From Kuwait to Java: Ramadan traditions from around the world

Muslim communities around the world are united during Ramadan, both in their faith and their religious practices. But most communities also have their own special ways of celebrating the holy month, from bathing rituals to handmade lanterns.

An Egyptian seller dusts a traditional Ramadan lantern called "fanous" at his shop stall ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Cairo, Egypt May 24, 2017. Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters
Powered by automated translation

Ramadan is a time that unites Muslims around the world, with communities in every country adopting similar daily routines of fasting, followed by iftar and then suhoor – with charity, prayer and time with family all playing an important role. But the more cultural traditions practised by Muslims during Ramadan can differ greatly from Kuwait to Indonesia to India, with most communities having their own unique ways of celebrating the holy month ...


Ramadan in Kuwait is flush with post-iftar visits to family, friends and neighbours. But a doorbell ringing two weeks into the holy month summons the beginning of gerga’aan, the three-day celebration that sees children knocking on the doors of neighbours’ homes and singing in exchange for sweets and chocolate.

Donned in traditional clothes, children begin their rounds after maghreb prayers. Visits to neighbours give them a chance to show off their costumes, as they stand on doorsteps and sing songs blessing their hosts’ families. The most eager visitors will often shout these songs, hoping their efforts will be rewarded with more treats.

There are two traditional songs that children sing during gerga’aan – one for for girls and another for boys. But both can be customised to include the names of the hosts’ children.

Some homes expect so many visiting children that they distribute more than 10 kilogrammes of sweets during the celebration, usually purchased from supermarkets and other shops in special gerga’aan packages.

Mohammed Ali, a supermarket manager in Kuwait, says his shop sells four differently priced packages of gerga’aan sweets. “It’s a mixture of nuts and candy,” he says. “We usually sell thousands of kilogrammes every year.”

The tradition is practised throughout the Arabian Gulf but certain aspects, such as the timing and name, differ from country to country. In the UAE, it is known as Haq Laila and celebrated two weeks before Ramadan.

The word “gerga’aan” itself is the source of much dispute in Kuwait, with a common argument revolving around whether the word is an acronym for the saying “Blessings on the month” or simply a Bedouin word meaning “mixed”.

Although the origins of the words are unknown, Um Hamed, a Kuwaiti mother-of-four, is convinced the word originates from “gerga’ah”, meaning clatter. She believes this is a reference to the sound of children knocking on doors or the rattle of sweets inside their candy bags.

“With all words that don’t have a solid footing in the Arabic language, people come up with their own theories on what it means, or where it comes from,” she says.

Some trace the tradition’s origins to a simulation of one of the first Ramadans in Islam when Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, distributed sweets to the people two weeks into the holy month.

Others, however, say it’s a celebration that predates Islam and could even be the basis for Halloween’s trick or treat tradition.

Unlike the tradition of trick or treating, homes in Kuwait are not vandalised if their inhabitants fail to provide sweets for children at the door. But, neighbours who do not give out sweets – or do not give out quantities deemed large enough – will undoubtedly hear crestfallen children walking away from their doors, singing a rhyme about the amount of excrement filling their homes.

* Naser Al Wasmi


A Palestinian cook carrying sweet kunafa, a Levantine cheese pastry soaked in a sweet sugar-based syrup, to a market to sell in the West Bank City of Nablus on October 29, 2014. Jaafaar Ashtiyeh/AFP


Countries around the Islamic world have their own special desserts that are commonly eaten during Ramadan. But perhaps none is as famous as kunafa – the Palestinian street food of piping hot soft cheese and semolina dough, drenched in syrup and topped with crushed pistachios and food colouring to turn the dessert bright orange, often to the point of being fluorescent.

Believed to have originated in the West Bank city of Nablus, kunafa is eaten all year round, both in Palestine and across the Middle East, where it appears in various forms.

But it has become particularly associated with Ramadan, a time when the evening – and eating – hours are often celebrated with sweet treats. And what a treat this is.

To those unfamiliar with the dish, it can sound a little strange, and must be eaten to be believed.

The combination of the slight saltiness of the cheese and the sickly sweetness of the syrup, along with the contrasting textures of the gooey, smooth cheese and sightly rough and crunchy dough make for a moreish dessert that is a delight for the taste buds.

Today, Nablus is still renowned for having the best kunafa in the world, with vendors across the city scooping it up for customers out of huge, round metal trays.

In 2009, a group of the city’s bakers attempted to set a Guinness World Record for the largest kunafa, producing a version of the dessert that was reportedly more than 70 metres long and cost thousands of dollars to make.

Sadly though, the Guinness World Records website says there is no current record holder for the title of “Largest Kunafa” so it appears the bid may not have been successful.

* The National staff


Two women looking at Ramadan lanterns, or ‘fanoos Ramadan’, at Sayida Zienab district market in old Cairo, Egypt on June 6, 2016. Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters


The lantern – known as “fanoos” in Arabic – has become a symbol of Ramadan across the Middle East.

Typically made of metal and coloured glass, decorative lanterns are hung everywhere from homes and malls to streets and Ramadan tents during the holy month.

But with Cairo considered the birthplace of the fanoos, it has a particularly special place in the hearts of Egyptians.

As with many traditions associated with religious festivals, lanterns hold a cultural – rather than religious – significance for Muslims observing Ramadan, and are sometimes likened to Christmas trees. Accounts differ as to how the fanoos came to be associated with Ramadan, but all appear to stretch back to the 10th century when the Fatimid Caliphate ruled large swathes of the Muslim world from Egypt.

One account tells of a night during Ramadan in 969AD, when the caliph at that time, Al Muizz Li Din Allah, arrived in Cairo after dark and the city’s residents went to greet him with lanterns – albeit ones probably more rudimentary than those used today.

In another narrative, a different Fatimid caliph is said to have banned women from leaving their homes all year long, except during Ramadan when they were allowed to step outside if accompanied by boys carrying lanterns to light their way and signal their passing to men.

Some also say the Fatimid rulers ordered the use of lanterns on Ramadan nights by Cairo residents, either because they looked beautiful, or because they served a practical purpose as a source of light.

With the advent of electricity, however, the fanoos has become more or less a solely ornamental item, and the Cairenes who still make them by hand are considered true artisans.

But in recent years, the skill of making the lanterns in the Egyptian capital appears to be dying out with the rise in popularity of cheap, Chinese-made imports, and a lack of government support.

* The National staff


On the island of Java, home to two-thirds of Indonesia’s 234 million Muslims, Islam has for centuries melded peacefully with local customs and traditions.

This is particularly true of the way in which Ramadan is observed, with ceremony and ritual playing an important role in preparations for the holy month.

For Javanese, Ramadan is a time for introspection and renewal of faith and marks the end of one life cycle and the beginning of another.

Before undertaking fasting, a person must first pay their respects to their forefathers by visiting the graves of dead relatives to decorate them with flowers and pray.

During their graveside prayers, Javanese Muslims may ask God for – among other things – good fortune or good health if they are ill. This ritual, known as nyekar, usually takes place the week before Ramadan begins, with families crowding cemeteries across the island.

In some parts of Java, Muslims even visit the graves of ancient kings and revered public figures during nyekar.

In rural areas, Javanese also make food offerings – for Allah and their ancestors – when visiting the graves of relatives in a ritual called nyandran. Lines of women, balancing baskets of food on their heads, travel to cemeteries on foot to make their offerings, often having to walk several kilometres. Rich Javanese typically offer small cakes and fruits but poorer devotees will offer whatever they are able to spare.

Although the ritual of nyekar is faithfully carried out by a majority of Indonesia’s Muslims – even by some of those living in other parts of the vast archipelago – it is frowned upon by the country’s more conservative Muslims who view it as impure and unIslamic. But such customs are deeply embedded in Javanese culture.

Take Fajar, a 38-year old computer scientist living in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, located on Java’s north-west coast.

Every year before Ramadan, Fajar, accompanied by his parents, wife and children, takes the nine-hour train ride to Yogyakarta, in the province of Central Java, just to scatter flowers at the grave of his grandparents and pay his respects.

“I can’t see myself starting my Ramadan month without doing my nyekar,” he says.

* Yuli Ismartono


Javanese Muslims take a bath on the beach as they prepare for Ramadan with padusan ritual at Parangtritis beach on June 27, 2014 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images


Another enduring Javanese tradition observed before Ramadan is padusan, a bathing ritual intended to purify the body and soul before embarking on fasting.

A week or so before the start of the holy month, adherents wearing sarongs walk in procession to rivers, natural springs or the sea, carrying baskets of food on their heads.

After completing the ritual, which involves splashing their faces and arms with water, they gather for a communal prayer before sitting on the ground to eat their food from banana leaves.

Many Javanese like to perform the ritual at natural springs because the water is seen as coming directly from mother earth. Such springs are often a considerable distance from towns and villages, which means devotees must carry enough food and water to last an entire day.

In the cities of Yogyakarta and Solo, the local sultans lead their relatives and household workers on lavishly ceremonial walks to pools in the grounds of their palaces, which are strewn with jasmine and rose petals. After the bathing rites are complete, they return to the palaces for prayers and feasting.​

The observance of padusan, a deeply communal ritual, is considered by many Javanese to be perhaps more important today than ever before. Older Javanese feel their culture is being threatened by the rapid societal changes brought about by modernisation and western influences, with few youths today willing to follow all the rituals carried out by their parents. As a result, there is a growing movement to revive old customs and traditions to preserve Javanese identity.

“This [padusan] is an age-old tradition that we uphold because it keeps our people together,” says Sugito Mulyono, the chief of a village just outside the Central Java provincial capital of Semarang, on the island’s northern coast.

The tradition goes back to the days when Islam took root in Java in the late 13th century. Tedi Kholiludin, a lecturer at Wahid Hasyim University’s Centre for the Study of Religion and Peace in Semarang, traces the ritual to the teachings of Java’s walisongo, the nine Islamic saints credited with spreading Islam throughout the island.

Padusan is similar to Hindu and animist bathing rituals that were being practised by Javanese before Islam came to the island. Similar rituals are still practised by Hindus on the Indonesian island of Bali today.

The walisongo’s teaching of Islam “was done by an approach that was acceptable to the local populace”, says Mr Kholiludin.

“They [the saints] believed that religion and culture need not be in conflict.”

* Yuli Ismartono


Indian Muslims gather for Iftar or breaking their fast in Jama Mosque in New Delhi, India, on the First Friday of Ramadan on July 4, 2014. Harish Tyagi/EPA

Iftar picnics

Anyone who enjoys food and lives in Delhi – whether Muslim or not – knows there is only one place to be on a Ramadan evening: the alleys and streets of the old, walled city, where fasts are broken with picnics on mosque terraces and treats from street vendors.

The alleys run like capillaries from the Jama Masjid, the heart of Old Delhi and the grandest place in the city to perform the evening prayer.

Filled to capacity, the nearly 400-year-old mosque can accommodate 25,000 people, and when Ramadan falls in the summer months, the tiles of its huge, open courtyards remain warm well into the night.

In these courtyards, hundreds of Muslims gather each night to break their fast, unless Ramadan happens to fall in the coldest depths of winter. They lay large sheets of cloth on the flagstones on which to sit and eat iftar dishes prepared at home.

Others, however, opt to break their fasts with food from a nearby restaurant, bakery or sweet shop. Or from one of the dozens of temporary food vendors who set up shop in Ramadan along Matia Mahal, a narrow and crowded alleyway leading off the perimeter of Jama Masjid.

Even after the sun sets, eating in Old Delhi during the summer months can be hot and sweaty. Fasting diners must strike a fine balance – between the desire to gorge themselves following a day of restraint and the knowledge that overeating during the fierce heat is not advisable.

It is perhaps best – and most refreshing – to first stop off at the vendors selling dates and cool, sliced fruits from their handcarts. If you are lucky, you may find someone selling tender coconut water or fruity Rooh Afza syrup dissolved in cold milk; or if you are after something savoury, there is always the light chicken soup, a peppery stock-like liquid served out of big metal drums.

Visitors should try to visit the different vendors and sample multiple snacks, drinks and sweets – moving through the crowds of people who have emerged after the evening prayer, and feeling the sense of cheer and expectation that ripples through the community during Ramadan.

So, try a samosa from a tray here, an icy and milky kulfi at a corner stall there, and freshly baked Kashmiri bread from the nearby bakery. You will hear conversations everywhere, ranging from the weather and politics to fasting and cricket.

And if you break fast in a restaurant – such as the infamous Al Jawahar establishment on Matia Mahal – make sure to sit facing the street and under a ceiling fan that will dry the sweat on your back.

As you eat kebabs and giant naans, the pageantry in this ancient quarter of the city will unfold in front of you.

* Samanth Subramanian