Ramadan Activities, Traditions and Special Days

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Ramadan decorations in Nablus
Immediately after sunset, traffic stops and quiet settles in as people settle in their homes with only one thing on their mind: eating. After about an hour people begin trickling back into the streets and their cars and gridlock and noise takes hold as people start going out and doing their evening Ramadan activities.

In Iraq, kids engage in “majinah”, a sort of Middle Eastern version trick or treat; “damam” drummers walk through the streets in the wee hours of the morning to wake up everyone for the morning meal; and neighborhood teams compete in a midnight game called “mehebbe” in which they try to find a tiny ring.

Damam drummers are highly skilled and undergo rigorous trained. Insisting that their craft is more than a thousand years old, many are forth and fifth-generation practitioners of the art. Children practicing “majinah” go door to door, singing: “Open the bag and give us!/ You give use or we give you!/ To Mecca we will take you!” If they are lucky the kids get treats. If they are not and the family has nothing to offer, the kids are splashed with water.

Mehebbe is played late at night between two opposing teams of about 30 players from different neighborhoods, A tiny ring is placed in the hand of one of the 30 players, and the captain of the opposing team has to guess who is holding the ring and in which hand.

Websites and Resources: Islam IslamOnline islamonline.net ; Institute for Social Policy and Understanding ispu.org; Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline


Many Muslims gather at night, usually at a mosque, for the “Taraweeh” prayers in which portions of the Qur’an are recited using a special technique known as “Qirat” — which stresses clear enunciation, appropriate intonation and the use of pauses. The sound of it has been compared the voice of a mother comforting her baby. American Muslim Jareed Akhter wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “I do not understand much of what is being recited. Nonetheless the experience is inspiring. For those who do not understand the language , the Qur’an conveys a tone of grandeur , dignity and gravity.”

Taraweeh at the Grand Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia

Often the entire Qur’an is recited during the month: 30 sections in 30 days, which works out to about three chapter a day (the Qur’an has 114 chapters but the chapters vary a great deal from relatively long to very short). Hassaball wrote: “The nightly congregational prayers are a wonderful experience, in which we get to hear the entire Qur’an recited ever so beautifully...It warms the heart and soul to worship with hundreds of fellow Muslim every night.”

Sometimes the Qur’an is recited from memory in pairs with each person taking turns and the what who is not reading correcting the other as he reads. In the West the Qur’an is often recited in Arabic by Muslims who don’t known what the Arabic words mean. The reciters are often “hafiz”, people who have memorized the Qur’an.

Fanoos: Egyptian Ramadan Lanterns


Wael Abdul Aziz wrote on egyptianstreets.co: “Although the fanoos –Arabic for lantern- is currently used as a decorative item or a toy for children to enjoy during the Holy month, a trip back in time shows that its journey started off rather differently. Despite its common use in modern Arabic, the word fanoos originates from the Greek word fa? -pronounced almost similarly- which means lantern, or a means of illumination, portable be it or fixed. The early tales of the fanoos’s origin may differ, but they all point to Cairo as the birthplace of the fanoos as we know it today. [Source: Wael Abdul Aziz, egyptianstreets.com, June 25, 2015]

“In spite of the tradition being seasonal, the fanoos industry is active all year long, even in our modern times. Throughout the year, the industry innovators work on coming up with new designs and crafting them. They are then stored until shortly before Ramadan when they are gleefully put up for sale.

“As the original birthplace of the fanoos, Cairo continues to uphold its pivotal role in the industry. Today’s fanoos industry hub is considered to be at Taht ElRab’ –an area close to al-Azhar. There, you can find some of the biggest fanoos workshops that have been passed down from one generation to another.

History of Fanoos

Wael Abdul Aziz wrote on egyptianstreets.com: “The story starts a little over a thousand years ago on the 5th of Ramadan of the Hijri (lunar) year 358 (969 A.D.), when Cairenes were expecting the arrival of al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah al-Fatimy during the dark. To ensure an illuminated entrance for the Caliph, Gawhar al-Siqilli –Fatimid military commander and viceroy at the time- ordered the city residents to light the path by holding candles along the pathway. To avoid any extinguished candles, the townspeople placed their candles on wooden bases and enclosed them with palm and light skin. As the Caliph walked through town, he admired the design, and from there on, the fanoos became symbolic of Ramadan. [Source: Wael Abdul Aziz, egyptianstreets.com, June 25, 2015]

“In another account of the tale, the families of Cairo used to accompany the Caliph along his journey across the city passing through the old gates of Cairo, Bab el-Nasr, Bab el-Fetouh and Bab el-Dahab on his way to the Mokattam hill for the Ramadan moon sighting, announcing the start of the Holy month. Along the route, kids would joyfully hold the fanoos and sing in welcoming and celebration of Ramadan.

Sultanahmet mosque lit up for Ramadan

“Although the early stories of the fanoos may not be strikingly odd, others associated to the fanoos are fairly unusual. In the 10th century A.D., Caliph el-Hakim bi-Amr Allah deprived women from departing their homes all year long. The only exception was during Ramadan when women were allowed to attend prayer outside their homes and visit relatives and neighbors. But that exception was applied under the condition that women are accompanied by boys carrying the fanoos both to light their way and to notify men that a woman is walking by. Furthermore, an order was passed by Caliph el-Hakim bi-Amr Allah that lanterns would be installed along every alley, and in front of each shop and home. Whoever disobeyed was fined. Under such strict orders, the fanoos industry in Cairo flourished notably.

“During the Fatimid era, celebrations and holidays were of remarkable importance to Egyptians, the reason why they invested a lot of time and effort preparing for them. Consequently, the fanoos industry started shifting from a utility of lighting homes, mosques and stores to a decorative item used during Ramadan. Moreover, it spread as a tradition for children to walk the roads and alleys carrying their Fanoos and singing jolly songs while asking for gifts and candy. At night, the mesaharaty –a person whose job is to wake people up for the predawn meal in Ramadan- would also gather children around him as they sang merrily through the neighborhood, carrying the fanoos.

“Along the passage of time, more traditions combining the fanoos with Ramadan would emerge resulting in the deeply rooted link between the two, and marking them as authentic Egyptian heritage. Slowly, the Egyptian fanoos started to trickle into neighboring countries until it became a Ramadan tradition in many of them, especially in Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Gaza and others.”

a shop window that is decorated with the Islamic crescent symbol representing the season of Ramadan, with the words, "Happy Ramadan,"

Holy Days Associated with Ramadan

Prayers for the Ramadan period are divided into thirds with the prayers on the first 10 days for forgiveness and the second 10 days for helped in saving oneself from hell. The final 10 days is regarded as a time for especially intense praying with prayers said on odd number days worth with more than 1,000 ordinary prayers.

On the 10th day of Ramadan, Muhammad began making preparations for the Battle of Badr, which led to an important military victory that ended with Muhammad’s triumphant entrance into Mecca.


Lailat ul Bara'h (15th night of the month Shabaan) — Night of Forgiveness — takes place two weeks before Ramadan. According to the BBC: “ It is the time when Muslims seek forgiveness for their sins and believe that on this night one's destiny is fixed for the year ahead. “On this night, Muslims pray and ask God for forgiveness either at the mosque or at home. Muslims may visit the graves of relatives and the giving to charity is also traditional. Although not a religious requirement, in some parts of the world there are firework displays that mark this night. The wording 'Lailat ul Bara'h' is Arabic; layltun meaning night and baraat meaning forgiveness. In Persian and Urdu it is called Shabbe Baraat. [Source: BBC, September 7, 2009 |::|]

Lailat al Qadr

The 27th night of Ramadan is called “Lailat al-Qadr, the “Night of Powers.” It marks the date on the lunar calendar in 610 when the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. by Allah. According to the BBC: “Muslims regard this as the most important event in history, and the Qur'an says that this night is better than a thousand months (97:3), and that on this night the angels descend to earth. This is a time that Muslims spend in study and prayer. Some will spend the whole night in prayer or in reciting the Qur'an. [Source: BBC, July 29, 2011 |::|]

Lailat al Qadr is regarded as a time of forgiveness. Prisoners are often set free and people sometimes do bad things in hopes they will be forgiven. One hadith reads: “Whoever establishes the prayers on the night of Qadr out of sincere faith and hoping to attain Allah's rewards (not to show off) then all his past sins will be forgiven.” — Hadith, Bukhari Vol 1, Book 2:34

“Lailat al Qadr takes place during Ramadan. The date of 27 Ramadan for this day is a traditional date, as the Prophet Muhammad did not mention when the Night of Power would be, although it was suggested it was in the last 10 days of the month. Because of this, many Muslims will treat the last 10 days of the month of Ramadan as a particularly good time for prayer and reading the Qur'an. |::|

Eid al-Fitr, Feast of the Breaking of the Fast

Eid al-Fitr, the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast, is celebrated for three days after the month of Ramadan is over and a new moon appears. The festival marks the end of the fast and thanks the Almighty for his blessing during the year. It begins with the start of the Muslim month Shawwal and like Ramadan requires the sighting of the new moon by a sane person in Mecca necessary for it to be declared. If the new moon is not spotted the celebrations are postponed for a day.

Eid al-Fitr, or "the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast", is kind of like the Muslim version of Christmas, in the sense that it's a religious holiday, people gather together for big meals with family and friends, exchange presents, and have a good time. Eid is also marked by dressing up and visiting the mosque for prayer, and with visits to family and friends for celebratory meals. Because Islam uses a lunar calendar, the month of Ramadan comes around 11 days earlier each successive year, so there is no Western season associated with Ramadan. [Source: BBC]

Eid begins when the first sight of the new moon is seen in the sky. Muslims in most countries rely on news of an official sighting, rather than looking at the sky themselves. The celebratory atmosphere is increased by everyone decorating their homes. There are special services out of doors and in mosques, processions through the streets. The special celebratory meal is eaten during daytime, the first daytime meal Muslims will have had in a month. Eid is also a time of forgiveness, and making amends. |::|

Ramadan During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Arsalan Iftikhar wrote in The Week: The COVID-19 epidemic has forced Muslims (and practicing believers of other faiths) all over the world to reassess how we might fulfill our spiritual commitments and religious obligations in these unprecedented circumstances. Just a few months ago, during our holy month of Ramadan, the global Muslim community was forced to figure out how to navigate fasting for 30 days without praying inside our mosques or visiting our families. Many of us resorted to holding "Zoom iftars" every night to break our fast while chatting with our friends and families. [Source: Arsalan Iftikhar, The Week, July 28, 2020]

“The importance of that sacrifice has been amply demonstrated. According to The New York Times, a huge gathering of 16,000 people at a Malaysian mosque became the pandemic's largest known vector in Southeast Asia, spreading the coronavirus to half a dozen countries. Another large religious congregation — this time in New Delhi, India — caused the largest documented spike in COVID-19 cases in India (with nearly one-third of the country's early cases potentially linked to this event).

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons except soap opera, BBC

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, Encyclopedia.com, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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