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The fasting month of Ramadan

Ramadan for many Muslims is a time of closeness and togetherness. This is how the author Eren Güvercin sees it: "The nicest time during Ramadan is after we have broken our fast in the late evening. We sit drinking tea or coffee in convivial company with close friends and relatives. Often we do not have the time to do this in everyday life outside the period of Ramadan."

Ramadan falls in the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. From first light to sunset, Muslims are expected to abstain from food, drink, smoking and any kind of sexual expression. The purpose of this abstention is to break the habits of everyday life and to help believers to reflect and contemplate. It is believed that the Koran was revealed to Mohammed during the month of Ramadan.

In the Koran, believers are called to fast: "O those of you who believe! Fasting is decreed as it was decreed to those who came before you - that you may become god fearing - on specific days." The fasting period is characterised by various traditions and rituals.

Fasting ends in the evening when a white thread can no longer be distinguished from a black one. In accordance with the lore, fasting is broken with a date and a glass of milk, followed by prayer and a meal. 

Desire for unity

Alevis represent a special case. In the Islamic world, they are a religious minority. Approximately 500,000 Alevis live in Germany. In some respects, they are similar to Shi'ite Muslims but there are striking differences. For example, they do not fast in the month of Ramadan but during the first twelve days of the Islamic month of Muharram.

Nevertheless, some Alevis particpate in fasting during Ramadan. "I fasted in Ramadan because all my Sunni friends were doing it. It made me feel part of it but I have only done it for two years," reported the young blogger, Çiğdem Toprak. Her words reflect an inner turmoil. On the one hand there is the desire to belong - ideally without having to fast - on the other hand, not being involved in such an important event is difficult because some people do not understand this stance. As a result, Ramadan is a complex issue for many Alevis.

Lunar sighting discussion

An issue fraught with problems is the point at which Ramadan begins. The main reason for this is the sighting of the new crescent moon denoting when the previous Islamic month of Sha'aban has come to an end. This astronomic event can be calculated by several methods. The Koordinierungsrat der Muslime in Deutschland [Co-ordination Council of Muslims in Germany] has selected one from theses and recommends the times stated there to be standard values for all Muslims. This should prevent disputes and allow reliable planning to take place.

But not all Muslims in Germany follow this line. "It's the same every year, " says Djavad Mohagheghi considering the recurring discussions. Mohagheghi is involved with the local Shi'ite congregations, in particular with the  Islamisches Zentrum Hannover of which he is chair of the board. "In the view of the Shi'ite clerics and also some Sunni clerics," says Mohagheghi, "the crucial issue concerning the beginning of Ramadan is the time that the new moon is sighted locally" . Thus expressly not the time of the earliest sighting worldwide as is considered correct in another current practice, nor a mathematically calculated date.  Therefore, Ramadan usually begins one or two days later for the advocates of a local sighting.

This is why some Muslims are still fasting while the majority of Sunni are already celebrating the end of the fast with Id al-Fitr, one of Islam's most important festivals. As Ramadan is supposed to be a time of understanding, in which conflicts are resolved, paradoxically it puts particular pressure on harmony. Mohagheghi  attends prayers in Sunni mosques when possible during Id al Fitr although he is still fasting. He observes the actual Id al-Fitr prayer later - in accordance with Shi'ite tradition in the Shi'ite congregations.

The Tradition of Tarawih Prayers

Prayer beads hang over the railings of a mosque.During Ramadan, the month of fasting, spirituality, reflection and togetherness have a special importance. Source: Christopher Adolph

During Ramadan, prayers and  intercessions should be offered in the congregation or in the mosque where possible. Especially the Tarawih prayer, a night prayer, is  intended for this purpose in the Sunni tradition. In a hadith, a saying by the prophet, Mohammed  encouraged believers to undertake this ritual for the period of Ramadan.

These rituals are a renunciation of the hustle and bustle of life. Paradoxically, productivity should not necessarily suffer from this, explains Güvercin and describes his experience of Ramadan during his studies. "I did not study or write essays for as long as in other months, but in spite of these these shorter periods of studying, I concentrated better and was more effective."

Thilo Guschas, 19.07.2012

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