have an average length. Sunrise is normally at 5am in the summer and 6am in the winter; sunsets are normally 6:30pm to 7pm in the summer, and 5:30pm in the winter. This means our fasts are normally between 12 and 14 hours—which is much better than16 or 23 hours in some countries! However, what becomes difficult is dealing with the summer heat. Because Filipino Muslims cannot have water, constant thirst and hunger are daily distractions.
7. When is Ramadan and why does it change every year?
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Because the Islamic calendar follows the lunar calendar, it changes every year. The Islamic calendar is approximately 11 days behind the Gregorian calendar, which is what we use in the Philippines.
Ramadan is declared upon sighting of the crescent moon, and may vary from country to country. Each country normally has its own Muslim organization which makes this declaration—in the Philippines, it is declared by the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF). Ramadan goes on for one month, after which there is the celebration commonly known as Eid’l Fitr. The NCMF also makes the declaration of Eid’l Fitr, to declare the end of Ramadan.
6. How is Ramadan significant to our culture?
The relationship between the Philippine government and our Muslim population has not always been the best—we are still in the middle of a peace process to help address structural injustices passed on by the Spaniards and the Americans at the time of colonization. The recognition of Ramadan, and Eid’l Fitr as a holiday of national observance, extends the feeling of recognition and solidarity to our Muslim brothers and sisters, recognizing that their holidays are ours too—the same way that our holidays have become theirs over the years. In addition, we learn more about our Muslim brothers and sisters, recognizing that we are all part of the fabric of Philippine culture.
Because of the way that Muslim Filipinos have been largely isolated in Mindanao, there is a sense of “otherness” that many non-Muslims have. This, mixed with unfavorable media attention due to the current climate of pervasive Islamophobia worldwide, often breeds a sense of distrust among non-Muslims, and alienation among Muslims. By recognizing Muslim Filipino culture as part of Philippine culture, we are reminding ourselves that we are all part of one country with a mix of vibrant, living cultures—ones that deserve equal recognition, love and respect.
5. What is the fast?
Fasting is as the name implies: no food or water from sunrise until sunset. The instruction is that while the sun is in the sky, nothing shall pass through the mouth. The Ramadan fast is also a time for spiritual cleansing—part of the fast means that one must refrain or abstain from sexual activity, and must refrain from giving into negative thoughts such as jealousy, anger or irritation. This also means curbing behaviors like gossiping and cursing.
Fasting has two purposes: the spiritual and the social. Spiritually, the fast is ideally to bring Muslims closer to God (Allah) through the reminder of one’s mortality, frailty and the sustenance they receive from Allah. It also serves as a time of reflection for one’s relationship with Allah, and a time of meditation and focus to bring one’s faith (deen) closer to Allah.
Socially, it is to build compassion for the less fortunate and the destitute. It is a reminder of what it is like to be unable to eat or drink the whole day, so one feels compassion and a sense of duty to help those around them who are unable to regularly eat or drink. In a world where three billion people live below the poverty line, it’s a pretty good reminder.
While one would think that Muslims would hate Ramadan, many do look forward to it as it is a time for reflection and calm. Others have simply just gotten used to it as another time in their lives. Besides, Eid’l Fitr is a huge celebration, so there are perks and rewards for completing Ramadan. Many social celebrations go on during Eid (which normally lasts three days), and many female Muslims also take advantage of Eid to wear specially made abayas (long loose, dresses) and beautifully decorated hijabs (headscarves).
4. What traditions do Muslims observe during Ramadan?
Muslims usually exchange traditional Ramadan greetings like “Ramadan Kareem!” or “Ramadan Mubarak!” Loosely translated, it is the equivalent of “blessed Ramadan.” There is also the additional nightly prayer at the mosque upon praying at sunset, called the “taraweeh.” The taraweeh is a prayer of about 20 raqat (or verses), with a break taken every four raqat.
Muslims normally pray five times a day. Taraweeh is usually prayed after the Isha (sunset) prayers are said. Taraweeh prayers are said to absolve the devotee of their sins, and to seek rewards for their faithfulness. In other words, more blessings!
3. Are there any particular celebrations before or after the fast?
Because Ramadan starts very early, many Muslims opt to start the day with the suhoor, or the meal before the start of the early morning prayers (Fajr) and fast. Usually these meals are large as these are the only food intake that Muslims will have for the whole day until the sun sets. Because Ramadan can get really rough, especially in the Philippines where the days are long and it is so hot, some food blogs have actually started compiling lists of recommended (halal) food to have for suhoor. Whether or not you’re Muslim, those lists may be helpful for keeping a healthy diet.
Iftar, on the other hand, is the meal at the end of the fast. As one can imagine, iftar becomes a mini-celebration every day. Iftar celebrations are usually between family and friends, and can often involve the entire community. Iftar is usually marked by first eating three dates, in keeping with the tradition of observed by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
2. What is a typical day like during Ramadan?
Just like any other day, really! Muslims will wake up for suhoor and Fajr (early morning) prayers, then go about their day. It’s considered cheating if you intentionally wake up in the middle of the day to skip fasting, but that’s not to say that many don’t do it. At sundown, the community normally gathers at the mosque for prayers, and then hold the iftar feast to break fast. However, some families just go about their days, then pray and break fast together, without necessarily going to the mosque.
1. So what can we do to be respectful towards Muslims during Ramadan?
While we don’t have to radically change our behaviors, it would be helpful to be conscious that a Muslim friend or co-worker might be in the middle of the fast. Because Ramadan is difficult on the body as well as the mind, some friends and co-workers might be extra irritable, tired, impatient, or sluggish. Even being a bit more patient and understanding with them as they go through the day (and month) is a huge help.
Another way is to refrain from discussing food in front of fasting Muslims. Food is great, but sometimes even the thought of food during the fast becomes very difficult. It is also tempting to taunt Muslim friends by eating or drinking in front of them, but it’s being really insensitive and rude. Please don’t do that. And please don’t consider Ramadan just a “diet” they go through once a year – it’s a very serious month for many Muslims, and refraining from food and drink is only one part of it.
Some friends have also made the option of doing a one-day fast in solidarity, “for fun” or to “see how it feels like”—it’s a great way of showing respect and solidarity, but don’t think it’s something you have to do.
Ramadan was declared in the Philippines on June 6, 2016. Ramadan kareem!
What do you think Pinoys should know about Ramadan? Sound off in the comments below!