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The Experience of the Sublime in Ramadan Light installations, taraweeh and iftar in Al-Aqsa Mosque

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.02.2006:

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

This Week in Palestine

December 2005

This year Jerusalem witnessed an unparalleled zeal welcoming the holy month of Ramadan. Since the Islamic lunar calendar year is 11 to 12 days shorter than the solar year, Ramadan migrates throughout the seasons. This year Ramadan fell in the month of October which coincided with the warmer first half of the Palestinian autumn. The warm weather added to the congeniality of the festivities.

The alleys of the old city were brightly lit with canopies of colourful lamps stretching across the streets. The local youth of the various neighbourhoods vied with each other in decorating their living quarters. Flickering colourful light installations dominated by the crescent, the symbol of Islam, transformed Jerusalem’s night into day. A festive atmosphere welcomed the thousands of pious men and women who flocked nightly to Al-Aqsa Mosque to pray, study the Koran, meditate and perform the special taraweeh prayers.

The nightly Ramadan prayer, taraweeh, has a special merit. In addition to the five daily prayers, during Ramadan the taraweeh is recited. The length of this prayer is usually much longer than the daily prayers. Taraweeh is derived from the Arabic root word, ‘raaha,’ which means to rest, relax. After every four raka’at (genuflexions in prayers), they would stop for rest, relaxation, contemplation and resume the prayers. The number of genuflexions in taraweeh is quite flexible. The numbers prescribed for raka’at: 39, 29, 23, 19, 13, and 11 raka’at. Each night a certain number of verses from the Koran is recited during the taraweeh. By the 27th of Ramadan the whole Koran, in synchrony with the Mosques of Mecca and Medinah, is finished. The night is set apart from all other nights as the ‘Night of Destiny,’ Laylat Al-Qadr.

“Ramadan Kareem,” (literally Ramadan is generous), is the usual greeting during this month. “Allahu Akram,” God is more generous, is the answer. The quality of generosity is dual. For God provides for man his spiritual and material means of subsistence. The month of Ramadan is also when it is believed the Holy Koran was revealed. On the evening of the 27th day of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate Laylat-Al-Qadr (the Night of Power). It is believed that on this night Muhammad first received the revelation of the Holy Koran.

Ramadan is not only a time of fasting, of worship and of contemplation but also of charity and social bonding. The entire holy month is marked by an intensification of social gatherings. At the end of the day the fast is broken with prayer and a meal called the iftar. Rarely does a single family break the fast alone. The iftar meal assumes a focal social position. Each night friends and relatives meet in a different house to break the fast. Lavish meals and specialty foods are associated with this season. Ramadan is Kareem.

Charity meals are a special feature of Ramadan. “Mawa’ed El-Rahman,” (literally Tables of the Merciful) abound. Almost seven thousand iftar meals are served daily throughout the Old City – in the various “soup kitchens” and in El-Haram El-Sharif. To witness the huge multitude breaking the fast simultaneously is awe inspiring. During the first week of Ramadan, the Al-Quds daily printed on the front page a photograph of a collective breaking of the fast at Al-Aqsa Mosque. Under a deep blue sky the pious awaited the sunset in parallel, orderly lines stretched in front of the Mamluke water fountain and the Aqsa Mosque as the golden Dome of the Rock glowed above them. The sight of hundreds of men and women seated solemnly evoked a sublime feeling and an irresistible desire to join the iftar.

My daughter Aida saw the photograph and insisted we go break our fast at Al-Aqsa. Once there, I found myself surrounded by my students from the College of Theology at Al-Quds University. They had volunteered to set up the seating arrangement and the laying out of the food as an act of charity. One student, Samer Abu Suneineh, explained that providing iftar for the poor is considered a good deed, a redemptive act.

Sharing the communal meal was a special highlight of this Ramadan.

The Taraweeh prayers, the collective iftars and the reorganization of social life in Jerusalem provide a respite from the ongoing political conflict over the sovereignty of Al-Quds. The legends and traditions relating to Ramadan provide an endless source of research….The present difficult moment in the overall context of Ramadan is but a footnote to the discourse of Moslem Jerusalem

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