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A Muslim Perspective on Ritual

Basma Elshayyal's picture

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In the Qur'an, Allah asks the Prophet Mohammed to remind his followers that it is essential for those who claim to love Allah, to love him also: 'Say to them: If you love Allah, follow, (love and honour) me and Allah will love you.' (3:31).


Celebrate with gratitude


In accordance with this spirit, Muslims strive to emulate the Prophet's example in every aspect of their lives as best they can. One of the more enjoyable of these would be that of celebration. For many Muslims, celebrations are quite often a festive form of remembrance and thanksgiving, an expression of gratitude and appreciation for all that Allah has blessed them with; and an excellent way to commemorate not only the lives and examples of the Prophet Mohammed pbuh, but those of other Prophets also, particularly that of Abraham, referred to as the Patriarch of Prophets. This is particularly evident in major celebrations such as the two 'Eids. (More on this point later.)



Celebrate with ritual


Almost universally, celebration tends to naturally involve merrymaking, going out to parties, visiting and meeting friends and relatives and enjoying oneself. Islam is no exception. I find it interesting, though, that the title chosen for this essay brackets both ritual and celebration together – as celebrations in Islam also necessarily involve forms of (ritual) physical and spiritual purification. All Islamic celebrations include taking a bath, or at least performing ablutions, putting on clean or new clothes, wearing perfume and going to the mosque or a place of congregation (see essay on Church and Community) for Salah, a form of prescribed prayers. The main Islamic celebrations of Eid are also days when children and adults exchange clothes and other thoughtful gifts.


The dates and days of celebration are set according to the Islamic calendar, which consists of twelve lunar-based months. A new month begins with the sighting of the new crescent. Since lunar months are 29 or 30 days long, a year has 354 or 355 days, 10 or 11 days shorter than the solar year. Another characteristic of Islamic months is that the number of days in each month is not fixed. For example, the month of Ramadan may be 30 days in one year and 29 days in another year.


Salah is a form of worship, a celebration of the holiness, praise and glorification of Allah and the renewal of dedication of oneself to Him that is performed by every adult Muslim five times a day. For the preparation of the Salah timetable, the position of the sun in relation to a location on the earth is used, that is, sunrise, meridian and sunset. Before sunrise but after dawn (which commences 80 to 90 minutes before sunrise) is the time for the morning or Fajr prayer. Immediately after the meridian is the beginning of early afternoon or Zuhr prayer, which lasts midway to sunset. From midway to sunset till shortly before sunset is the mid-afternoon or 'Asr prayer time. Immediately after sunset is the Maghrib prayer time, which lasts until the disappearance of twilight (approximately an hour). After Maghrib until dawn is the 'Isha or night prayer time. Each of the prayers can be as short as five to ten minutes (or as long as the worshipper likes), but must be performed within its own time slot. All adult Muslims who have attained puberty are required to perform prescribed prayers (Salah) at the proper time, with various dispensations (e.g. women during their menstrual periods). A brief ablution is required as a preparation for the prayers.



The following weekly and annual celebrations are mandated in Islamic textual sources, that is, the Qur'an and the Hadith:


Yawm Al-Jumu'ah


The literal meaning of these two words is 'the day of congregation', which is Friday. Muslims gather in the masjid (mosque) for a khutba (sermon or address) followed by Salah led by an imam. After the Salah, people meet each other in the masjid and may visit relatives and friends. In Islam there is no Sabbath; therefore there is no mandatory closing of businesses on Friday except for the duration of congregational services. However, in a majority of Muslim countries, Friday is the weekly holiday, sometimes combined with Thursday or Saturday. The Friday prayer, held in the early afternoon, lasts less than an hour in general.


'Eid Al-Fitr


The first day of the month following Ramadan, the month of fasting (please see the body and health section) is 'Eid al-Fitr. This is the celebration of fast-breaking. Muslims watch the western horizon immediately after sunset on the 29th day of Ramadan for the crescent. If the crescent is sighted, it is the first day of the new month and the beginning of 'Eid day. If the crescent is not sighted within half an hour after sunset on the 29th day of Ramadan, Muslims complete 30 days of fasting. Either way, the 1st of Shawwal, the 10th month of the Islamic lunar calendar is 'Eid al-Fitr. On 'Eid day, Muslims gather in a larger facility than the neighbourhood masjid (preferably open-air) and join in Salat al-'Eid which is composed of Salah followed by an address by the imam (leader). This is a major holiday for the Muslims. On this day, they visit many relatives and friends and give gifts to the children. 'Eid is, first, a day of thanks to Allah and, next, a gathering of families and friends. All financially able Muslims are required to give Sadaqat al-Fitr, a form of charity, on behalf of each and every person of the family, including newborns, to the poor and needy during Ramadan but before the 'Eid prayers.



'Eid Al-Adha


This is the celebration of sacrifice which comes two months and ten days after 'Eid al-Fitr. Muslims commemorate the sacrifice of the lamb in place of Ima'il (Ishmael) by his father Ibrahim (Abraham) as a fulfilment of his covenant with God. On this day, after Salah al-'Eid (the prescribed 'Eid prayers), Muslims sacrifice an animal: a ram, goat, sheep, cow or camel. The meat is divided into three parts: one part is distributed among the poor and needy, one part is distributed among relatives and friends and one part is used by the family. This is also a major holiday for Muslims to visit each other and give gifts to the children. 'Eid al-Adha is celebrated on the 10th of Dhul Hijja, the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar, and again depends upon the crescent sighting for the first of the month. For those people who have gone to Makkah for Hajj (the pilgrimage), staying on the Plain of Arafat on the 9th of Dhul Hijja is the most important event. However, for those not performing Hajj, 'Eid al-Adha is the 10th of Dhul Hijja and one of the two most important celebrations of the year. In either case, one of the most important elements in both cases is the re-enactment and commemoration of seminal moments in the lives of prophets who are deeply loved and respected by Muslims; secondly, the strengthening of the bonds of love and friendship between everyone in society; thirdly, pastoral care and social cohesion in action, with particular attention being paid to ensure that none are lonely and that the less well-off are assisted financially in as discreet a way as possible to help them enjoy the days of celebration too, without feeling left-out. This is officially formalised and made obligatory through the compulsory giving of charity and sharing of one's sacrifice with those unable to afford it. These are all central to the concept of celebration in Islam, with the main emphasis being laid on the communal spirit and all sharing in the spirit of happiness and goodwill.


Eid Milad Al-Nabi or Mawlid Al-Nabi


To return to the first point made at the start of this essay, this is perhaps the most common and diversely celebrated event in the Muslim world. It is supposed to celebrate the 'birthday' of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh), the main aim behind it being the remembrance of his life, work and impact on those around him in order for Muslims to emulate him as best they can.



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