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Another round of Ramadan lunar-cy


Plates of fried food at iftar feastThis week, a fair proportion of 400,000-odd Australians who tick the 'Islam' box on their census forms will mark the start of Ramadan.

Ramadan is the 29 or 30 days when Muslims are supposed to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and intercoursing between sunrise and sunset. If they can be bothered getting up in time, they have a light breakfast. At the end of the day, they have a small meal followed by their sunset (maghrib) prayers and then dinner. After dinner, people head to the mosque for extra prayers that can take anything from 30 minutes to two hours (depending on which mosque you go to). We then hit the sack and get ready to do it all again the next morning.

The whole exercise is supposed to fine tune your soul, weaken the ties binding you to your physical appetites and test your religiosity. You do it for a whole month, and you do it at the same time as the entire Muslim community. Ramadan is a lunar month, and this month unites Muslims around the globe in an envelope of piety and mercy.

At least that's the theory.

Christians, unless they're Orthodox, know that Christmas is on 25 December each year. But Ramadan in fact starts at different times, depending upon when the moon is sighted. Now you'd think that after 1400 years, Muslims would have figured out how to perform the simple task of sighting the moon. Think again.

My mum's Ramadan calender states that Ramadan begins on Tuesday 9 July 2013. I picked up this calender for her from a Lebanese restaurant in south western Sydney. Had I picked it up from a South Asian spice shop, the start date would have been perhaps one or two days later. If I'd visited a mosque managed by the Turkish government-aligned Diyanet Vakfi (Religious Trust), I could purchase a calender which determines all lunar months for the next few decades, if not centuries.

Turks 'sight' the moon by relying on astronomical calculations. They think that since science has progressed so far that man can now walk on the moon, it seems a bit pointless to insist on sighting it with your naked eye. Cypriots, Bosnians and Albanians agree.

Muslims of Indo-Pakistani, Bangladeshi, South African and Indo-Fijian backgrounds insist on sighting the moon with their naked eyes. Their Ramadan usually begins one or two days after the Turks. Indonesians and Malaysians tend to follow the Arabic-speakers who generally start their Ramadan on the same day as the Turks. Some nationalities follow the fatwas of overseas religious authorities such as Saudi Arabia or Malaysia.

Aussie converts tend to be confused by the whole confusing spectacle of lunar-cy. That, or they start with whichever community is least condescending and most welcoming to them. It's amazing how universal religion can bring out the nationalism and cultural chauvinism in many Muslim migrants.

Then there is the issue of eating. Muslims aren't the most punctual people on the planet. But when it comes to a fast-opening (iftar) gathering, they're always on time, because they know that a huge feast awaits them on arrival. The real test during Ramadan is how on earth all that food is going to be finished. Pakistani iftar gatherings are especially ghee-filled affairs with up to 20 separate dishes filling the smorgasbord.

Most Muslims break their fast with a single date and a glass of water before spreading the mats out for the sunset prayer. Indo-Pakistanis prefer to stuff their faces with a fruit salad called chaat and deep-fried spicy potato cakes called pakora. The chaat salad is composed of three parts chopped fruit, two parts lemon juice, four parts curry powder and approximately 500 parts sugar. A duty free sized block of Toblerone would be lighter on the aorta.

And so for most of us, Ramadan is the month of massive weight gain.

For iftar gatherings earlier on in Ramadan, the blokes somehow roll their way to the mosque for the long tarawih prayers. The process of merely bending over to perform ablutions and walking up a few flights of stairs can be a struggle. But imagine standing in prayer in a row of blokes burping the contents of their iftar with some frequency. Still, why try beating them when you can join them?

In Melbourne, where Muslims are somewhat less disorganised, corporate iftar parties are all the rage. SBS, ABC, various banks and telcos hold iftar parties for leading members and hangers-on in the community. Imagine the view they must enjoy over the Melbourne Harbour footbridge or whatever it's called.

Canberra is the land of embassy iftar parties. Some years ago I hosted a morning drive show on a Ramadan radio station. I accidentally deliberately read an article on air which described Syria as a police state. Someone from the Syrian ambassador showed his devotion to free speech by ringing up the station organiser and making all kinds of threats. A few days later, I attended an iftar party at the Syrian embassy. The Lebanese food was scrumptious. The ambassador and all his staff were very polite. Perhaps I really do have the perfect face for radio.

As Ramadan comes to an end, people plan their day off; for the big day of Eid (or Bayram if you're Turkish, Bosnian or Albanian). Employers across the nation, take note: don't be surprised if your Muslim employees ask for different days off. The lunar-cy of determining the beginning of Ramadan is repeated at the end. I know some Sydney lunar-tic authorities who can't tell you when Eid is until the morning of Eid! One enterprising service sends you notice of the naked eye sighting of the moon by text message.

So welcome to Ramadan Aussie style in what would have to be the most disorganised congregation in the country. Anyone waiting for us to have the organisational skills to establish sharia government will have to wait until well after the next Ice Age.


Irfan Yusuf headshotIrfan Yusuf is a Sydney based lawyer and blogger.

Topic tags: Irfan Yusuf, Ramadan, Islam, Muslims, Eid



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Existing comments

Thanks Irfan for a great chuckle. I often ponder the relevance of all those northern hemisphere religious festivals that have their origins in a northern hemisphere agrarian calendar and are therefore completely out of context in the southern hemisphere. Think of all the spring festivals - Chinese New Year, Easter, Passover, and the Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist equivalents - that have a real connection with new life in all its meanings when celebrated in Spring, but which lose all contextual meaning when celebrated in Autumn down under.

Ginger Meggs | 08 July 2013  

Actually Ginger, Ramadan is defined by the lunar, not solar, calendar and therefore is not tied to any particular season, as it changes slightly every year. Now in Australia, we are happily fasting in mid-winter, however in a few years Ramadan will be in summer.

Amina | 08 July 2013  

Ha Ha!!!! This is not just the aussie problem. We have the same exact issue in America. We even have a "fiqh council" for north america that is ignored by half the community and either go nationalist or to saudi verdicts. At least this in itself is a common trait in our Ummah. Lol

A. Smith | 08 July 2013  

Is this article intending to be offensive and against the islam religon because it sounds like that. Also there should be a reporting button because i have to add a commemt because this article well and true offended me and i would like this article to either be removed or edited

Harold Apognadi | 09 July 2013  

Irfan, I am saddened by your article. Is there a kinder way to present these special Muslim holy days ? if so, I think many of us would consider ourselves blest to discover the depth and beauty you may write for us.

Anne Nolan | 09 July 2013  

Thanks Irfan for a great article to start the day. How about we have a competition called 'My religions lunacy is funnier than yours'? We could all fall about laughing at our own idiosyncrasies and learn something of our friend's as well. God forbid, peace might break out!

Mark O'Brien | 09 July 2013  

Interesting article on Rmadin. Your comment about weight gain gave me a laugh. During Lent, I always put on ten pounds. I made sure than my main meal would more than carry me through the two "small" meals of the next day! Eventually, I got smarter & found another way to honor the Lenten fast.

Kathleen Anderson | 09 July 2013  

"Christians, unless they're Orthodox, know that Christmas is on 25 December each year." Why is this? No one knows when Jesus was born. His birth was not celebrated by the early Church. However, in the early Roman Empire, as devotion increased to Mithra, the Sun-God, the day after the Northern Winter solstice, when the sun was seen to be re-born, was proclaimed as Mithra’s birthday, and declared to be the start of the new Year. This became a day of great celebration. When Christianity displaced Mithraism as the popular religion of Rome, these celebrations were “baptised” by declaring New Years day January 1st, as the birthday of Jesus.However as the ancients did not know the exact length of the year, the solstice and "NewYear day" drifted apart. For some reason “Christrmas” stuck with the day after the solstice, although December 25 is often NOT the day after the solstrice.

Robert Liddy | 09 July 2013  

I was under the impression it was three dates and a glass of water, Irfan, based on Prophetic example. When I was in Indonesia they seemed to break the fast with cool drinks and sweets. I was interested that the tradition there was to bathe with some rose water before the start of fasting. Arabs here told me that was strange and not customary for them. I suppose South Asian Islam, with a strong Deobandi/Tabligh influence, is much more literalist on certain things like moon sighting by eye rather than calculation. I suppose, Arabic not being their language and being a minority, they are, like most minorities, more punctilious on those accounts. By the way, there are indeed Non-Orthodox Christians who do attempt to fast during Lent. Because they don't have the (incredibly explicit and often unobserved Orthodox regulations) they have to pace themselves. Probably not a bad thing to learn to do. Sadly, many once or twice a year church attendees (Easter and Christmas) have absolutely no idea of the deep spiritual significance of both festivals. Like many ethnic Muslims, who are, basically ignorant of their religion, it becomes a sort of "tribal" rite. Try an Anglican church in this country at either. If you want to see faded Anglo-Saxon memories (OK things are a bit more diverse ethnically since the late 1960s) it's the perfect time and place. I think the same phenomenon is happening with many ethnic Muslims here. Sad really, when people lose their religious consciousness, because, in the vacuum, they can be easy prey for religious nutters; exploiters and fanatics.

Edward F | 09 July 2013  

Wasn't it Thomas Merton who said that you can't be truly holy until you can laugh at your religion?

Jennifer | 09 July 2013  

Jennifer's right, in which case Irfan may be well on the road to holiness! His laughter is kindly - maybe we can all take a lesson from that.

Joan Seymour | 09 July 2013  

"Wasn't it Thomas Merton who said that you can't be truly holy until you can laugh at your religion?" That's probably why there are so many deadly serious latter day Pharisees around, Jennifer. LOL. It sometimes takes a Dickens to portray them and even then they probably wouldn't see themselves. ROFL.

Edward F | 09 July 2013  

Irfan's ability to make gentle jokes about picking the right date for the start and end of Ramadan reminds me of the humourous 'Salam Cafe' which enjoyed two seasons on SBS television a couple of years ago. The compass gags (reference confirming the direction of Mecca) were a frequent highlight. And yes, the script writers and actors were all Australian Muslims. Thanks to Irfan and the 'Salam Cafe' crew for relaxing and broadening the image of Islam in this country.

Ian Fraser | 09 July 2013  

Salaam Irfan, really enjoyed this! In Afghanistan, my Muslim friends awaited the Saudi visual cue for Ramadan. As foreigners, the issue at work with our Afghan colleagues, was where we could move out of sight to have a glass of water or some tea. Not much spare space in our office! Afghans would laugh and say, 'no need.' But we thought there was. Eating out was the best option during that time. Gotta say, it is a remarkable thing to be amongst on an everyday basis, and tough in the heat. Oh those home- made sweets at Eid!

janforrester | 09 July 2013  

Thanks Amina. I stand corrected. I had assumed that The Islamic calendar, like the Jewish and Chinese calendars, was a mixed solar/lunar calendar, whereas you rightly point out that it's a pure lunar calendar.

Ginger Meggs | 10 July 2013  


EBRAHIM AMEER | 14 July 2013  

Great article, as a community group we discuss this every year, we argue about which day to start and end but i think its because EID FESTIVAL is a gift from GOD... But just as the parent of argumentative children withholds certain gifts that they may otherwise give their children, so too does GOD withhold the pleasure of having EID FESTIVAL altogether for us... i think we will see this happen when we get our act together and realize as the famous scholar Mr. Fethullah Gulen said "We are Human first, then we are MUSLIM/Christian/JEW etc..." God is merciful but god is also just, and to give something undeservedly is injustice incarnate...

Matt of melbourne | 07 August 2013  

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