x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Istanbul dispatches: can you feel it in the air?

The Ramadan fast is like a breeze coming off the Bosphorus, altering the summer heat with its cooling effect. The whole month is almost like an envelope of magical hue.

Can you smell the fragrance of Ramadan in the air? Can you feel the slight sensation of electricity all around? Muslims must be crazy! Who in their right mind would look forward with such excitement and anticipation to spending all day - in summer heat - without eating or drinking? It defies common sense. But really the Ramadan fast is like a breeze coming off the Bosphorus, altering the summer heat with its cooling effect. The whole month is almost like an envelope of magical hue. But it is not magic. It is what we call baraka, a blessing; and in Ramadan the baraka is palpable.

Baraka means to put "a lot" into "a little" - like the presence of a great deal of meaning in a small substance, or the possibility of an extraordinarily small amount of food feeding an extraordinarily large number of people. Ramadan is just that, a short 30 days filled with so much meaning and goodness that on the final day even the children do not want it to end. You will even find some Muslims offering each other condolences, or addressing the month itself, as if it were an old friend, saying how sorry they are to see it go. Afterwards they will not even know what to do with themselves; eating in the daytime somehow just does not seem right.

Ramadan is a time of spiritual devotion. One is very active in one's intentional movement towards the Divine. The state of fasting itself makes one conscious of one's commitment and purpose. An extra devotion during the day and special prayers at both ends of the night - all this spiritual energy can't help but bear fruit. And the fruit is sweet like the peaches of Anatolia in the summertime. Ramadan too is a season when Muslims will review the entire Quran, some completing it even twice during the month. Intimacy with the words of the Divine provides a portal to an eternal and timeless world of meaning. The wisdom and insight of the Quran frames the month, it provides the "super-text" (as opposed to a subtext). In many Muslim countries it is the custom to complete the reading of the compendium of Bukhari also, reviewing the most corroborated sayings of the Prophet.

Ramadan embodies empathy for the poor and hungry and gratefulness for blessings commonly taken for granted, but most of all it is about family. Everyone in the house is on one and the same mission. Everyone is feeling the same hunger or comparing notes: "Where did you get to in the Quran?" Meals are delicately prepared from mom's best recipes. All the hands in the kitchen are transferring their love and care into the food itself. Then, in the stillness of dusk, the moment of truth, when your effort is offered up for approval, one date, one glass of water, and an expansive meadow of acceptance open before you for supplications to be heard and answered.

Every night, the whole family gathers together - and perhaps a few adopted single brothers or sisters too - like clockwork. There is an uncanny spirit of helpfulness as people share a few well-earned desserts. Then they are off to the mosque for the 20 cycles of prayer, a continuous tradition since the time of the Prophet's companions, instituted by the second Caliph, Omar. Standing at Allah's door, allowing the melodic aphorisms of the Quran to wash over them, they send a message of resolve. After a whole day of fasting, I'll do this too, whether or not You open, this is where I belong, at Your door.

Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi