LIVING CLOSE to a mosque ever since I was young, the melodious call to prayer known as adhan, or in some places azan, always soothes my mind. Even though I don’t understand a word of the summons to the faithful, the muezzin’s (bilal) deep voice has an undeniably calming effect.
The azan issuing from mosques sounds even more vigorous than usual during Ramadan, ninth of the 12 months on the Islamic calendar, observed by Muslims around the world as the holiest time of year. It is a month spent fasting to commemorate the original revelation of the Koran to the Prophet Muhammad.
Ramadan begins with hilal, the crescent of the new moon. Each year Ramadan comes earlier, since the lunar cycle – normally 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar – moves in retrograde relative to it.
“Every mentally and physically fit adult Muslim is obliged to fast from sunrise to sunset each day during Ramadan,” explains imam Vinai Sama-un, who leads worship at the Surao Sai Gong Din (Kamalulislam) Mosque in Bangkok’s Min Buri district.
“Those who are sick, elderly and travelling can forgo fasting, as can pregnant, breast-feeding and menstruating women and pre-pubescent children, if it might negatively affect their health.
“When we fast, we do it out of deep faith in God. Fasting during Ramadan is undertaken in obedience to God, in response to His command and out of love of Him,” the imam says.
“Of course you have to be careful about your health while fasting – if you fall sick during Ramadan you can end your fast. Once you recover, though, you’re supposed to make up for the missing days, a day for a day.
“Children under 14 can fast, but at an easy level, so that when they reach puberty they’ll be mentally and physically prepared to fast properly. When I was still a child I tried fasting during Ramadan just like the adults, but I couldn’t go the whole day without food – it was acceptable, though, just the same!” he laughs.
Pheeraphong Hasan, a koteb (or khatib) charged with delivering sermons during Friday and Eid prayers at Kamalulislam Mosque, describes what life is like for the faithful during Ramadan.
“Before dawn we have our first meal, called suhoor, which is very important because it becomes the main source of energy for the whole day. During the day we go to work and do our usual activities, like any other day. We break our fast after the sunset prayer, sharing dinner with family and friends.”
Traditionally, the day’s fasting ends in the same way that Prophet Muhammad did so – with a sip of water and a few dates.
“Many people in the community share their good fortune with the less fortunate during the holy month by donating food for the dinner feast at the mosque,” says Pheeraphong. “At Kamalulislam Mosque we provide meals every day during Ramadan so that every Muslim can join in our prayers and share in our dinner.”
Fasting during Ramadan is one of the “five pillars” of Islam, along with the declaration of faith, daily prayers, charity, and the annual haj pilgrimage to Mecca, though the last is reserved for those who are physically and financially able.
During Ramadan Muslims are also supposed to abstain from smoking, gossiping, sex, unkind or impure thoughts and words and immoral behaviour. They pray more frequently and make charitable donations.
Special evening prayers, tarawih, are conducted every night. The Koran is read in 30 equal segments each night.
“Ramadan is also a time to practise self-discipline and self-reflection,” Pheeraphong says. “Fasting is a way to cleanse the soul and build empathy for those who are less fortunate.
“Look at those kids – some of them start fasting at the age of seven! We don’t expect them to be able to fast for the whole day, but at least they’re learning how to be patient and detached from worldly pleasures. When they’re hungry they can empathise with those who have nothing to eat. That’s the way they learn to share their good fortune with the less fortunate.”
As the sun descends, worshipers at the mosque prepare for the Maghrib prayer just after sunset. In a tent alongside the main mosque building, women are setting out tables for the meal that ends the daily fast. A strong wind starts to blow and grey clouds assemble. Just as the mesmerising sound of the sunset prayer subsides, the rain begins to pour and everyone – men, women and children – scramble to help one another move the tables, chairs and food inside the mosque.
While the tables are being set up again in drier conditions, we begin packing our own gear and prepare to bid the imam farewell.
Someone calls from the dining area. “Sister and brother, it’s still raining and dinner is ready. Why don’t you have dinner with us? Please, join us!”
Empathy is a blessing after all.