In the Shadow of the Past: Ramadan in the Balkans

Professor Ismail Bardhi is Dean of the School of Islamic Sciences in Skopje, Macedonia. He received his diploma at the School of the Islamic Sciences in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and completed his doctorate at the University of Ankara, Turkey. He is the author of several publications in his native Albanian language. He has been a leading participant in the dialogue between major churches and religious communities in the Republic of Macedonia. 


Professor Bardhi discusses the Balkans' experience of the month of Ramadan:

How is Ramadan celebrated in Macedonia, Bosnia and Kosovo?

ImageThe Balkans have been and still are a space in which different religious and cultural traditions are intermingled. In fact, there is a saying that one encounters in literature sometimes; the Balkans are an enigma, and this sounds about right. Every religious culture has left its marks here; everyone can speak about Ramadan something experienced as a child, something they learned as a tradition, and finally, as something that was practiced with conviction. One can read about fasting in local dictionaries and encyclopedias, published in different languages: Ramadan is a holy month for Muslims during which people abstain eating and drinking, before dawn until dusk. But what is interesting about Ramadan is that the aspect of Scheherazade's  "a thousand and one nights" can still be seem; it is as if people are running towards a "marriage" between time and at the iftar (meal to break the fast), to use the words of the Prophet Muhammad, "the fragrances of Paradise" can be felt. One can see that indeed something great is happening in the faces of people; this is something that puts their souls and minds on trial, something that is dreadful due to the heavy burden it carries. Behind this, one can notice that something is descending on you, immersing you, truly a great flood. As the Qur'an says: "Ramadan is a month in which it (the Qur'an) was revealed." Old and young await this month with many recollections; they remember the time of the Ottoman Empire, they recall the time of the collapse and the end of this Empire, the large number of migrations, persecutions, poverty... They remember the recent systems of kingdoms and communism. Each has left its mark, some of these have been experienced by people outside the Balkans as well.

After the withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire these areas, the celebration of Ramadan continued with the same intensity, even though Communism brought great difficulties. In some countries in the Balkans, fasting during the month of Ramadan was officially banned and people were punished, for example, in Albania, while in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sandzak, Kosovo and Macedonia, there was the scent of humiliation in the air and offense was felt by the ruling "culture" and authorities of that time against people who fasted. Nevertheless, Muslims, some overtly and others covertly, continued to fast.

In an area in which fasting has been carefully maintained, despite the many difficulties, how much interest can you see today in Ramadan celebrations?

There are a great deal of data on the traditions of the local Muslims and the way they celebrated the month of Ramadan during the Ottoman Empire. I was particularly impressed by some articles in older magazines, for example Hikmet and Behar (Bosnia); Zani i Naltë, and Kultura islame (Albania), as well as in the poetry of the Beytedzi, poets who wrote in Albanian using the Ottoman script; this poetry is full of great religious emotions. Also, a booklet entitled "The life and traditions of Muslims", written by the Austrian Antun Hangi greatly impressed me.

How was Ramadan celebrated 100 years ago in these parts? People waited at night to see the crescent moon that marked the ning of Ramadan and then this was announced the mosques. The next day the mosques were decorated and illuminated with lights, the Qur'an was read more and lectures were delivered (known as vaz). After the tarawih prayer people used to go out, strolling in public places, visiting coffee houses or going on family visits. These activities lasted until the moment when the drums announced that it was time for the suhur. During the day, at the noon prayer, many hafiz used to recite the muqabele, that is, the Qur'an, in the mosques and the faithful would listen to them. For the asr prayer lectures would be given, although the Qur'an would also be read. The time of iftar (the meal to break the fast at sunset) was announced with cannons.

It is interesting that women were also active throughout the day; they used to gather, spend some pleasant time together, as well as carrying out their household obligations; they were not as active as the men were.

At a gathering here in Skopje at Molla Becha's house (an imam in Skopje who died some 25-30 years ago), I remember Molla Becha telling us about the celebration of Ramadan in Albania during the reign of King Ahmet Zogu. This recollection remained with me, particularly his words about the last three nights of Ramadan, i.e. the Laylat al-Qadr until the day of Eid. Not only were the mosques decorated, but the entire city of Tirana used to take on a celebratory look; people used to close their shops and started calculating the amount of zakah and sadakt al-fitr to be paid. This was indeed something miraculous.

There is a lovely poem by the Albanian beytedzi, Muci Zadeh, who wrote "O God, Don't Leave Us without Coffee" in 1337 Hijri (1725):

Imzot, mos më le dë kujdes,

bë iftar me mjaltë pa pekmes,

O imzot, pej teje shpresë ... !

Imzot, mos më lerë pa kave!

Dë këtë muaj mubareq,

falna gjynahet se jemi pleq,

për gjithë sa janë meleq,

Imzot, mos më lerë pa kave!

My God, don't leave me

To break the fast with honey without pekmez

O my God, I have hope in You!

My God, don't leave me without coffee!

During this mubarek month,

Forgive us our sins because we are as old

As the number of angels

O my God, don't leave me without coffee!

Isn't that lovely... The existence of such beautiful poems is just one of the things that makes Ramadan special in the Balkans, I guess. In general, what makes Ramadan unique in the Balkans? What are things that distinguish "Ramadan in the Balkans" other places?

It is difficult to make any distinction, or to find a particular feature that could be named specificum Balcanicus. I think that the most important aspect of uniqueness is precisely the non-uniqueness of Ramadan in the Balkans. Of course, there is a characteristic way of dressing, food and a culture of living, which is different other parts of the world. In here the synthesis between the Orient and the Occident is at play. This is, I think, that uniqueness and the most clear expression that we are living Islam between the East and the West. Of course, we should not forget that there is greater participation of women in society. But, prayer, love for religion - this is something universal. Maybe the distinctive aspect is what has happened with religious freedom and Muslims in the Balkans.

ImageDuring the last 50 years there have been great changes in this regard, but it is interesting to note that during when much was forbidden there was an enthusiasm  that kept alive the very being of religion and its identity. There was secret fasting, when people were provoked in many ways; many of our mothers used to hold glasses of tea at work; this was, of course, not to drink, but to hide the fact that they were fasting, because there was the danger of immediate dismissal jobs and in some cases even arrest. In those times, fasting was the greatest force, a force that crushed wrongs in silence. Imagine, in a communist regime, a regime that represented a world power, a man fasted as God told him to: "The fast is for Me alone, and I alone give the reward for it" - so, people were afraid and fasted. Why?!?

I remember as if it was today that iftars had a beautiful fragrance of olden times, the food did too: pacha, soup, the sofra, dates, water, yogurt, whatever one could afford. For instance, one of old features of the celebration of Ramadan in Sarajevo is the preparation of somuns, a special kind of bread only prepared during this month for iftar and suhur. Everyone is sitting around the sofra, waiting for the iftar to come... and all this is accompanied by many prayers. Ramadan is a time for a hatme (complete recitation) of Qur'an. It is a kind of miracle to see in our mothers and our sisters cover their heads and sit in the corners of the room, reading the Qur'an; although many of them don't understand Arabic, they all feel it. And again, as in Ottoman times, after suhur and the morning prayer, people go to sleep until noon, and life "s" again. In the times of repression the Qur'an was read, and there were some lectures; even when lectures were delivered, they were hidden messages of freedom and, unfortunately, they were sometimes used to defend the prevailing regime. How quickly we forget the past, it is as if we are talking about long, long time ago. Yet, I, myself, am a footnote of that time.

Well, in the Balkans, are there any projects, activities etc., that are unique to Ramadan?

As for today, Ramadan is celebrated by many people; there are great preparations, official iftars, the mosques are full of people, there is no empty place for the tarawih prayers. In our region, the tarawih has been and still is 20 raqats. In some mosques, the reading of the Qur'an takes priority, like in Bosnia and Sandzak, while in Kosovo and Macedonia lectures are the most important events. But, this doesn't mean that Qur'an is not read here.

Different traditions continue to exist, generations die, but the traditions remain. They witness the changeability of generations and multi-confessional coexistence. It is interesting that the time of Ramadan is felt also by non-Muslim neighbors, who see another aspect of Muslims' feeling and experiencing the religion, or, to use modern language, how it is to live within religious tolerance.

Another characteristic of the new times are the many programs broadcasted on television and via other media that have religious contents. Unfortunately, they are not on the same level as those, for instance, in Turkey. Sometimes they even have a negative impact, in the sense of advertisement. The fast is a shield for the human being, it is a private matter and should remain as such. It needs no advertisement, it should not be commercialized. This gives a very distorted and negative image, which, unfortunately, is promoted by different countries in the world that have a majority Muslim population.

Are there any traces of Ottoman tradition still in the Ramadan celebrations today in the Balkans? Are there any surviving Ottoman traditions practiced by the community in Ramadan?

ImageIftars are special moments in which the entire fasting world unites; the tarawih, muqabele, lectures, costumes, each of them communicates with all other parts of the world today. The last night of Ramadan is the time when these promenades and visits that have occurred during the last 30 nights comes to an end and the preparation of clothes and other things for the ‘Eid  starts. The next day, after the ‘Eid prayer, most Muslims go to visit the graves of their relatives. There is no religious foundation for this, but this shows a strong tie with the old traditions of the region. It is another proof that contact with our past has been disrupted; Ramadan is the time when not only prayer and ibadet are experienced, but also a time to remember the Ottoman Empire too.

Of course, Ramadan marks the spiritual and historical ties with the Ottoman Empire, in every dimension, be they religious or cultural. Hence, expressions like Ramadan mubarek olsun, Allah kabuletsin, mukabele (about reading the Qur'an), iftar, sufur and alike are common for all Muslims who live in the Balkans.

What about the mahya tradition, that is the stringing of lights minarets...? As a part of Ottoman heritage, is the mahya tradition  surviving in the Balkans?

Yes, that tradition has survived, but since here there are few mosques with two minarets, the lights and message can be stretched the minaret to a clock tower or to other places.

Of course, the Ottoman era is not and cannot be forgotten, because that Empire left deep traces on the culture and tradition of people who live in the Balkans. It was an empire that neither harmed nor enslaved the regions it conquered. This is why Muslims in these parts take great care of the buildings that have remained the era of the Ottoman Empire, both the sacred and profane, which today echo the voice of prayer and remembrance.



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