Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The spiritual benefits of Ramadan in Turkey

Sunset in the Aegean at Kusadasi ... practising Muslims are expected to fast from sunrise to sunset each day during Ramadan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Ramadan, or Ramazan as it is known in Turkey, began last week just before I arrived for a week’s holiday. I’ve been in Pakistan and Egypt during Ramadan in the past, but I think this is my first time in Turkey during this very special month.

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. During this month, from sunrise to sunset, practising Muslims are expected refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and indulging in anything that is in excess or ill-natured, including all violence and all violent thoughts towards others.

Every day during Ramadan, Muslims rise before dawn to eat Sahur, the pre-dawn meal, then pray the Fajr prayer. They stop eating and drinking before the call to call to prayer, and remain fasting until Maghrib, the fourth prayer of the day. From then, they may continue to eat and drink until the next morning and the call to prayer.

Fasting is seen as a spiritual discipline that teaches the virtues of patience, modesty and spirituality. This is a time to fast for the sake of God, and to offer more prayer than usual.

At this time, practising Muslims ask forgiveness for past sins, pray for guidance and help in refraining from everyday evils, and try to purify themselves through self-restraint and good deeds.

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, and the earliest hadith indicate the practice of fasting may have been influenced by the Jewish practice of fasting during Yom Kippur.

For Muslims, the most holy night of the year is the “Night of the Power,” the night in which the Qur'an was revealed to Muhammad during the last 10 days of Ramadan. According to a well-known hadith, those observe Ramadan properly will have all their sins forgiven. According to another hadith, “When Ramadan arrives, Heaven’s gates are opened, Hell’s gates are closed, and the demons are chained up.” Some Muslims also believe that those who die during Ramadan are said to enter paradise.

Ramadan is a time of reflecting and worshipping God. Purity of thought and deed is expected. The fast is supposed to be an act of deep personal worship in which a Muslim seeks a raised awareness of closeness to God. The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, cleanses the inner soul and frees it from harm. It is supposed to induce self-discipline, self-control, and empathy for those who are less fortunate, and to encouraging generosity and charity.

Inside a mosque in Kusadasi ... over the course of a month, the full Qur'an can be rectited in a mosque during Ramadan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As well as fasting, Muslims are encouraged during Ramadan to read or recite the entire Qur'an. Special prayers, called Tarawih, are held in the mosques each night, when a whole section of the Qur'an, so that over the course of the whole month the entire Qur'an has been recited.

Children, travellers, pregnant and menstruating women, the elderly and those who are ill are exempt from fasting. But they must try to feed the poor and needy to compensate for their missed fasting. Or they can make up the days they miss. As a way of repaying for the days they cannot fast, the elderly and the disabled have the option of hosting a poorer person in their house and have them eat with them after sunset.

This is a time when Muslims try on to slow down from worldly affairs and focus on self-reformation, spiritual cleansing and enlightenment, establishing a link between themselves and God through prayer, supplication, charity, good deeds, kindness and helping others, on giving and sharing. They prepare special foods and buy gifts for their family and friends and to give to the poor, such as new clothes and shoes.

Walking around Kusadasi during the evening, it’s obvious that this is a time to spend the evening with friends and family. There is a very special atmosphere here after sunset, and it is a very special time and a very spiritual time to be in Turkey.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.