Sunday, July 22, 2012

Morocco 101: Ramadan

Today is the second full day of Ramadan in Morocco. Justin and I are only going to be in Morocco for the first 4 days of it (we leave on Wednesday for a vacation) and then we'll be back for the remaining 2 weeks, but we are trying to experience as much as we can in the beginning! I thought I would use this blog post to talk a bit about Ramadan and our experiences so far.

The most well-known aspect of Ramadan for non-Muslims is the month-long fast between sunrise and sunset. For the last month or so, just about everyone we know or meet has asked the same question...

Are we fasting?

The answer is yes - sort of. Justin and I have committed to fasting while we are in Morocco, out of respect for the community and to try to get a sense of Ramadan from a closer perspective. However, since we are leaving on Wednesday to travel out of the country for 2 weeks, we'll be starting with a mini-fast of just 4 days, and then we'll try to resume fasting when we return. It's been really interesting to hear people's responses when we tell them that we are fasting - Some seem happy and proud of us, others are confused as to why we would fast if we are not also praying, and most warn us that it will not be easy! But people seem to really love Ramadan - they say that it's a beautiful time when the community comes together and experiences something very special. And just in our first day, I felt like fasting was something that mentally tied me to the community - As I walked around yesterday, I felt that I shared something in common with the whole community, which is a pretty cool feeling when you are living far away from home. And the flip side of fasting is that you have an amazingly delicious meal to break the fast each and every night. Some pictures from our first break-fast meal are at the end of this blog post!

As I mentioned above, Ramadan has started in Morocco - but exactly when it started is not as simple a question as you might think...

When does Ramadan start?

Well, that's a funny question that has been baffling me.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and as with all months in the Islamic calendar, its start is based on the sighting of the new moon. There appears to be a lot of disagreement over the starting date of the month.

Since Muslims live all over the world, but Islam started in what is now known as Saudi Arabia, they may not agree as to which country’s first moon sighting marks the start of the month. Some Muslims believe that a new moon sighting from their individual country marks the start of Ramadan. Other Muslims believe that the sighting of the new moon from Saudi Arabia marks the beginning of Ramadan. And yet other Muslims believe that technology should be used to mark the true date, and use astronomical calculations instead to determine the start of Ramadan.

In Morocco, it was based on the sighting of the moon here. So for several nights we stayed awake, waiting for a friend to tell us whether or not the new moon had been sighted. Seems like a tough way to mobilize a whole country to start fasting, but it works for people here!

Many of you may already know a lot about Ramadan, but here's a bit more information that I have learned during my time here.

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the month-long period of fasting that Muslims all over the world observe to commemorate the month in which the Qu'ran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Many Muslims also believe that during this month, the gates of Heaven are open, the gates of Hell are closed, and devils are chained in Hell. So it is a very holy time, filled with special practices which are only done this month.

Special Practices During Ramadan

Fasting all month
Although Muslims fast during other times of the year, Ramadan is the only time when fasting is obligatory during the entire month for every able Muslim. From sun-up to sun-down, Muslims (with exceptions for the ill, travelers, nursing mothers and pre-pubescent children) are required to abstain from eating, drinking, or sexual relations during daylight hours.

Charitable giving
There is also an increased emphasis on alms-giving during Ramadan. Many Muslims believe that their good actions bring a greater reward during this month than at any other time of year, because this month has been blessed by Allah. 

Increased prayer and recitation of the Qu'ran
In addition to fasting, Muslims are encouraged to read the entire Qu'ran. Some Muslims perform the recitation of the entire Qu'ran by means of special prayers which are held in the mosques every night of the month.

Iftar (the break-fast)
At sunset, the family gathers for the fast-breaking meal known as Iftar. The meal traditionally starts with the eating of three dates (as this is what the Prophet Muhammad did). Then a festive meal is served after prayers. This is a time of fellowship with families, friends, and the community.

A small meal eaten just before dawn; the final meal before the day's fast begins.

And very important... some special foods during this time!

Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about the eating portion of this month. There are many special types of food that, while available in Morocco at other times in the year, are emphasized this month. Here are the 3 big ones that I have seen so far:

Shbekia: A sesame cookie which is folded into a flower shape, fried and soaked in honey, then sprinkled with sesame seeds. Justin and I have spent HOURS making shbekia with our host family; it takes a really long time but is very good!

Sellou: Made from toasted sesames, fried almonds and flour that has been browned in the oven - very sweet!

Harira: A very tasty chickpea and tomato soup. Although eaten year-round, it seems to be especially popular in Ramadan for breaking the fast.

Making shbekia with my host mother.
The shbekia "before" picture - sesame-based dough
that will be fried and then drenched in honey.
The completed shbekia! Covered in honey and sesame seeds.
The break-fast table - Ours was a little nontraditional; note the pizza in the middle!
Also pictured are sellou, fried fish, shbekia, juices, and harira to come.
Close-up on the sellou.
And last but not least, the harira!
I could eat this stuff ALL. DAY. LONG. When I'm not fasting of course :)

I hope you enjoyed hearing a bit about Ramadan. Wishing you a Ramadan Kareem, a month filled with generosity and holiness!


  1. Thanks for the post - I'm headed to Morocco to stay with my husband's family for the last few days of Ramadan, and while I'm excited for the experience, I'm also very nervous and don't know what to expect. This was a big help!

    1. Thanks for your comment and I'm glad that the post was helpful for you! I hope you have a wonderful visit to Morocco and a meaningful Ramadan experience.

  2. Ramadan is one of the most important ISlamic holidays. This Ramadan, I am wishing everyone to be blessed by Allah. Ramadan Mubarak to all Muslims all over the globe. Have a blessed and peaceful Ramadan.