The month of fasting, Ramadan, which is currently being observed in Muslim countries and communities throughout the world is an annual event. Around two billion persons are Muslim in the world today and apart from Muslim majority countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, Muslims can be found in most, if not all, countries. The universality of Islamic practices like fasting allows for a commonness of purpose and action.
Ramadan is much more than a fasting period: it is a holy month rooted in culture, faith and history. Across the globe, Muslims mark this time with vibrant celebrations that are unique to their region and passed on through generations. Among the several unique features of the Islamic month of fasting are activities that Muslims worldwide will participate in every day during the period. One of those activities is the pre-dawn meal or breakfast called “suhoor”. ‘Suhoor’ is an Arabic word which literally means “of the dawn”. During the month of fasting Muslims will awake early in the morning just before dawn and have a meal. Note it is dawn and not sunrise. Dawn is defined as the first appearance of light in the sky before sunrise. The Islamic fast is a completely dry fast so all eating and drinking must end by dawn each day.
Given the world’s various time zones, seasons, and times of the years that Ramadan falls (10-11 days earlier each year on the conventional calendar) dawn will be different times for different countries. Barbados and the Caribbean in general have a difference of less than one hour over the course of a year in the range that dawn will fall in. At this time of the year Muslims in Barbados will need to complete their suhoor meal by around 4:10am. Whereas in places like the United Kingdom they must end eating by around 3am, while in winter months they can extend much later as the days are shorter. In a recent video clip I saw from Norway the Imam was pointing out that at this time of the year in those parts they experience the natural phenomena called the ‘midnight sun’. The sun neither sets nor rises so there is no actual dawn to calculate their start time for fasting. What they have adopted are the times used in the holiest city for Muslims, the city of Mecca, to start and end their fasts.
In Muslim countries Ramadan takes on a whole difference atmosphere, night turns into day. Most activities are carried out at night, including shopping. Some persons will stay awake the entire night until suhoor and dawn prayers and then sleep to midday. Hotels and restaurants will change their timings to suit suhoor meals and fast-breaking times.
Some traditions in some communities still exists. For example in Palestine and other parts of the Muslim Arab world, ‘Mesaharatis’ (traditional dawn awakeners) wander in the streets of cities and villages, striking their drums and singing special Ramadan songs to awaken Muslims for suhoor. With technology taking over modern-day life, this deep-rooted Ramadan tradition is on the decline. Today, television, mobiles and alarm clocks are fast replacing the job that a Mesaharaty did.
The seheriwalas of Delhi are part of a Muslim tradition that has survived the test of time and represent the city’s old Mughal culture and heritage. During the holy month of Ramadan, the seheriwalas walk the streets of the city in the wee hours of the morning, chanting out the name of Allah and the Prophet, to serve as a wake-up call to Muslims for suhoor. They start their rounds as early as 2.30am and often carry sticks or canes to knock on the doors and walls of houses. For most seheriwalas, the tradition has been passed down across generations in the family.
In non-majority Muslim countries awaking at that time of the morning in neighborhoods that are not Muslim can be a challenge especially in quiet surroundings. Informing neighbors of the month makes sense in alerting them not to be alarmed if they see or hear activity so early in the morning. In Barbados families will wake up each other. My wife have over the years increased her calling list of people whom she calls to ensure they awake for suhoor. Like the traditional dawn awakeners, but with a modern twist, she and others like her use current technology to get others up.
Suhoor is a highly recommended faith tradition and all fasting Muslims are strongly encouraged to wake early and have something to eat to commence the fast. The quantity and the choice of what one chooses to partake in is left entirely up to the individual, as long as it is permissible (‘halal’) according to Islamic teachings. Over the centuries as Muslims interacted with various cultural traditions and habits the suhoor meals evolved. Today, depending on which part of the world you are during Ramadan you will be treated to a variety of food options for the suhoor, ranging from elaborate, exotic choices to simple, commonly used breakfast items. Of course, it is highly recommended that, considering such an early hour in the morning, one should exercise caution in how much and what type of food one consumes.
Entire nutrition guides have been complied by Muslim nutritionists on best food practices for the suhoor meal. Unfortunately, like other conventional nutritional guides they often times get ignored in favor of more pleasing gastronomical delights or the fasting persons preferences. Some suhoor meals are entirely cultural passing down from one generation to another. Some families have lavish spreads and younger children, while exempt from fasting, delight in awaking with the rest of the family to partake. For my part I have tended to go the route of traditional simple breakfast items with plenty water. Suhoor also helps in bringing families together in having a meal with each other, a practice many experts agree is lacking in our busy world.
This year a tweet about an Irish hotel preparing a full buffet suhoor for the only Muslim guest there has gone viral. The tweet has been liked over 13,000 times and describes how his Muslim colleague requested a snack from staff at the Ibis Hotel in Dublin, Ireland so that he could eat something before beginning his fast. They agreed and asked him to come down at 2.30am. To his surprise, they had laid out a full buffet for him and said that was the least they could do. The man was the only Muslim guest there. The hotel has received numerous acclaims since.
Muslim athletes and sportspersons who keep up the fast while still performing have suhoor regimes to follow that allows for best food options for stamina to be maintained. Their stories are fascinating on how they manage their active careers and sportsmanship while still fasting. Cricketers, basketballers, footballers and this year a boxer all have had winning performances while fasting.
Ramadan is largely an exercise in building oneself spirituality and the many unique features of this month lend to that intention. The suhoor meal is described by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as a blessed meal. Of course attaining such blessings is not in overeating but ensuring one eats and drinks just enough and the right things to keep one sustained for the fasting day ahead.
Next week I will focus on another unique feature of the Ramadan month, the ‘Iftar’ or fast-breaking.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace. Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI and a Childhood Obesity Prevention Champion. Email: email@example.com)