A spiritual and joyful month for Muslims in the Philippines and around the world
The mood was light and jovial at the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy (PCID) office at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City. As Filipinos are wont to do, the group of distinguished leaders of the Muslim community poked fun at themselves, as well as national issues that concern their population
in the nation, including the ardently enterprising ways of the Maranaos, the Tausug parody of the Twilight movie on Youtube, and even the burning issue of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.
Save for their parched lips, it was impossible to tell that PCID president Amina Rasul, PCID adviser and former senator Santanina Rasul, PCID vice president Nasser Marohomsalic, PCID corporate secretary Moner Bajunaid, and PCID executive director Salma Rasul had neither eaten nor had anything to drink for the past 12 hours. They, along with an estimated 2.8 billion Muslims all over the world, were two weeks into the month of Ramadan when The Sunday Times Magazine visited their offices.
Whether they have been steeled by the lifetime practice of fasting for an entire month every year, or purely blessed with determination by Allah to fulfill this religious tradition, these followers and experts of Muslim faith in the Philippines bore no trace of looking in a hurry to break their fast for the day. Instead, they patiently waited for the clock to time in the hour of six and 30 minutes in the evening, precisely 60 seconds after sunset was forecasted on July 2.
That Thursday, The Sunday Times Magazine had the honor of sharing native Mindanaoan rice cakes with the officers, professors and youths of the PCID as they assembled for the “iftar,” the daily gathering where Muslims break their fast during Ramadan.
Ramadan falls on the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, when the Word of Allah, known as the Quran, was first revealed by the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) to the Prophet Mohammad. As the prophet delivered the message of Allah to his followers, he had told them that the gates of Paradise would open wide when Ramadan is commemorated, as the gates of Hell are locked up with devils chained down behind them.
Throughout the history of the Islamic world, Muslims have paid close attention to the phases of the moon with the approach of the ninth month of their hijri calendar year to know exactly when Ramadan begins.
The Isla¬mic hijri Calendar is a lunar calendar with 354 days divided into 12 months, each month ending and beginning with a new moon. For this year, the observance of Ramadan fell 11 days earlier than it did on 2014, based on the more widely followed Western calendar. The religious observance began on June 18 and will end on July 16.
Called “Sawm” and is considered as one of the “Five Pillars of Islam,” fasting is the main religious practice observed during Ramadan, along with
“Shahadah” (declaring there is no god except God, and Muhammad is God’s Messenger); “Salat” (ritual prayer five times a day); “Zakat” (giving 2.5-percent of one’s savings to the poor and needy); and “Hajj” (pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime).
During Ramadan, Muslims who have reached the age of puberity are obligated not to eat or drink during daylight, with exceptions and conditions for those who are elderly, sick and traveling, or for women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or menstruating. Engaging in sexual intercourse and general sinful behavior is also prohibited through these 30 days.
Those who are exempted must pay “Fidyah,” a religious donation, which need not be made in monetary form per se, but by such charitable acts as feeding the less fortunate for period of Ramadan. In general, generosity and charity are intensified and encouraged among Muslims for the entire month.
Closer to righteousness
“We fast not because we want to punish ourselves. [Sawm] is not a form of punishment, but a form of sacrifice, self-restraint, and [a way of]also keeping ourselves closer to righteousness,” explained Mindanao State University-General Santos City Professor Moner Bajunaid, who briefly gave a lecture on the Islamic tradition before breaking fast at the PCID offices.
Besides fasting, Muslims, who pray five times a day according to their faith, also increase their prayers during Ramadan, called taraweeh. And without meaning to intrude on Bajundaid’s personal spiritual life, The Sunday Times Magazine asked in general what Muslims pray for during these prescribed times of prayer.
The professor graciously replied, “There are no differences in the ritual prayers among Muslims all over the world, even during Ramadan. We all observe the same prayers and on the same time of the day as prescribed.”
As one’s “heart is redirected from worldly activities and the soul is cleansed by freeing it from harmful impurities” throughout the month of Ramadan, it ends on a holiday called Eid’l Fitr, or the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast, is celebrated with prayer and sumptuous meals across the world’s Islamic nations.
The iftar, which The Sunday Times Magazine witnessed, had three of the Philippines’ major Muslim tribes represented at the table. Nasser Marohomsalic is a Maranao, Moner Bajunaid is from Maguindanao, while the Rasuls are Tausugs.
Even the room where the breaking of the fast was held displayed symbols from these three tribes, namely a model of a Maranao boat, woven baskets from Tawi-Tawi, and artworks of the Tausug National Artist for Sculpture, the late Abdulmari Imao.
To provide The Sunday Times Magazine with a more down-to-earth understanding of the observance of Ramadan, the PCID officers generously shared childhood memories of the religious tradition in their homes and communities when they were young, over native rice cakes and grilled chicken.
While Muslim children are generally exempted from fasting, the rule did not stop the young Nasser, Muner, Amina and Salma from joining Ramadan traditions. They observed what their parents called “a half day fast,” which meant they would abstain from food and drink from dawn until noon, and then break the fast before the rest of the adults do.
Nina Rasul, the first female Muslim member of the Senate, would prepare a concoction of milk, eggs and a lot of sugar before dawn for her children, which will be all they would consume until noon.
As her daughter Amina put it, they “saling pusa” during Ramadan back then because fasting even for half a day was not mandatory for Muslim children. Nevertheless, as children who are always eager to do as their parents and older siblings do, they simply did not want to feel left out of the tradition.
“Nagagalit kami kapag hindi kami ginigising [We would even get mad if our parents did not wake us up],” Bajunaid joined in, pertaining to the light meal Muslim families prepare and partake an hour before dawn.
Even as adolescents, when their parents noticed that they could not keep up with the whole day abstinence from food and drink, they were urged to break the fast before sunset. Health after all is considered a primary concern in the rules of Ramadan.
Marahomsalic remembered hiding from his parents because of this when he was in high school, because even if he found it difficult to fast during his growing years, he was dedicated to his faith and its sacred tradition.
“I would hide in our basement so my parents’ couldn’t force me to eat,” he chuckled.
However, as the experts of Muslim culture and traditions pointed out, Ramadan, though generally associated with fasting, is just as well a feast filled with food at the end of the day. They talked about food fairs that come alive at night in Mindanao for those who find themselves on the streets during the iftar. Muslim families would even welcome their brothers and sisters in faith to share food with them.
Asked if there are differences among the three main Muslim tribes’ observance of the Ramadan, the convenors agreed, “It’s more or less the same.”
“Yung pagkain lang ang nagkakaiba [It’s just the food we eat that is different] but the rituals are the same,” Amina elaborated.
“[We all observe iftar] as a gathering of families where you break the fast together, and you invite your friends over,” she furthered.
“The best Ramadan is in Saudi Arabia kasi, sa gabi buhay. Sa gabi, bukas lahat ng souk. Ang laki ng mga discounts. [The best observance of Ramadan is in Saudi Arabia because everything comes alive at night at the breaking of the fast—the stores are all open with huge discounts],” Amina enthused.
Whenever Amina and Salma find themselves in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan, they take advantage of special offers for shopping, and even recall how the Gold Souk in Dubai gives out tiny gold charms to patrons.
Marohomsalic added that migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates—whether Muslims or not—also experience Muslim generosity during the holy month of Ramadan. They only need to present their passport to rich individuals or establishments, and they will be given cash without any question. Everyone in line—no matter how long—will receive this bounty.
“[This is] because money has no religious affiliations. Poor Christians are also entitled to the wealth of the Muslim state,” Marohomsalic said.
Salma related how the very wealthy family of the late al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden served public feasts and handed out cash envelopes to the lesser fortunate, which included overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).
She added that some female OFWs had told her they received up to 2,000 riyals (approximately P24,000 today), just by lining up on these occasions.
With all these festive traditions, the older Rasul debunked the notion that Ramadan is the Islamic equivalent of the month of penitence or the Lenten Season in Catholicism.
“It’s solemn, pero sa gabi [but at night], it’s joyous. Because you’re doing this to be closer to God, to be on the right path,” she said. “Kaya nga sa [That’s why in the] Middle East, kapag Ramadan, sales galore.
“Sa Singapore, during Eid, they have tourism specials. Many Arab families go to Malaysia or Singapore to spend Ramadan or Eid because during the day you’re fasting but at night, it’s a fiesta,” she reiterated.
“I think one of the aspects of Ramadan that is really important to Muslims, is that it really makes you feel part of the ummah [community],” Amina related. “There is nothing more telling of that oneness than during the observance of Ramadan.”
Fasting during Ramadan, she explained, becomes more endurable with the solidarity of the community. For this reason, she pointed out how it is harder for Muslims migrants to observe the religious tradition.
“Kasi mag-isa mong gagawin [You have to do it on your own] in a non-Muslim community,” Amina continued.
In Islamic communities and countries, work hours are usually shortened to 3 p.m. to ease the difficulty of fasting during Ramadan. But of course, even here in the Philippines—in Luzon especially—Muslims have to cope with fasting even as everyone else around them eats.
“I’ve had lunch meetings where everyone else would be eating but I couldn’t,” said the human rights advocate. “This is one of the challenges of being a Muslim working in a non-Muslim community.”
The lead convenor of PCID quickly added, however, “It’s challenging, but nothing that can’t be managed.”
Salma agreed that it is truly harder for Asian Muslims to observe Ramadan than it is for Arabs. “The Arabs, they can escape, but us Asians, we have to work.”
At that point, it was with pride that the 84-year-old former senator Rasul interjected, “That’s why Asians are stronger Muslims.”
“We have perfected the art of fasting,” Marahomsalic ended.