Ramadan Around the Globe Series:
The prism of Ramadan, or how to use your fast – sharpened senses to distinguish different shades of the Muslim problem with Islam (Ramadan experiences and customs in Bosnia)
By Mostapha S.
Ramadan (Ramazan in Bosnian) is arguably the most interesting and most contested time of the year in Bosnia. It is one of few axial points in time for the people, even non – Muslims. Events and activities are talked about as being before and after Ramadan; vacations are planned according to it, working hours are adjusted to it, and at least two days off are given for Eid. Experience-wise, the one month period of time that is Ramadan is actually many months in one: when it begins, what to do once it begins, when it ends; as is the case elsewhere in the Muslim world, at this time differences between various Muslim groups assume their distinctive Ramadani shapes and forms, and tensions resulting from them may even intensify. There are, however, some things that would make anyone accidentally finding themselves in Bosnia during Ramadan recognize what time of year it is, or at least give them a hunch that something different is under way.
Everything slows down. The fast, of course, begins with suhur, and the sight of Sarajevo at suhur is heart-softening; lights in houses and apartments appear suddenly and strikingly, contrasting the surrounding darkness like stars do with the darkness of the cosmos when they appear. Other than light bulbs, ovens and microwaves, one electric device that gets disturbed from its night’s rest is the phone. People call to check up on each other, and if a complete stranger would pass through a tightly-knit neighborhood at this time, with its lights on and phones ringing, he’d might think that the sun is on the wrong side of the planet. In the old times, the task of waking people up was up to a telal, a man who would go through the streets and repeatedly announce in a loud voice that it’s time to rise and eat (his other duties included making important announcements on the town square in a similar, i.e. loud, fashion). But suhur times (astonishingly, for me) are for some, the most difficult part of fasting; to be more precise, getting up for suhur is the hardest part. Many people prefer to sleep through suhur, drinking perhaps only a glass of water to keep their backs straight through the day. Unfortunately, many miss fajr that way, and even more unfortunately, many do so intentionally.
Those who do get up for suhur will probably not miss eating a piece of pastry called somun, one famous folkloric feature of Ramadans here. Roundly shaped, spiced and decorated with some blackseed, and smelling wonderfully when freshly baked, it’s something that the fasting and the non-fasting people look forward to in Ramadan. Customs and habits surrounding it are among the signposts of the month; for example, since everyone wants their somun fresh and warm, most wait until the last hour (or less) before iftar to buy it (although it is eaten for suhur as well, iftar is its prime time). That can create an interesting image on the streets of Sarajevo; long droves of people in front of bakeries with baskets, slabs or sheets for their pastry chatting, arguing, watching the time, looking and acting nervous, and sometimes even slowing the traffic a bit. It can be an additional test of patience during the month of self-restraint; there’s usually no place to sit, the waiting can be long, and people there do not necessarily follow the rules of shariah with regards to gender mixing and good manners. Also, on more than a few occasions during the month someone will try to look smart and buy his somun before his turn even comes (usually by asking a familiar person, who is closer to the bakery, to buy it for him), which can lead one to be submitted to a round of verbal lynching by the righteously angered, hungered masses.
Another culinary feature of Ramadan is an appetizer called topa. Made of cheese (sometimes with several different types of cheese), butter and possibly eggs and some additional diary products, like somun, it is considered an almost obligatory part of iftar; while it can be eaten with a spoon, the traditional way of consuming involves a skillful manual use of a piece of somun, which is dipped into topa and used to pick up some amount of it, which is then brought to the mouth, preferably without anything falling somewhere outside of the target location (and with your hands clean, fingertips not included). This particular meal is considered by some to be one of the main culprits for the weight gain that many people experience during Ramadan; it’s considered an appetizer, but it’s so powerful that it makes any subsequent main meal superfluous; the problem, of course, is that the main meal is never missed. As for dates, they make their annual comeback during Ramadan and as far as I can tell, more and more people are making sure that they have and eat dates during Ramadan, at least for iftar.
The aforementioned customary features of the month of fasting are rarely a cause of friction between people, unless you’re specific about your food and happen to be breaking your fast in a home run by a zealous housewife who won’t allow for any differences of opinion with regards to the details of the Ramadan menu; if anything, they could provide an unscrupulous observer with an impression that there is a unified way in which Bosnians go through and experience Ramadan. Under the surface, however, there’s much turmoil, and some historical background should be outlined before presenting concrete examples.
The madhhab of the Ottoman conquerors, who brought Islam to Bosnia in 1463, was Hanafi, and throughout Ottoman rule that remained almost the only interpretation of the religion that its adherents ever practiced (and in many cases, witnessed). All religious practices and experiences have thus been quite monochromatic and have changed little over time, including the customs related to Ramadan and fasting in general, and they have formed the backbone and the background around or against which everything else developed later on. However, major changes in the way Bosnian Muslims understood their religion began to take occur some time after the beginning of the Austro-Hungarian occupation in 1878. That process consisted mostly of attempts to accommodate the new political reality in which a majority Muslim population was ruled by a non-Muslim ruler and to provide and an Islamic understanding/explanation for the ever more evident reality of worldwide Muslim decline. Considering that throughout the Muslim world, the Islamic discourse was starting to become penetrated by modernist thinkers who, more or less, rejected the traditional hermeneutical framework that Bosnian Muslims had first witnessed and the defeat of what is today dubbed “traditional Islam,” and that they were slowly becoming a target, not only of physical assaults and political pressures, but of relentless intellectual criticism of their non-Muslim surrounding which used every opportunity to mock their weakness, defenselessness and “backwardness.” The modernist stream slowly but surely began to exert a significant influence on the Bosnian ulama, fortunately never managing to completely convert them to its heresy. This disfiguring process reached its peak during the Communist rule of Bosnia, when some leading Islamic scholars in Bosnia seemed to profess the Mu’tezilite beliefs and combined them with liberal fiqhi positions, while failing to completely stamp out some of the unfounded and superstitious practices from the “tradional” era. Finally, the third major interpretational force that appeared in Bosnia at the beginning of the war of aggression was Salafism, which came with the (mostly Arab) Mujahideen; however, the lead in Salafi da’wah was soon taken by domestic sholars, and most Salafi du’aat are currently Bosniaks. Thus, the post-war Bosnia has witnessed a clash of (at least) three ways of understanding and practicing Islam: folklorized “traditionalism,” modernism, and Salafiyya, a pattern which has appeared in almost every Muslim community around the world at some point in their more recent history.
What sort of landscape emerged once the dust began to settle? And what are its Ramadan specifics? The sight is colorful, but not always pretty. Salafi influences have been resisted by the other two factions, at times vehemently, but some Salafi positions took root among the masses at an amazing speed, so much so that the official institutions were forced to accommodate them, but, unfortunately, for the wrong reasons. Case in point: per Hanafi madhhab, we should pray 20 rakat in taraweeh; despite the general suspicion towards Salafis, a suprising number of people rushed to accept their opinion that it’s okay, if not even better, to pray only 8 rakahs. In the beginning, the objections to this “innovation” were raised loudly, but now the official muezzin recites surah al-ikhlas three times, or the salawat upon the Prophet, s.a.w.s., after the eight rakahs are finished, to give time to those who will not pray the remaining rakahs to leave the masjid. You could call it direct democracy in action; instead of opting to follow the sunnah and adjust its beliefs and practices accordingly, the “traditionalist” officials try not to anger and alienate the masses and carefully plan their moves by giving more importance to their opinions and moods than is warranted (which is an approach they also take in some other activities not related to the subject of this article).
Perhaps I should have first mentioned the seemingly unresolvable dispute about determining the beginning and the end of Ramadan, but since Muslims around the world grapple with this issue I don’t think I would bring any new insights by mentioning it. I should point out though that, except among the Salafis, the practice of moonsighting is almost non-existent here, although the more orthodox Hanafi scholars who advocated it and spoke of its importance passed away not that long ago. The entire calendar is calculated in advance, and when Ramadan starts, everyone gets at least one vaktija, a monthly chart with calculated prayer times and reminders of important dates. This issue is a perfect model for highlighting the way the inferiority complex, shrouded in naïve modernist rhetoric, has some Muslims here firmly gripped. For example, when this debate began to resurface some fifteen years ago, due to growing Salafi influences, other groups felt threatened, even cornered, when confronted with evidence challenging their positions. So they reached for the(ir) trump card: if we don’t astronomically calculate our calendar and determine the beginning of Ramadan in the same way, we Muslims will be different from the modern peoples of the world!
Unthinkable! Something along those lines I heard one senior Imam here saying some years ago. The old guard also uses another crushing argument when cornered with proofs: this is not Saudi Arabia! This line of unreasoning has been used by them when people who wanted to revive the almost extinct practice of i’tikaf emerged. Alhamdulillah, as time passes, i’tikaf is becoming a non-issue for most and is making a comeback. My masjid has many people in i’tikaf this year, with even children spending some nights and days with their fathers in seclusion.
Another example: if a practicing Muslim went to fajr prayer after suhur, he would quite likely enter upon people sitting, sometimes in circles, sometimes in half-circles, sometimes in (almost) straight lines, reciting Qur’an, each man designated to recite a page or two. The practice is called muqabala (no idea why it’s called that), and it consists of trying to recite the entire Qur’an during Ramadan by reciting a certain number of pages after and/or before some of the daily congregational prayers; after which prayers this muqabala is done, and who the main reciters would be is decided each year by the authorities of the Islamic community of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Because the practice seems to be without basis in sunnah, it is not conducted in the “independent” masajid maintained by some Salafi-leaning brothers. It is another way to distinguish between the older and more recent generations of practicing Muslims, though there hasn’t been much debate about it, and so far it hasn’t been a cause of any serious confrontation. Speaking of independent masajid, there seems to be an increase in their number now. It is something that is condemned by most local Salafi scholars, since their goal is not to divide Muslims, but to rectify and correct their beliefs and practices. While I stick to that opinion, I am tempted to change it from time to time, especially when I don’t break a sweat due to praying the taraweeh behind one of the super fast “institutional” imams.
Despite the shallowness, discord and outright disobedience that may occur during Ramadan, the most tragic events, which prove that for many people this month is simply a matter of custom and tradition, are yet to happen on the blessed day of Eid. Witnessing them makes me wonder why some Muslims insist on celebrating the “Islamic New Year” when Eid can be abused to such an extent that it can easily surpass any New Year’s celebration in the lavishness of spending and amount of sin that is committed, thus accomplishing their unspoken goal of being like the non-Muslims. Unfortunately, for many people here who call themselves Muslims, instead of being a celebration of a month long of ibadah, Eid is just another chance to indulge in sin and it is awaited and celebrated for exactly that reason.
My late grandmother (my mom’s mom) used to cry when she sensed that the end of Ramadan was approaching. She explained that it was because she didn’t know whether she would live long enough to witness another one. If I would cry now, I think it would be because of the fact that so many have wasted another wonderful opportunity to, essentially, become happy; that many have, essentially, spit on the huge blessing provided for them by the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth and thus possibly conferred upon them His righteous wrath; and that, essentially, few things will be different when the next Ramadan comes knocking on our doors. InshaAllah, I will be proven very, very wrong.