رمضان ۱٤۳۷

For those observing the fast, which began at sundown today, رمضان مبارك, and for anyone interested in reading more about it please enjoy my past writing on the topic.

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رمضان ۱٤۳٦

Sundown tonight will be the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan for some people around the world (moon observations make it hard to pinpoint these things exactly), so if you’re interested please enjoy my past writing on the topic.

Arabic Word a Day

(at least for some folks)

This evening marks the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan or رَمَضان (ramaḍān) in the Americas and parts of Africa (elsewhere the start of the month will come a day later). Tradition holds that it was near the end of the month of Ramadan, on the “Night of Power” (لَيلة القَدر, laylat al-qadr) that Muhammad received his first revelation, the first of the series of revelations that would comprise the Qur’an (قُرآن, Qurʾān). The specific day of the Night of Power is up for debate, but almost everyone agrees that it was one of the last five odd-numbered nights of the month, with most going with the 27th as opposed to the 21st, 23rd, 25th, or 29th.

As with the beginning of all months in the Islamic calendar, the first day of the month is identified astronomically, by observance…

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The Night of Power

The month of Ramadan is coming to a close, which means it’s time to celebrate the Night of Power, or لَيلة القَدر (laylat al-qadr, لَيلة meaning “night” and قَدر meaning “power”). Sometimes also called “the Night of Decree,” (قَدر can mean both “power” and “decree”), this is the night when, according to Islamic tradition, Muhammad received the first revelation of what we know as the Qurʾān. It’s said that Muhammad was fond of retreating to the caves around Mecca to fast,  pray, and meditate, and it was during one of these sessions, in 610 CE, that he received this first revelation.

Because the Qurʾān was compiled in written form after Muhammad’s death, supposedly from disparate scraps of paper where listeners had transcribed this or that revelation, there was no way to determine the order of the revelations, and some revelations were grouped together in longer passages even though they’d probably been preached on separate occasions. The text is arranged in order of length, longest chapter to shortest, rather than chronology, and the initial lines that Muhammad received are the first five verses of the 96th chapter, سورة العلق (sūrat al-ʿalaq).

Arabs hold that the name “Qurʾān” (قُرآن) is taken from the first word of this first revelation (the imperative form of قَرَأَ, qaraʾa, which can mean “read” or “recite”), although modern scholars tend to think that it derives from the Syriac word qeryānā or “scripture reading.” The five-verse revelation is as follows (sorry if this formats badly, and when you read it please note that Qurʾānic Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic are not quite the same thing):

اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ
(iqraʾ bi-ismi rabbika alladhī khalaqa)
خَلَقَ الْإِنْسَانَ مِنْ عَلَقٍ
(khalaqa al-insāna min ʿalaqin)
اقْرَأْ وَرَبُّكَ الْأَكْرَمُ
(iqraʾ wa-rabbuka al-akramu)
الَّذِي عَلَّمَ بِالْقَلَمِ
(alladhī ʿallama bi-al-qalami)
عَلَّمَ الْإِنْسَانَ مَا لَمْ يَعْلَمْ
(ʿallama al-insāna mā lam yaʿlam)

“Recite! In the name of your Lord, who created;
Created man from a clot.
Recite! That your Lord is the Most Generous;
Who taught by the pen;
Taught man that which he did not know.”

The specific night on which لَيلة القَدر should be observed is disputed. Sunnis hold that it happened on one of the odd-numbered nights in the last ten days of Ramadan, so the 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th, or 29th. Many observe it on the 27th. Many Shi’a, however, tend to observe it on the 23rd, meaning it comes right after a three-day observance of the assassination and death of ‘Ali (who is said to have been attacked on the 19th while at prayer and lingered until dying on the 21st).

As far as religious significance, the 97th chapter of the Qurʾān, سورة القَدر (sūrat al-qadr), which is only five verses long, explains:

إِنَّا أَنْزَلْنَاهُ فِي لَيْلَةِ الْقَدْرِ
(innā anzalnāhu fī laylati al-qadri)
وَمَا أَدْرَاكَ مَا لَيْلَةُ الْقَدْرِ
(wa-mā adrāka mā laylatu al-qadri)
لَيْلَةُ الْقَدْرِ خَيْرٌ مِنْ أَلْفِ شَهْرٍ
(laylatu al-qadri khayrun min alfi shahrin)
تَنَزَّلُ الْمَلَائِكَةُ وَالرُّوحُ فِيهَا بِإِذْنِ رَبِّهِمْ مِنْ كُلِّ أَمْرٍ
(tanazzalu al-malāʾikatu wa-al-rūḥu fīhā bi-idhni rabbihim min kulli amrin)
سَلٰمٌ هِيَ حَتَّىٰ مَطْلَعِ الْفَجْرِ
(salāmun hiya ḥattá maṭlaʿi al-fajri)

“Indeed, we have revealed it [meaning the Qurʾān] on the Night of Power;
And what will explain to you what the Night of Power is?
The Night of Power is better than a thousand [other] nights;
The angels and the Spirit descend in it, by the permission of their Lord, with every command;
Peace it is! Until the break of dawn.”

Observant Muslims will spend the night (or every night over the last ten days of the month, since the precise night is uncertain) in heavy prayer and may try to time their charitable giving to fall on that night, since as the verse says, the Night of Power is better than a thousand other nights (so any prayer or good deeds performed on that night are worth similar actions on a thousand regular nights). Those who are feeling especially pious may take a minor “retreat,” called اعتكاف‎ (iʿtikāf, “withdrawal”) into the mosque to fast and pray constantly for the final ten days of Ramadan (this ensures that they will be in prayer on the Night of Power); in order to complete the اعتكاف‎ they must remain in the mosque for the duration, leaving only to go to the bathroom or for an emergency either to themselves or a close relation.

Persian and Turkish

Ramadan Mubarak!

(at least for some folks)

This evening marks the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan or رَمَضان (ramaḍān) in the Americas and parts of Africa (elsewhere the start of the month will come a day later). Tradition holds that it was near the end of the month of Ramadan, on the “Night of Power” (لَيلة القَدر, laylat al-qadr) that Muhammad received his first revelation, the first of the series of revelations that would comprise the Qur’an (قُرآن, Qurʾān). The specific day of the Night of Power is up for debate, but almost everyone agrees that it was one of the last five odd-numbered nights of the month, with most going with the 27th as opposed to the 21st, 23rd, 25th, or 29th.

As with the beginning of all months in the Islamic calendar, the first day of the month is identified astronomically, by observance of the new moon. Visual confirmation is the only true method of determining the beginning of the month, but as astronomy has improved, so has our ability to determine in advance when the month will begin. Start days may vary by a day depending on region and observance, so Muslims in the Americas will begin the fast tomorrow, while Muslims in the rest of the world will start celebrating tomorrow evening in preparation for the first day of the fast to begin on Wednesday.

I assume most folks are familiar with the basics of Ramadan, the primary obligation of which is fasting and abstinence from worldly things (food and drink, but also tobacco and caffeine products, sexual relations, and harsh language or behavior) from sunrise to sunset. The holy month is said to begin after sunset on the day before the fast starts, since that evening is given over to celebration and preparation for the next day’s fast. It is common practice to eat two meals per day during Ramadan, a pre-dawn meal called suhoor, سُحور (suḥūr, from سَحَر, saḥar, meaning the period just before dawn), and a larger meal after sunset called iftar, إفطار (ifṭār, from the root فَطَرَ, faṭara, “to break” and having the same literal meaning as our “breakfast”). Suhoor is typically a small family meal, but iftar is often enjoyed communally, perhaps at a buffet; when I lived in the Gulf all the hotels would put out a great buffet spread after sundown every evening during Ramadan. Many Muslims break the fast by eating dates, as Muhammad is said to have done, after which they attend to the evening prayer and then enjoy the large evening meal.

The fast is required of all Muslims upon reaching puberty, so children are exempt as are the elderly, sick, and otherwise infirm. Women who are menstruating, pregnant, or breast-feeding (now I sound like a Pharma commercial) are also exempt from the fast, though they will often attempt to fast anyway (hopefully in consultation with a doctor), and it’s generally expected that any fast days they do miss should be made up after the month is over, whenever they are physically able (the same goes for those who are ill during Ramadan but later recover). Also long-distance travelers are exempt from the fast (with the expectation that they’ll make up the days they miss), but this was more an issue centuries ago, for traders on long caravan journeys, than it is today when air travel makes getting from one place to another so fast. Older children may actually try to perform the fast if they are able, because any completed fasts before they are old enough to be required to fast are essentially “banked” for them, so they’re covered if they are unable to fast in a particular year as adults.

Other Ramadan observances include lengthier prayers and Qur’an readings; many Muslims will try to read through the entire Qur’an by the end of the month. Charitable giving is also usually increased, since it is believed that good deeds performed during Ramadan count more than good deeds performed at other times of the year. Decorations may be hung in homes and public places, not unlike what we do around Christmas, but these are typically meant for children, to make the month enjoyable for them. The overall intent of the Ramadan observance is to turn one’s attention away from the things of this world and focus on the spiritual.

As far as Ramadan greetings are concerned, the two I’d stick with are رَمَضان مُبارَك (ramaḍān mubārak), “Blessed Ramadan!” and رَمَضان كَريم (ramaḍān karīm), “Generous Ramadan!”

Also, Ramadan greetings in Persian and Turkish (they’re surprisingly almost exactly the same)