Ramadan is quickly approaching, and throughout Egypt, children will be carrying colorful lanterns as they celebrate this Islamic holy month.
These lanterns are made of tin and colored glass. With a candle placed inside, they emit vibrant green, red, blue and yellow light. In the evenings, the children will sing holiday carols. They will play follow-the-leader and, with lanterns in hand, form dancing ribbons of light in the street.
These lanterns are not exactly UL approved. They have sharp edges, and it doesn’t take long for the heat from the candle to rise to the metal handle, making it too hot to grasp. But in the spirit of the joyous season, no one complains.
In the centuries-old lantern market, there is a newcomer. It is a state of the art plastic model, made in China. It comes with batteries and a little light bulb, so no flame will blow out as the lantern is swung from side to side. And, at the flip of a switch, it plays a tune, so kids don’t have to sing as much.
In all honesty, I don’t like the Chinese model. I like the tradition the old model represents. I suppose, on the issue of Ramadan lanterns, I’m a fundamentalist.
Religious traditions seep into our cultures, and we cherish them. And so it is with Ramadan.
Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. It was during this month in 610 A.D. that the Quran was revealed to the prophet Mohammed by the angel Gabriel. The month begins with the sighting of the crescent moon and lasts 29 or 30 days, depending on the lunar calendar cycle. It ends with the Eid, a holiday celebration marked by charitable giving and gift exchanges.
During this month, Muslims are generally more spiritual, affirming their devotion to God. For them, the month also represents a joyous time spent with friends and relatives.
Many non-Muslims associate Ramadan primarily with fasting, where Muslims can have no food or water from sunrise to sunset. Often, those outside the faith consider this a hardship.
The fast is not without its challenges; that’s true. Ask a Muslim fighting though a 10 a.m. hunger headache, when the prospect of taking an aspirin is nine hours away. Still, the traditions and cultural practices make Ramadan a special time.
The Prophet Mohammed broke his fast at sunset with a modest meal, often not much more than a few dates. Today, breaking the fast is tantamount to a food festival. It is an array of tastes and smells, of spices and sweets often served only during this time of year. One can hardly resist a golden, flaky, honey-drizzled baklava pastry with pistachios or walnuts, along with a cup of mint tea.
Breaking the fast is a social event, with many Muslims hosting dinners in their homes. Ramadan gatherings are colorful and noisy with friends and relatives visiting, telling jokes, discussing politics and enjoying each other’s company. Guests take time to pray as a group and often they reserve extra time to read the Quran.
Through fasting, Muslims learn patience and perseverance. Empathizing with the hungry and deprived, they are reminded to appreciate simple blessings and to be compassionate and giving.
But, what is most special about this month is that Muslims feel a certain spiritual unity. Together, no matter where in the world, they face Mecca and pray as one.
The best religious traditions bring us together. They are a light that attracts us, whether from a lantern or a string of bulbs on a Christmas tree.
Dean Hosni, an underwriting professional in the insurance industry, is a member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.