In this episode, Islam on the Edges curator-host Ermin Sinanovic interviews four scholars and activists about Ramadan fasting in their countries and communities. The episode reveals many similarities across the four continents – North America, Africa, Europe, and Asia – as well as distinct local practices. Central to the observance of Ramadan are family, community, prayers, Qur’anic recitations, and acts of charity. The four guests are Nisa Muhammad (United States), Ahmet Alibašić (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Ibtisaam Ahmed (South Africa), and Lien Iffah Naf’atu Fina (Indonesia).
Ramadan. This word elicits joy and reflection among Muslims around the world. It is also an occasion for the “not even water” question, to which there is an easy answer: not even water! Muslims who observe fasting in Ramadan abstain from food, drinks, and sexual intercourse, from early dawn to sunset. They can engage in such activities between sunset and dawn.
There is much more to Ramadan than simple acts of abstaining from food, drink, and sex. Families gather, communities pray together, the sound of the Qur’anic recitations fills the air, the aromas of Ramadan delicacies tempt us in anticipation of the iftar – break of the fast meal. Dates, water, sweets, prayers, food, laughter, reflection, more prayers, the Qur’an, more food and drinks … it’s all part of Ramadan lore. It’s a season like no other. Children enjoy Ramadan. They try to imitate the adults by fasting parts of the day. They gorge on Ramadan delicacies, fall asleep during the prayers, cry if they are not awakened for the pre-dawn sahur meal, and wait in anticipation of the Eid gifts after Ramadan is over.
It is also refreshing to see a community come together to celebrate the lack of consumption. In a world in which there is rampant consumerism, unbridled capitalism, environmental degradation, overindulgence, and oversaturation in just about anything – at least in the more affluent societies – it is an act of redemption to be involved in such a profound spiritual act of devotion like fasting. At the same time, Muslims live in the world, so they are affected by the mentioned spiritually eroding activities. But, at least for a month, we try to remind ourselves, and the world, that another way of living is possible, and that – at the deepest levels – humans are defined not by what we consume but what we believe in.
Dr. Nisa Muhammad is Howard University’s Assistant Dean for Religious Life. She is responsible for religious programming, advocates for the religious needs of Muslim students, faculty and staff, teaches nonacademic classes on the Islamic tradition and works closely as part of the staff in the Office of the Dean of the Chapel to foster inter faith dialogue and cooperation. She organizes Muslim worship and devotion services, counsels and advises students, and answers questions from race to religion to relationships. She is the advisor to the Muslim Students Association, the Juvenile Justice Advocates and the Chess Club. Dr. Muhammad is the president of the Association of Muslim Chaplains. She also works with Sapelo Square an online resource for Black Muslims as their internship coordinator, and co-editor of their Ramadan Series. Nisa has a Master’s Degree in Islamic Studies and a graduate certificate in Islamic Chaplaincy from Hartford Seminary. She recently completed her Doctor of Ministry from Howard’s School of Divinity, and is currently pursuing a PhD in African Studies.
Dr. Ahmet Alibašić is an Associate Professor of Islamic civilization and Deputy Dean for Academic affairs at the Faculty of Islamic Studies, University of Sarajevo. He was educated in Malaysia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Currently his research and teaching interests include Islam in Europe, human rights in Islam and Muslim world, church-state relations, and Inter-religious Dialogue. Most recently he is one of the editors of Yearbook of Muslims in Europe (Brill, 2009-2021) and Journal of Muslims in Europe. Dr. Alibašić also heads Center for Advanced Studies in Sarajevo.
Ibtisaam Ahmed is a lawyer and independent researcher from Cape Town, South Africa. She is co-founder and managing editor of Hikaayat, an online platform showcasing content by Muslims. Ibtisaam holds law degrees from the University of Cape Town and Cornell University.
Lien Iffah Naf’atu Fina was born in East Java and resides in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Since 2015, she has been a faculty member of the Islamic State University, Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Currently, she is on a study leave to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago’s School of Divinity. She has an MA in Islamic Studies from Hartford Seminary.
Islam on the Edges is a collaborative product of the Center for Islam in the Contemporary World (CICW) at Shenandoah University and The Maydan Podcast.
[TRANSCRIPT] Islam on the Edges: Episode 2 – Ramadan on the Edges
Ermin Sinanovic 00:05
Ramadan! This word elicits joy and reflection among the Muslims around the world. It is also an occasion for the “Not even water!” question to which there is an easy answer: “Not even water!” Muslims who observe fasting in Ramadan abstain from food, drinks, and sexual intercourse from early dawn to sunset. Needless to say, this usually means that it absolutely needs to be said, they can engage in such activities between sunset and dawn.
As-salamu alaykum! Greetings and welcome to episode two of the Islam on the Edges channel of the Maydan Podcast, a production of the Maydan, an online publication for the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason university. My name is Ermin Sinanovic. I am curator and host of Islam on the Edges.
There is much more to Ramadan, though, than simple acts of abstaining from food, drink, and sex. Families gather, communities pray together, the sound of the Quranic recitations fill the air, the aromas of Ramadan delicacies tempt us in anticipation of the iftar, the breaking of the fast meal. Dates, water, sweets, prayers, food, laughter, reflection, more prayers, the Qur’an, more food, and drinks. It’s all part of Ramadan lore. It’s a season like no other. Children enjoy Ramadan, they try to imitate the adults by fasting part of the day, they gorge on Ramadan delicacies, fall asleep during the prayers, cry if they are not awakened for the pre-dawn suhoor meal, and wait in anticipation of the Eid gifts after Ramadan is over. It is also refreshing to see a community coming together to celebrate lack of consumption. In a world in which there is rampant consumerism, unbridled capitalism, environmental degradation, overindulgence, and oversaturation in just about anything, at least in the more affluent societies, it is an act of redemption to be involved in such a profound spiritual act of devotion, like fasting. At the same time, Muslims live in the world, so they are affected by the mentioned spiritually-eroding activities, but at least for a month, we try to remind ourselves and the world that another way of living is possible and that, at the deepest levels, humans are defined not by what we consume, but what we believe in.
This episode is called Ramadan on the edges. I interviewed four scholars and activists from four different countries on four continents. From North America, I speak with Dr. Nisa Muhammad, Assistant Dean for Religious Life at Howard university in Washington, D.C. In the European continent, my guest is Dr. Ahmet Alibašić, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies at the University of Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We will then move to Africa, where my interlocutor is Ibtisaam Ahmed, a lawyer and independent researcher in Cape Town, South Africa. Finally, I talk to Lien Iffah Naf’atu Fina from Indonesia. She is currently a PhD student at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. I hope you will enjoy this episode and learn much about the Muslim practices of Ramadan on four continents.
Our first guest is Dr. Nisa Muhammad. She is Assistant Dean for Religious Life at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Welcome, Dr. Nisa.
Dr. Nisa Muhammad 00:03:56
As-salamu alaykum and Ramadan Mubarak to your guests. Thank you so much for having me
Ermin Sinanovic 04:01
Wa alaykumus-salam and Ramadan Kareem to you and to everyone else. It is our pleasure to have you with us. Dr. Nisa, can you tell us a little bit about the African-American Muslim community and the observance of Ramadan. What cultural practices exist? How it is observed in the African-American Muslim community? What would you like people to know about the observance of Ramadan?
Dr. Nisa Muhammad 04:29
Ramadan is a very special time, of course for all Muslims, and for African-American Muslims, it’s a very special and joyous time as well. You’ll see a variety of different expressions of joyfulness and beauty during this month. Some families decorate their homes, you’ll see signs or things on the front of their doors that say Ramadan Mubarak because, a lot of times, people have children and they want to pass down the culture of what Ramadan is all about to their children, so they decorate their homes, there are big sides, they have lights up, and they have amazing opportunities to share the beauty of what Ramadan is all about. Big things happen with Eid, which is another joyous event. African-American families would get together, prior to covid, and people had iftars at their homes, they would visit different peoples’ homes to break fast and it’s just an amazing experience.
Ermin Sinanovic 05:27
Food is obviously a big part, even though we abstain from food and drink during the day, in the evening, we like to prepare special meals in Ramadan. What are the kind of meals that you would find in the African-American Muslim community during Ramadan?
Dr. Nisa Muhammad 05:45
Of course, food is a major thing and African-Americans love to cook and we have our own unique culture. You’ll find that one of the main staples in a lot of African-American homes is bean pie. Bean pie is a unique dish that is attributed significantly to African American Muslims that started with the Nation of Islam and has since spread throughout all other African-American Muslim communities. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful staple that people eat for suhoor, they eat for iftar. It’s a great thing to experience. From fish to chicken to macaroni and cheese to lamb, it’s a variety of different meals that people experience.
Ermin Sinanovic 06:25
When you mentioned the bean pies, my first time I came across it was, I believe, at Ben’s Chili Bowl in D.C. They sell it at the counter. I remember it’s an institution in Washington and, the first time I went there, I saw them being sold on the counter. I didn’t know the historical significance of it, but I learned about it later on. I’m so glad that you brought it up. You can actually find, I think, in a lot Muslim’s stores, they’ll be selling those near the cashier. They will have some of the bean pies, especially in the D.C.area, right?
Dr. Nisa Muhammad 07:04
Absolutely! In the D.C. area, we have a wide variety of Black Muslims. You can find bean pies just about anywhere.
Ermin Sinanovic 07:11
What are some of the main religious devotional practices within the African-American Muslim community during Ramadan? How is it observed religiously? What are the kinds of practices? How do men, women, and children partake in all those observances?
Dr. Nisa Muhammad 07:33
There’s the fajr prayer, families get up for suhoor before dawn and they experience fajr prayer together as well. Then, just like other Muslims, they do the five daily salat and then the taraweeh prayer at night. A lot of times, families all go together (this is pre-covid) to taraweeh prayers together. Now that everything’s online, it’s an opportunity for families to spend a lot more time together, growing spiritually, reading the Qur’an together, and having an opportunity to spend more family time because a lot of families are not going out to the masjid or Islamic centers and are really spending more time at home, growing together as a family.
Ermin Sinanovic 08:13
One thing that I’m learning more about is the central role that women play during the month of Ramadan, obviously being the pillars of families from cooking, which is sometimes shared with their spouses but oftentimes it is women who do most of this, to other devotional practices, like the recitation of the Qur’an and other things. Can you maybe tell us a little bit more about how it is in your community?
Dr. Nisa Muhammad 08:41
All of those things and above. Women are very significant in terms of, definitely, cooking. Sometimes the cooking begins in the morning and the women are cooking for the breaking of the fast all day. It’s a joyous event to feed the children, to be able to feed the family, and women take great pleasure in being able to cook these amazing meals for their families.
Ermin Sinanovic 09:04
Another thing that I wanted to ask you about is that you obviously work at a university as Assistant Dean for Religious Life and you coordinate activities for Muslim students on campus. I know that things have changed since covid, but prior to covid, what are some of the main things that you do with students, especially during the month of Ramadan and how is it observed in higher education?
Dr. Nisa Muhammad 09:30
It’s an amazing time. Typically, since I’ve been at Howard university, Ramadan has been during the summer and students were not on campus, but we would always have an iftar, our office of the Dean of the Chapel, which is the office I worked under, always sponsored an iftar and we would invite students and faculty all around the university to come and break fast with the Muslims. It’s a very joyous experience. For a lot of people, they learn about Islam at our iftars, they learn about Islam from the food, they learn about Islam from the different speakers we have to connect the students with the faculty and staff and other community people. It’s also an opportunity to do Da’wa. People don’t know what Islam is, but they hear there’s an iftar on campus, there’s going to be some good food, let’s go hang out with the Muslims. It’s an opportunity for us to really share the beauty of what Islam is all about.
Ermin Sinanovic 10:18
One thing that I think many of us are still learning more about is the central role that African-American Muslims occupy in the larger tapestry of American Islam in general. You cannot talk about Islam in the United States today without mentioning Mohammed Ali, Malcolm X, Elijah Mohammed, Amina Wadud, and many other people who have contributed greatly, not only to Islam in the United States, but are known globally and contributed globally intellectually in terms of activism as powerful symbols for justice. Can you reflect on that a little bit, especially as we are in Ramadan?
Dr. Nisa Muhammad 11:05
That’s an amazing statement that you’ve said because, typically, Black Muslims have had a historic and extravagant history of social activism, of justice, of all of the people that you named, but typically when you look at the media and they show reflections and pictures of Ramadan, you don’t see Black Muslims. In 2016, a young Black Muslim said, “You know what? I’m tired of being invisible in the world of what’s good in Ramadan,” and started something called blackout Eid. It’s an opportunity for black Muslims to share pictures of themselves during Ramadan and especially during the Eid. If you look into #blackouteid, you will see amazing pictures of African-American families showing the beauty of Ramadan as they experienced it from the Eid to Ramadan cooking to their children. People get dressed up for these pictures, it’s like a photo shoot exhibit, but it’s a wonderful opportunity to show exactly what you’re talking about, that history that Black Muslims have that is often invisible from the media in terms of, when they talk about Ramadan, they’re not showing what’s going on with Black Muslims.
Ermin Sinanovic 12:14
What do you think that we could do collectively to highlight this because this is a major part of our Muslim community in the United States, but like you said, often missing in public representations. What can we do collectively to remedy this?
Dr. Nisa Muhammad 12:34
I think the Ummah has a responsibility to see Black Muslims as valuable parts of our community. In a masjid that I used to go to prior to covid for iftar, they would always have an African-American night where the food typically was South Asian food every other night, but a couple of nights in Ramadan, because they had iftars every night, they would have African-American food. It would just be a celebratory event because it was a mixed masjid community of a little bit of everybody and everybody wants to feel like a part of what’s going on. If you only have one certain kind of food, if you only have one certain kind of person giving the jummah khutbah all the time, people are going to feel excluded and not feel like they are a part of what’s going on. So, when its African-American night and you see all the African-American Muslims bringing food, donating food, helping to serve, because they feel a part of this masjid community, it’s just a wonderful example of how you can make people feel a part of what’s going on in a very simple way by just including them in the menu.
Ermin Sinanovic 13:35
Including them in the menu, so that would be a start, but we shouldn’t stop at that, right?
Dr. Nisa Muhammad 13:40
No, we should absolutely not stop at that. People have to see that Black Muslims are valuable. Have an African-American imam give the khutbah one Friday or a couple of Fridays, that’s a major concern at different universities across the country where Muslims will go four years at a university and never hear from a Black imam. That gives them a subtle message that Black Muslims don’t have the ability or the capability or knowledge to deliver the word of Islam and that’s so false. That’s a false entity.
Ermin Sinanovic 14:16
It is. I remember when I had a conversation with Akbar Muhammad, the son of the late Elijah Muhammad, in Binghamton and he used to tell me, “Look, people think that we and the Black Muslim community did not really study Islam or know Islam, I can tell you that’s false because the father (he used to refer to his father, Elijah Mohammed, as the father) used to have a library of books from all over the world in all types of languages and he used to read avidly and he sent us, his sons, to study Arabic, to study in the Muslim world, to bring back that knowledge as well, and to spread it in the community.” I think this aspect of knowledge within the African-American Muslim community is often overlooked by people who do not have an intimate understanding of what really happened in history.
Dr. Nisa Muhammad 15:17
You’re absolutely right and part of it is that it bothers the self-esteem of young Black Muslims who want to see themselves as part of what’s going on. They want to hear from someone who looks like them and representation matters. It’s really tragic that on a lot of campuses, young Black Muslims are leaving the MSA because they don’t feel like a part of what’s going on. We want to be able to change that. We want to be able to make everybody feel welcome, everybody feel wanted, and know that Black American Muslims are knowledgeable about Islam, they’re well-studied.
Ermin Sinanovic 15:51
Definitely. So, Dr. Nisa, I know that this covid pandemic has changed a lot. Can you maybe enlighten us a little bit about, within the African-American Muslim community, what has been the effect of covid, especially when it comes to the observance of Ramadan?
Dr. Nisa Muhammad 16:07
One of the things that I’ve really noticed, and this has happened last year, people are doing all kinds of online programs to read and experience the Qur’an. I work with an organization called Sapelo Square and it’s an organization and online resource about Black Muslims. Every day, we have a reflection from a Black person on the Qur’an. We show this through poetry, through tafseer, through short stories, and it’s an amazing experience to see that Black Muslims are studied and that they can really show the beauty of the Qur’an. Another opportunity is that, for Eid, people have drive-thru Eids. They don’t want to give up that experience of Eid, they don’t want to give up not seeing each other and lots of people have decorated their cars, they go through the drive-thru Eid, pick up meals, and they experience it like that, but also drive through iftars. There are communities where you don’t have to worry about cooking, you can just drive up and pick up a meal and go. That shows that people in the Black community are really trying to take care of each other, even though we can’t be together socially because of covid, we can still experience a meal together, even if it’s just a drive through.
Ermin Sinanovic 17:14
That’s amazing. Finally, Dr. Nisa, I would like you to put your preacher’s hats on and share a personal reflection on Ramadan with us.
Dr. Nisa Muhammad 17:26
I think a personal reflection on Ramadan is just the beauty of reading the Qur’an and knowing that Allah is talking to me. I think for a long time, I used to think, “God really talked to me. I mean, who am I?” But during Ramadan, I have the wonderful reflections of reading the Qur’an and hearing God talk to me and hearing Allah speak to me through his words in the Qur’an and understanding it and reading the same thing over and over again and getting a different meaning and hearing Allah say to me the value of who I am as a Muslim and giving me guidance and direction as a Muslim. I think that’s really just the beauty of it and that’s just a little personal reflection
One other little tidbit, I have a granddaughter, she’s like three, and I was taking her home. She’d spent the weekend with me and I was taking her home on Sunday and her home is all decorated. They have Ramadan Mubarak, they have signs up, and she says, “Ummi, we have Ramadan in my house. You don’t have Ramadan at your house.” I didn’t have any decorations up, but she was like, “Ummi, we have Ramadan in my house,” because she believes in rejoicing with all the decorations and her mom is really celebrating and they’re all excited about it. She was just very happy to let me know that they have Ramadan in my house. That was just a wonderful reflection. Even at three, she’s finding joy in Ramadan and with the expressions that her family does. We want Ramdan to be in everybody’s house, I need to get some decorations.
Ermin Sinanovic 18:47
I think we all do. That’s wonderful and I know that children just love Ramadan and I think it shows that, when parents and communities put a little effort to make Ramadan special, kids really respond to it.
Dr. Nisa Muhammad 18:59
They absolutely do and we want everyone to be thinking that they have Ramadan at their house so that the children can enjoy it. Especially with Eid, the gifts and the presents, children really love that and it’s a wonderful experience for them.
Ermin Sinanovic 19:13
Thank you so much, Dr. Nisa Muhammad. That was Dr. Nisa Muhammad, the Assistant Dean for Religious Life at Howard university in Washington, D.C. It was a pleasure talking to you.
Dr. Nisa Muhammad 19:24
Thank you for having me, Assalamualaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh.
Ermin Sinanovic 19:27
Our next guest is Dr. Ahmet Alibašić. Ahmet, welcome!
Dr. Ahmet Alibašić 19:40
Thank you for having me.
Ermin Sinanovic 19:45
Dr. Ahmet Alibašić is Associate Professor of Islamic civilization at the Faculty of Islamic Studies at the University of Sarajevo. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Sarajevo. He studied Islamic studies and political science at the International Islamic University Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. He has published widely on Islam in Europe, Islam in Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the politics of the Middle East as well as various issues in contemporary Islamic thought. It’s a pleasure to have him with us in our Islam on the Edges podcast, the Ramadan issue. Dr. Ahmet, I would like to start by asking you a personal question about observing Ramadan in Bosnia Herzegovina. Can you tell us a bit about your memories growing up a Muslim in Bosnia, which was then part of Yugoslavia? How was it growing up as a Muslim and how was Ramadan observed back then, especially in your family?
Dr. Ahmet Alibašić 20:48
I have three distinct memories of Ramadan time in my youth years. One as a child in a Muslim village, the second as a student at Gazi Husrev-beg madrasa in Sarajevo, and, third, as a soldier in the Yugoslav army. Let me start with the first one. I grew up in the late 1970s and early eighties in a traditional Muslim family and Ramadan during those days was in summer time, which means that we had to fast something like 18+ hours while doing our field work and farm work. I still remember very vividly a relative, a neighbor of mine, an old lady, doing the farm work and fasting and bleeding, but she wouldn’t stop. Not everybody fasted obviously, those were the late socialist years, but many people did, especially the ladies. We had a very active, very dedicated Imam, who was persecuted by the regime at that time. He, I think, takes credit for a lot of the religious life, especially during Ramadan, that we had in our village. It was a simple mosque and simple mosque life, but it was especially lively during Ramadan thanks to this Imam, who would gather everyone for the daily prayers and do extra dhikr after the prayers that we call tawheed. It was a very memorable time.
When I moved to the madrasa as a high school pupil, at that time, there was deficit of Imams in Muslim jum’ats and congregations, so even the first class students, aged 16 and 17, had to go to smaller congregations during Ramadan to lead taraweeh prayers and so on. I spent four Ramadans like that as a guest Imam in remote areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Ermin Sinanovic 23:42
Sort of like an apprentice.
Dr. Ahmet Alibašić 23:46
Exactly. Everyone who has gone through those experiences, those are unforgettable. Finally, my last Yugoslav Ramadan, I spent as a soldier in the marine corps of the Yugoslav National Army. That was special in a different sense, we usually spend Ramadan in our community and we relate Ramadan to community activities and community life, but that Ramadan, I was, so to say, alone in what I was doing and being in such a godless environment augmented all that Ramadan means to a believer. That was a special experience of its own. Those would be my three distinct memories of Ramadan in Yugoslavia. Let me just conclude by saying that those were years of nascent religious revival and, although we probably were not conscious of this fact, those were nice times to be a young Muslim.
Ermin Sinanovic 25:17
That’s very interesting and I’m especially interested in something you said. You said not everybody fasted, but many did, especially ladies. Can you elaborate on that?
Dr. Ahmet Alibašić 25:32
The socialist regime of Yugoslavia obviously did its best to integrate as many people as possible into its own organizations and activities and so on and so forth. It was much easier to do that with the working class in urban areas. When it came to rural areas, peasants were much more independent from the regime than the working class, but, even there, the men in the family had to go along. They often worked in factories and so on. They had to keep clear of the mosques and religious life if they wanted to prosper in the society, however, ladies were left alone. They took care of religious life and raised children religiously. They were really the pillars of religious Islamic life and identity at that time.
Ermin Sinanovic 26:46
I’m so glad you’re highlighting that because I think that has been experienced by many of us who grew up during that time, even if we didn’t grow up in a very practicing, very pious family, it was usually the mothers that kept whatever was left of Islamic practices in our families. I know personally in my case that that was definitely true. I’m really glad that you highlighted that. Now, fast forward to the present time if you will, what are some of the main practices in Bosnia today during the month of Ramadan?
Dr. Ahmet Alibašić 27:21
I understand today to mean pre-pandemic times, we’ll come to the present, last year and this year, later. At the private and community levels, at the private level, Ramadan is a time for family gatherings, especially iftars. Families and friends come together and then they break their fast together and it’s a great time for everyone, kids especially remember those moments, however, there is much more going on at the community level. The mosque life intensifies obviously. Bosnian Muslims are not known for praying five daily prayers in the mosque frequently, but, during Ramadan, that changes a lot, quite a lot, especially with the Isha prayer and taraweeh, which is attended usually in great numbers by young and old, kids and everyone.
Ermin Sinanovic 28:39
That is the last prayer of the day, right?
Dr. Ahmet Alibašić 28:41
Yes, exactly. There is also, in many mosques, something called muqabla, which is the recitation of the Qur’an by people who memorize the Qur’an by heart, huffaz al-Qur’an, often just males, but occasionally there are separate muqabla for ladies as well. Those are usually done after a salat al-asr, but sometimes they are done after dhuhr or even the morning prayer.
Ermin Sinanovic 29:21
In the mornings and in the afternoons.
Dr. Ahmet Alibašić 29:23
I remember in theYugoslav times, these sermons were conducted only in a few major mosques throughout Bosnia. There were not enough huffaz al-Qur’an to do it by reading Qur’an from memory, so, during Ramadan, many of those people had to come from what is today Northern Macedonia, which was part of Yugoslavia at that time, but, alhamdulillah, today in Bosnia, there are some 500 huffaz al-Qur’an, almost every third is a lady or a girl. There are many of those being done today in Bosnia. Of course there are many preaching occasions, both onsite and online, and the mosque life peaks on the 27th night of Ramadan, which in Bosnia is often called laylat al-qadr. We all the time hear a hadith that we don’t know when the laylat al-qadr is, but in Bosnia, we know it’s on the 27th of Ramadan, somehow. Of course, Ramadan is a time of giving and charitable activities. Much of that goes on as well as some of the more mundane things, like having them in minaret candles and cannonades, would you say cannonades?
Ermin Sinanovic 31:06
Yes, the cannons that signal the end of the day.
Dr. Ahmet Alibašić 31:11
Yes, every day. That’s from a nearby Hill or somewhere, that’s also becoming a landmark of Ramadan on its own. When it comes to Bosnia, people say that Ramadan is special in Sarajevo itself more than in any other place, especially during summer time when you can do your prayers outside, taraweeh as well, on the sofas and in the courtyards of the mosques. Years ago, there were many activities for the youth, including after taraweeh parties, post-taraweeh parties, gatherings with tea and coffee. Unfortunately, because of migration to Western Europe and depopulation, there are less and less young people in Bosnian villages and less and less of those events.
Ermin Sinanovic 32:20
Thank you. That’s very interesting and a very good answer to the question, but you mentioned at the beginning covid, so what you just described is a pre-covid practice. How is Ramadan observed now when we have the COVID pandemic?
Dr. Ahmet Alibašić 32:39
It has become a fully family affair, so to say. Not in all of Bosnia, but in many parts of Bosnia, we have a curfew, at the moment, from 9 pm onwards. Many mosques are closed. There are no taraweeh prayers, so there are no gatherings, gatherings are not allowed. It has become a very family event. I enjoy it a lot because, alhamdulillah, I have quite a large family, but it’s been tough, mentally tough, on people who are alone, who have nobody around them. It’s been a challenging time.
If I may just add, some of the activities have moved online, so instead of lectures in the mosque and the visiting lecturers, you have a lot of those going online either on the internet or on various media outlets and there are so many nowadays. Even the recitation of the Qur’an people follow online, reciters do it in the mosque, but then there are recordings and there are live transmissions, but obviously not everything can be done online and people are missing the personal touch to it.
Ermin Sinanovic 34:18
The social aspect of it. In most places around the world nowadays, and maybe this is a good place to conclude, maybe by sharing, if you would like, some personal reflections on Ramadan. Is there anything that you would like your listeners to know based on your personal reflections, anything related to Bosnia that you would like them to know, especially when it comes to Ramadan?
Dr. Ahmet Alibašić 34:46
Thank you for the opportunity. We have a lot of time to reflect during Ramadan and that’s what we are, I think, expected to do, not just do the formal prayers, readings of the Koran, and so on. It all should be connected to the reflection, deep reflection, of what is going on around us. Personally, this year, I think what comes often to my mind is this acknowledgement that we who have abundant food and water, we who desist from those basic human needs because we obey God’s command, we also have to reflect on the fact that last year and this year have hit some members of our community, both locally and globally, much harder than the rest of us and I think this is the time to show our piousness, our righteousness, through extending our helping hand to them. There will be times for other things in our community. There will be times for minarets and I don’t know what. I think that we have to be especially sensitive to those members of our community who have lost jobs, who have lost their loved ones. Some of them need us financially. Others, like elders, need our services. Some other people need just our kind words and mental support. I think those members of our community and our society should be the priority this Ramadan and personally I’m trying to find ways to do that. Of course, we do pray to the almighty that, by the next Ramadan, inshallah we go back to the norm.
Ermin Sinanovic 36:54
Thank you so much. Thank you, Dr. Ahmet, for sharing these personal reflections and your memories with us and for telling us about Ramadan in Bosnia. That was Dr. Ahmet Alibašić, Associate Professor at the faculty of Islamic studies in Sarajevo. We were discussing Ramadan in Bosnia. Our next guest is Ibtisaam Ahmed, she is a lawyer and independent researcher from Cape Town, South Africa, and she’s also a co-founder and managing editor of Hikaayat, an online platform showcasing content by Muslims. Welcome Ibtisaam.
Ibtisaam Ahmed 37:27
Thank you very much.
Ermin Sinanovic 37:30
Ibtisaam is joining us from Cape Town, so we do have a little bit of a time difference, but it’s going to work out hopefully. Ibtisaam, can you tell us a little bit about your memories growing up as a Muslim in South Africa and how Ramadan was observed back then, especially in your family?
Ibtisaam Ahmed 37:52
To me, so much of my story and my experience of Ramadan is particularly in Cape Town and it’s worthwhile saying that the experience of Muslims in Cape Town differs quite significantly from the experience of Muslims elsewhere in the country. A lot of that has to do with the history of the Muslims who first arrived in Cape town. This is over 500 years ago, slaves from the Indonesian archipeligoe and, in that way, the sort of flavor of the way Islam is practiced in Cape Town is very different to other parts of the country, where people came much later. We’re thinking about two hundred years ago, mostly from the Indian subcontinent. For me, I’ve grown up very much between two kinds of worlds in South Africa. My father is of Indian descent and my mother is of Cape Malay descent and growing up in Cape Town, Ramadan was always a very joyous time, something to look forward to, something that, even as kids, we knew the significance of it, somehow. Interestingly though, I think it is worth saying that I grew up post-apartheid, so I’m one of the born frees, a South African that was born into democracy, into a free society.
Growing up at school and around people that knew what Ramadan was, I have very vivid memories of my first couple of fasts at the playground and my friends being like, “I don’t want to eat in front of you,” and “How’s the fast going?” Never mocked or ridiculed or poked fun at in any way. That’s something that’s quite unique I’ve learned, that lots of Muslims living in non-Muslim countries don’t necessarily experience that, this positive reaction and curiosity about what it is that you’re doing. It’s unique to South Africa, but even more extraordinary given the diverse makeup of people in this country. Those are some of my very early memories and, with regards to my family, food is a big thing as it is everywhere. All the particular iftar treats and special foods that come out in Ramadan and the highlight was really taking cakes away to neighbors. This is a very old tradition and, because of the history of apartheid, people were living along racial lines. Muslim neighborhoods were Muslim neighborhoods. There’ll be various communities within Cape Town where the entire street and the many streets surrounding you would be Muslim. Here comes a tradition of taking a plate of whatever you’ve prepared for your iftar table and swapping with a neighbor and you end up having like seven different dishes to break fast with. That was really one of the highlights for me growing up, but that tradition is slowly dying, I have to say, and I think that’s to do with people moving out of these very segregated communities that are still a legacy of apartheid, but that was always hugely fun and tremendous and super exciting, taking all the kids, going in, and swapping plates.
Ermin Sinanovic 41:39
What was your favorite dish during Ramadan growing up?
Ibtisaam Ahmed 41:44
Because of the number of culinary influences in South Africa with its mix of different kinds of people, of course, samosas are the standard, the subcontinent’s triangles with delicious fillings inside. That’s a favorite of mine, but there’s another more Cape Malay tradition, which are basically crepes, very thin crepes, but inside is a cinnamon-coconut-sugary filling. That’s a Cape Town classic and it’s perfect and it’s great. I’m craving one right now, as we speaking,
Ermin Sinanovic 42:23
I know, when I was in Malaysia, I used to eat something similar. They would make crepes that were a green color, I think they would put green coloring and then they would put coconut and sugar, I think Palm sugar, and everything else inside. It is absolutely delicious. I agree. So, can you tell us a little bit about some of the main practices among South African Muslims today during the month of Ramadan? When I say today, I mean pre-covid, during normal times, what are some of the religious and other practices of South Africa?
Ibtisaam Ahmed 42:57
For South African Muslims, this is something that I’ve always perceived as being very normal until traveling elsewhere, it’s actually a time of retreat in some ways. People are very social when it comes to the iftar and breaking the fast, but come Isha time, people start going to the mosque, doing taraweeh, and it’s a very quiet atmosphere. Obviously, in many other countries, there’s a lot of socializing into the early hours of the morning. That doesn’t really happen here. People, they’ll do socializing around iftar and it’s quite a normal thing to go to the mosque for taraweeh and it’s 20 rakats and the whole Qur’an is recited throughout that month, which again shocked me because I thought that was done everywhere until I spent Ramadan in other countries.
So, it is quite different, but it is very much a time of going inwards and South African Muslims are quite joyful when it comes to many of the other religious celebrations, like mawlid and things like that, but somehow Ramadan takes on a very different flavor. Growing up as well, there’s no TV and no movies and no music, it was very much a break from your daily routine and all the other kinds of entertainment and things you’re involved in, which is so different to other places where you have many series in production and movies in production geared for this month. In that way, I think, to me, it’s a good balance, you see people, you feed people, you interact, you share food, but it is also a time of deeply spiritual reflection and inward nourishment.
Ermin Sinanovic 44:52
Obviously, covid has changed a lot all around the world. How is the general situation in Cape Town right now with covid and how is that impacting Ramadan practices?
Ibtisaam Ahmed 45:04
At the moment, we are on what we call level one. There are not too many restrictions. Mosques are open, we’re allowed 250 people in a mosque. We can go to each other’s houses and do minimal socializing. Last year was very different. Last year, there was the strict lockdown. Everything was closed. You could only get your essentials and that was difficult. That was difficult in some ways, but then also easy in others. Speaking to friends and family and asking them, particularly based on last year’s Ramadan, how they felt because of the retreat and moving into an inward space that we usually take on in the month, the transition from that hard lockdown into Ramadan was actually quite a pleasant one. For so many people I’ve spoken to, myself included, last year’s Ramadan was incredible because there was already that pace of slowness and being away from a lot of distractions and other things, and being in your home and being very low key and quiet. Right now, it feels, more or less, like a normal Ramadan this year. There are some restrictions, but people are able to go to the mosque for taraweeh and, like I said, it’s something men and women do and practice every Ramadan.
Ermin Sinanovic 46:34
When you mentioned earlier about reciting the whole Qur’an in taraweeh prayers, do you have other ways of reciting the Qur’an in the mosque during Ramadan? I was talking with Dr. Ahmet Alibašić from Bosnia and, in Bosnia, they have a practice where after the fajr morning prayer or after the asr prayer, they would recite one Juz, one 30th of the Qur’an or half of it, and for taraweeh, they keep it shorter. Is there something like that in Cape Town or in South Africa or is it purely that the Qur’an is recited during taraweeh?
Ibtisaam Ahmed 47:17
Mainly it is the Qur’an being recited during taraweeh, but, based on different mosques, people will do half a juz before maghrib and another half juz after fajr prayer, but that’s in addition to the whole Qur’an being recited in the month. There are also a number of qiarat competitions that happen in this month, so there will be an entire day where upcoming reciters of the Qur’an will be judged and they will do this. It is also a great time for people to celebrate younger children who have completed memorization, there tends to be some little events and celebrations around that. The other very big and important practice is nasiha post-taraweeh. Based on what was recited that night, the Imam or somebody will give a short little explanation of a particular aspect or ayat of Qur’an and people love that. I think people do stay until the end and engage and want to listen because most South Africans don’t understand Arabic, so it’s always something to look forward to and put together what was recited for that night.
Ermin Sinanovic 48:39
It makes me wish I could be in Cape Town right now and partake in all of that. You mentioned earlier that both men and women go to the mosque for taraweeh and that is the practice in most places, almost everywhere in the world, but can you maybe highlight some of the practices that are uniquely related to how women experience Ramadan in your community?
Ibtisaam Ahmed 49:02
I think, like every way, so much of the conversation on women and Ramadan is around feeding people, not just families, but cooking extra for people who are living in poverty in South Africa, there are a number of people living in huge and utter poverty. There are many groups and neighborhoods of women that would come together and cook a pot of food and it would be distributed for that day. It’s almost that the sense and the importance and significance of feeding people is heightened in Ramadan. That’s something that people, that women, partake in in quite a profound way. The other thing that also takes place is, in a number of mosques or even in homes, there’ll be once a week where women will gather, maybe recite Qur’an, and then one of the women will give like a dars afterwards. It’s women’s day, so in the mosque very close to where I live, Tuesday is women’s day. We will have something like 600 women (this is pre-covid) gather in the mosque on a Tuesday morning and they’d have the space to do what they do and have their program on that day.
Ermin Sinanovic 50:21
That’s wonderful. I think that Dr. Ahmet Alibašić also mentioned that in Bosnia, in some mosques, they have this practice called muqabla, which is the recitation of the Qur’an during the day and, in some mosques, there are some that are just for women. There’ll be female reciters of the Qur’an and only women come to listen, so there seems to be some similarity there. Finally, could you share with us some brief personal reflections on Ramadan?
Ibtisaam Ahmed 50:52
For me, it always feels like this month creeps up on you, like every year you somehow think, “Oh, I’m going to be prepared and I’m going to have all my things in order and a real program,” and suddenly it’s like, “Oh, in two days time it’s Ramadan.” I think whenever it does come, it always feels like it’s just at the perfect time because, to me, it’s the break with the usual work routine, the usual family routine, the usual social routine, and there’s something that changes in this time. It shifts something in you and sometimes it’s hard and you’ve got to super adjust to the new pace, but, for me, I find it’s just such a necessary thing and I think that particularly in covid and thinking about the state that the world was in last year at this time, it was such an anchor. Ramadan is that, no matter what is going on in the world and how disastrous it may seem, Ramadan is Ramadan like the salat is the salat. It will be an anchor, even if there’s complete chaos and uncertainty throughout all of that, you have this anchor and you have this grounding. That’s one of the most extraordinary benefits of this month.
Ermin Sinanovic 52:14
Thank you for sharing that personal reflection. I was talking to Ibtisaam Ahmed, a lawyer and independent researcher based in Cape Town, South Africa. Thank you, Ibtisaam. Our final guest is Lien Iffah Naf’atu Fina, she is from Indonesia and she joins us from Chicago. Welcome, Lien.
Lien Iffah Naf’atu Fina 52:34
Thank you so much. Dr. Ermin.
Ermin Sinanovic 52:38
You’re most welcome. It is our pleasure to have you in our podcast. Lien Iffah Naf’atu Fina is a doctoral student at the University of Chicago School of Divinity. She is from Indonesia. She was born in East Java. She resides in Jakarta, where she’s also a lecturer at the State Islamic University in Jakarta. Right now, she’s on study leave in Chicago at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School and she also has an MA in Islamic studies from Hartford seminary. Lien, can you tell us a little bit about your experiences growing up in Indonesia, especially in Java, and how was the observance of Ramadan in your community and in your family?
Lien Iffah Naf’atu Fina 53:26
First of all, thank you so much for inviting me and what an initiative this podcast is, so thank you for being the curator. Growing up in Indonesia, the most obvious thing is that my neighbors were all Muslims, it was only later that I encountered non-Muslim friends personally. Mosques are everywhere and you hear the adhan five times a day. The community is very… communal, and that’s what I really miss from living in Indonesia, and life is full of religious rituals, ceremonies, and commemorations conducted as a community. Also, in terms of education, I think most of us, at least in the village that I lived in, went to formal schooling in the morning and, in the afternoon or in the evening, I went to the madrasa to learn how to recite the Qur’an and to learn Islamic sciences: fiqh, aqeedah, akhlaq, history, those things, and this pattern went on until my university life. In the morning, I went to formal schooling and university and then, in the afternoon and in the evening, I went to informal schooling, religious schools. Also, a significant numbers of Muslim families in my neighborhood or in my hometown, they usually send the children to traditional Islamic boarding school. My parents sent me off when I was in my senior year of high school, so I lived in <inaudible> 24/7 for three years and then I continued living in another boarding school for my university life. Basically, I went to the formal school in the morning and, then in the evening afternoon, I went to religious classes and things like that. Oh, Ramadan, you were asking about Ramadan or you want to follow up?
Ermin Sinanovic 56:12
Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to ask. Can you tell us a little bit about experiences in your community or family and in your Islamic schools, how was the observance of Ramadan there?
Lien Iffah Naf’atu Fina 56:26
Not much different from today actually, so mom cooked for suhoor, she woke up around two or three in the morning and school was only half-day, which was good, and then in the afternoon, similar thing, we went to the madrasa and then I brought a lot of snacks that I thought I would eat all of them, but then you happen to not be able to eat all of it. Then iftar was at home, not in the mosque. Taraweeh was in the mosque, of course. After that, I went to the mosque to recite the Qur’an with my peers and it was really a special moment to me because it was broadcasted throughout the neighborhood, so everyone listened to our recitation. It was like, “Oh, I should make sure that I recite the Qur’an well.”
Ermin Sinanovic 57:38
That was publicly broadcast on speakers and everybody in the village could hear you reciting.
Lien Iffah Naf’atu Fina 57:48
Yes, that’s true.
Ermin Sinanovic 57:45
That’s a lot of pressure. [laughter]
Lien Iffah Naf’atu Fina 57:47
Yes, it was a lot of pressure. That’s true. I asked my brothers, who live with my mom in the village, if the tradition continues today. Even before maghrib, they hold what we call taroosan, it’s from taras, taroosan in this context means Qur’anic recitation.
Ermin Sinanovic 58:15
That’s really interesting because I was speaking earlier with Dr. Ahmet Alibašić from Bosnia and, in Bosnia, they have this practice called muqabala, which is also the recitation of the Qur’an in the mosque. It seems like that is pretty much the same practice in Indonesia and you call it taroosan. You mentioned that you recited and it was broadcast. Was there any restriction or limitation on women in terms of, did anybody ever say that women should not recite publicly or anything like that? How was it?
Lien Iffah Naf’atu Fina 58:51
Not at all and I’ve heard the discourse only very much later in my life when I read the news or whatever happens in the West or in the Middle East. It was really something that was unknown to me, that women couldn’t recite the Qur’an in public.
Ermin Sinanovic 59:13
When you gathered in the mosque, did both men and women attend and did you have female teachers and reciters as well?
Lien Iffah Naf’atu Fina 59:24
I think we do, but in the madrasah, we mingle, like we have boys and girls in the same room, and sometimes we have female, sometimes we have male, teachers and they taught us not only how to recite the Qur’an, but also fiqh, akhlaq, aqeedah, those things.
Ermin Sinanovic 59:47
I see. All right. Tell us, what is your favorite Ramadan dish in Indonesia? What is your favorite Indonesian Ramadan dish that you like and that you miss the most right now?
Lien Iffah Naf’atu Fina 01:00:01
We have kolak. Kolak is a dessert. It is water, coconut milk, and then Palm Sugar and then you would add bananas or fruits or beans in it. That’s a staple dish to break your fast with, but what I really need is my mom’s cooking, like every suhoor, usually she cooked, but it’s not really a Ramadan dish, but the Ramadan dish in my family was grilled eggplant with coconut milk sauce, it was the best and I really miss it. When I go home during Ramadan, I always ask her to please make me some of this dish.
Ermin Sinanovic 01:00:55
That sounds so yummy. You mentioned suhoor, which is a pre-dawn meal that Muslims get up very early in the morning for before the starting of the fast. They have that meal and then they fast through the day and then, at the sunset, there is another meal. I’m just translating that terminology for people who may not be familiar with it. Let’s fast forward a little bit to today. Can you tell us some of the general practices among Indonesian Muslims during Ramadan? What are the things that stand out? What are some of the things that are really unique during Ramadan in terms of religious practices?
Lien Iffah Naf’atu Fina 01:01:32
In terms of the basics, of course everywhere is the same in the Muslim world, like taraweeh, suhoor, and iftar, but, in Indonesia, we have to keep in mind that Indonesia is a huge place with hundreds of languages and tribes that live in Indonesia. I would like to mention some highlights though. We have some practices that happen only during Ramadan.
The first is napoopoorid, it might be difficult to pronounce. Napoopoorid is events between asr and maghrib. The idea is that you would spend the time waiting for the time for breaking your fast while doing activities. It can be anything from reciting the Qur’an together, live music, discussions, preaching, discussions on any topic, not only religious, just anything. You can call it napoopoorid as long as it is held between asr and maghrib. That’s one thing. The other thing is we have a tradition called pukaprisama. Pukaprisama literally means breaking fast together and institutions, communities, colleagues, friends usually, organize pukaprisama and sometimes we use this moment as a moment of reunion. For example, I want to get my friends from elementary school together. Okay, let’s have pukaprisama together.
Calling for suhoor time, probably it happens in the other parts of the Muslim world also. Kids usually went around the neighborhood with drums calling “Suhoor! Suhoor!” or something like that. I think those things stand out. Also, we have a tradition of visiting the graveyards of our families that have passed in some regions, it is done before Ramadan, some during Ramadan, some after salat eid al-fitr and some involves meals, some is conducted individually by families, some is organized by the community. This is also important.
Ermin Sinanovic 01:04:18
Thank you, Lien. I’m sure this covid pandemic has also changed things in Indonesia too. Can you tell us a bit about how the covid pandemic affected this? How did it affect these practices? How did communities respond to these things now?
Lien Iffah Naf’atu Fina 01:04:40
Yeah, of course, because in Indonesia and I believe everywhere else in the Muslim world, Ramadan is not only about personal preservation of religion, but it really involves community. When I mentioned to you about napoopoorid, it involved the community gathering together in a place. Last year, since Ramadan was at the start of the pandemic, everybody was anxious. The government took serious measures, like no gatherings. During Ramadan, it wasn’t as crowded as before, many people preferred not to do the taraweeh in the mosque, napoopoorid events were moved online, the pukaprisama events were not as many as before, but this year I heard that everyone is more relaxed about gathering together. Last year, even in my village, people still went for taraweeh, but they maintained social distancing and they still do it today in the mosque, but they are more relaxed, people are willing to go out to the mosque more, since it’s been more than a year.
Ermin Sinanovic 01:06:19
That’s what I have heard from many other places, very similar measures are being taken. Lien, finally, can you maybe share with our listeners a personal reflection on Ramadan?
Lien Iffah Naf’atu Fina 01:06:32
My personal reflection? I remember a teaching from one of my teachers that I always remember. He said that Ramadan is only a training and, in reality, we should live Ramadan throughout, we should leave as if we are in the month of Ramadan throughout our life. Fasting is really the principle of leaving and you cannot indulge your appetite, your desires, as you wish, but you need to always be in a state of refraining, like holding and understanding boundaries. He said that having this mindset about life, that life is really about fasting, is very important, let alone today where we live in a society where capitalism and materialism is really prominent.
Ermin Sinanovic 01:07:52
Thank you so much, you mentioned boundaries, the edges, Islam on the Edges. It’s all about boundaries and then finding them from time to time. Thank you so much, Lien, for this wonderful conversation.
Lien Iffah Naf’atu Fina 01:08:04
You’re welcome. Thank you. It’s a pleasure.
Ermin Sinanovic 01:08:13
You have been listening to episode two of the Islam on the Edges channel on the Maydan podcast. Please subscribe to Islam on the Edges on Spotify, Apple podcasts, or any other services. We hope that you will be joining us for future episodes. Take care, be well, and be healthy.