Ramadhan is the sacred month when Muslims fast for the pleasure of our Creator; when we set an intention to be disciplined in our fasting and our worship so that we may nourish our souls and rejuvenate our minds and bodies. What is Ramadhan and why do Muslims fast? may be useful if you are not acquainted with any Muslims.
Those coming to learn about Ramadhan in the Gulf may think that Ramadhan traditions are all about the lavish Iftar (meal taken to break the fast) and Suhoor (meal taken before the break of dawn) buffets at grand (and not so grand) hotels and restaurants that are marketed weeks in advance of the start of the holy month. Or that Ramadhan is a time for excessive food waste and extended mall shopping hours.
Cape Malay Ramadhan traditions
My memories of Ramadhan in Cape Town are of joyous family time, where families reconnect, worship and eat together. A time when the rat race was left behind and every family member ensured that they were at home before sunset.
Even though the month of Ramadhan is about fasting and the willing abstinence from food and drink between dawn and sunset, many of our memories about the times we spent together are at the dining table during suhoor and iftar. Suhoor was the quiet time when we could mentally and physically prepare ourselves for the day ahead. Iftar was the noisy time when everyone talks about how their day went and families caught up with each other.
My father; may Allah have mercy on him and grant him the highest level of paradise; would ensure that he was at the mosque at the time for breaking the fast. Our duty was to make sure he had a platter full of tasty treats for the children who were fasting and coming to mosque at sunset for breaking the fast and the early evening prayer.
After my father passed away our routine changed somewhat but my mother’s sisters Mummy Rachel, Aunty Josie and her husband Uncle Mylie made sure that we had company every night during that first Ramadhan and every year until the sisters passed. Uncle Mylie drove through rain and sunshine so that my aunts could be with us at a time when we felt my father’s loss more than any other.
How to prepare for Ramadhan
Ramadan has 29-30 days and for much of this period we go about our normal routines but with the added element of tiredness, hunger and thirst, often accompanied by detox headaches. To derive the most benefit from worship during this sacred month there are a few things that we can do to maximize our time spent on fruitful activities.
- Don’t wait until the first day of Ramadhan to start new habits but prepare spiritually by starting in the weeks prior. This may include performance of optional prayers, improving manners and attitudes and ridding ourselves of bad habits that drain our time and energy.
- Try to reduce the unhealthy foods in the weeks leading up to Ramadhan so that our bodies are already detoxified by the time the fasting starts, and keep dehydrating foods like caffeinated beverages to a minimum.
- Establish a pattern of early sleeping and rising prior to Ramadhan so that we get sufficient sleep and to minimize the disruption to routines during Ramadhan.
- Try to focus our thoughts on improving our own manners, character and worship by reading more Qur’an and listening to lectures about the religion and faith.
- Engage in the remembrance of Allah during any free time like when driving to work and back, or standing in line in the shops.
- Ensure that the children are included and that they understand the purpose of Ramadhan and why Muslims fast.
- Include the children in the performance of charitable acts and explain to them why it is important to help the poor so that they learn by the example set by their elders.
- Spring clean and re-organize the living space and ensure that the grocery shopping and menus are planned at least for the first week or two. This may include advance preparation of food that can be frozen and will result in less stressful times especially when having guests over for iftar.
- Buy Eid clothes and gifts. Though many leave this until the last week of Ramadhan when most people are tired and grumpy and not in the mood for shopping, it could be done before or in the first week of Ramadhan.
- If the children have completed the month of fasting, plan to reward them with special gifts.
Activities during Ramadhan
Our fasting during Ramadhan is for Allah and we strive to be conscious of Allah in every word and deed. The popular saying ‘Failing to plan is planning to fail’ applies to having a successful Ramadhan, as much as it does to successful execution of projects. We may end up wasting precious days during the sacred month if we do not have a clearly defined plan and a set of goals.
- Set the intention for the month by thinking about what it is in our lives that we want to change and what we have to do to have a happier more fulfilled life.
- Set realistic goals for a Ramadhan re-set and break these down to daily tasks, like reading Qur’an every day or praying Taraweeh prayers every night.
- Make a schedule that includes both regular routine activities as well as setting aside specific times for spiritual activities.
- Fasting is not obligatory for pre-pubescent children but it helps to introduce them to fasting with shorter fasts like 1/4 or 1/2 day so that they become accustomed to this aspect of worship. Very often the children ask to fast because they see their parents fasting and want to emulate their example. We make a special iftar when it is time for them to break their fast.
- Observe prayers on time with faith and sincerity as well as performing night prayers at Taraweeh and/or Tahajjud.
- Allow the children to attend the Taraweeh prayers so that they can be part of the congregation and feel the community spirit.
- Engage in repentance and ask forgiveness for our sins and transgressions.
- Reciting, memorization and reflecting on the verses of the Qur’an.
- Increase in making sincere du’ah (supplications) for ourselves, our families and all humanity.
- Increase our charitable acts and feeding the less fortunate. This may include hosting or attending community iftar or suhoor functions.
- Show love and appreciation for our families and gratitude for the blessings that we have.
- Encouraging and motivating ourselves and others to do good deeds.
- Lailatul Qadr, or the night of decree, is the night that the Qur’an was sent down as a guidance for mankind and falls within the last 10 nights of Ramadhan. During the last 10 nights Muslims are encouraged to increase our worship and charity and show exemplary character so that we may derive benefit from our worship, and this includes spending much of the night in prayer and supplication.
- Make arrangements for the Zakat al Fitr to be given on time.
Challenges during Ramadhan
- Broken or insufficient sleep – Waking up around 3:30 am to eat and drink copious amounts of water, praying the early morning prayer and trying to take another nap before it is time to get ready for work at 6:45 am, is exhausting by day 3.
- Feeling too ragged to talk to people first thing in the morning and hoping no one will drop by for a chat.
- Praying that no one tries to pick an argument without the benefit of the morning caffeine fix. Try to be polite and gracious even when provoked.
- Functioning normally while our heads hurt and we are dehydrated by 11 am.
- Cooking without being able to taste the seasoning (may result in too much or too little salt or spice).
- Trying not smell our own fasting breath by the end of week 1, and failing hopelessly.
- Reminding ourselves to engage in supplication or repentance, instead of watching the minutes tick by until the call for Maghrib prayer and breaking the fast.
- Overeating after the deprivations of the day is common at iftar but results in being sluggish for prayers after. Try to eat sparingly and minimize foods that are high in processed carbohydrates as these may result in blood sugar spikes.
- Remembering to rehydrate with sufficient water until an hour before bedtime, so we don’t have to keep getting up in the night.
Suhoor – pre-dawn meal
Growing up it felt like torture in the early hours of the morning when my mother came to wake us, during the best part of sleep, to sit at the table and eat in anticipation of the day of fasting. She usually made toasted sandwiches if there were any leftovers from the previous night’s dinner, or fried sausages and scrambled eggs with caramelized onions that my dad loved.
As an adult I found that I fast with a clearer mind and more alertness if I consume a light suhoor. My favorite suhoor items for the first week of Ramadhan are mieliepap or greek yogurt with homemade granola because they make me feel fuller for longer without being heavy. Other suhoor options include fruit smoothies, Overnight Dairy Free Muesli and Oats or scrambled egg and avocado breakfast tacos. When we were children my mum often made toasted sandwiches with chicken mayonnaise or cheese filling for us.
From the second week I find eating food early in the morning too much to bear and suffice with a few dates and many glasses of water. I force myself to eat something and drink water because Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him, advised that there is blessing in doing so.
Iftar – breaking the fast
From the age of about five I was visiting our immediate neighbours before iftar with small plates of sweet or savory snacks freshly made by my mother, may Allah have mercy on her and grant her the highest level of paradise. I don’t know where else in the world that is done, but even now you can find children going from neighbor to neighbour, carrying their precious iftar cargo every night. It exemplies the spirit of sharing and charity during Ramadhan that we share what we have with our neighbours.
Every night the kids gather round the dining table for iftar waiting to hear the call to Magrib prayer ring out from the mosques nearby, so that they can break their fast with dates, a samosa or a daltjie. I have recently heard the samosa referred to as ‘The Most Dangerous triangle in the Cape Flats’ and ‘The Only Love Triangles you need’. It is a staple on every iftar table during Ramadhan and every family has their own recipe and nearly every member of the household will eat one or more with soup or boeber.
My Ramadhan treats for breaking the fast includes Cape Malay pancakes (crepes) with sweet coconut flavored with cinnamon and cardamom; pumpkin, banana panackes or sweetcorn fritters; daltjies (made with chickpea flour, spinach and spices etc); samosas and bollas. These are normally eaten with falooda milkshake, soup or boeber, a hot milky beverage thickened with vermicelli and sago.
When I was a child I loved to see all the small plates with the snacks that our neighbours sent over because Aunty Fadeela and Aunty Zaida were newly married and made something different every night. My nephews are exactly the same during iftar at their maternal grandmother’s house. The youngest one asked me on my first night back home whether he could come stay over at our house during Ramadhan, but then remembered he would be missing out on the family iftar every night, and decided he would rather come after Eid.
Many families proceed to the mosque for Taraweeh prayers, the optional night prayers during Ramadhan. It is beneficial to eat less at iftar so that you do not feel tired, sluggish or overburdened with food when performing the prayers. Very often they will have a light dinner after returning home from the night prayers.
To those who are fasting – Ramadhan Mubarak to you and your families.
You may find more Ramadhan recipes below.
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