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Ramadan holds a special significance for Indian Muslims

The holy month of Ramadan (or Ramzan as people in this region pronounce it) holds a special significance for the people of the Subcontinent. It is a period when the faithful do not only show piety and compassion but also try to send across a strong message of communal harmony among the compatriots and their poor brothers, especially in India.

Muslims utilise lunar, Hijri, calendar in their reckoning of time where the day starts just after nightfall and ends at the succeeding nightfall. According to the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), it is mandatory that the sighting of the new moon take place before starting the fast, and failing to do that on the expected date, fast should begin the following day. 

During our Prophet's time when there was confusion about starting the month of Ramadan, the Prophet's verdict or advice was to start fasting after the sighting of the Ramadan crescent and stop fasting after sighting of the Shawwal crescent. 

However, scholars here point to the sighting of the new moon on different days in distant geographic locations of the same country as a reason for non-synchronicity of the fasting period.

Muslims in the Subcontinent, particularly India, still follow the rules of the local muftis, who insist on actual sighting of the moon by two reliable Muslims in the region. They do not rely on the announcements made by Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia. Although, at times muftis may accept the ruling of the Pakistan's Hilal Committee (Crescent Sighting Committee).

As such, there is a Hilal Committee in every city in India headed by a mufti or imam of the grand mosque in the city. Besides, there is a central Hilal committee in New Delhi, which decides and announces the date after ascertaining the reliability of the persons who claim to have sighted the moon. There are special telephone numbers on which such information may be relayed.

The sighting of the new moon is a social event in itself. It is a joyous moment for every Muslim household in the country. From the evening itself, hordes of children and elders could be seen on their rooftops to catch a glimpse of the new moon. The moment the new moon is sighted people raise both their hands for thanksgiving to the Almighty and announce it to others. The enthusiasm is such that the sighting of the new moon is even welcomed by the bursting of crackers. Once the sighting is confirmed, sirens fitted in mosques start blaring for a few minutes to give the good tiding.

Sometimes the Hilal committee makes the much awaited announcement late in the night and this is conveyed to the faithful through sirens and loudspeakers fitted in almost all the mosques all over the country. Radio and various television channels also broadcast this news once the committee makes its announcement. Not only this, the mainstream and regional media in the country also make it a point to allot a space to publish the timings of iftar and sihri regularly.

However, on occasions there had been conflicts between muftis over the sighting of the moon. In the same region, there had been reports of observing fast and celebrating Eid on two different dates. But normally muftis try to arrive at a consensus and avoid conflict which is resented by ordinary Muslims.

People near and far are deluged with congratulatory messages over the telephones. Markets and streets are flooded with the faithful who descend to buy eatables, especially dates and fruits, and other essentials to prepare for the fasting and feasting month of Ramadan.

There is a peculiar detail here. Arabs living here in India follow the Saudi announcement of the beginning of Ramadan and celebration of Eid. Besides, some people living in the southern Indian state of Kerala also observe fasting and celebrate Eid like the Arabs.

It may also be pointed out that in Delhi, the Arabs have their own mosques in the posh Defence Colony of the national capital. Besides, a mosque is also located in the Sudanese embassy compound in the Diplomatic Enclave where Eid prayers are offered usually one or two days ahead of the Indian Muslims.

With the sighting of the new moon, the faithful observe Tarawih prayers just after the Isha prayers. These are normally 20 rak'ahs but some observe only eight rak'ahs. In this the Huffaz (memorisers of the Qur'an) take this opportunity to recite the whole Qur'an during Tarawih. The Qur'an is usually completed in around 25 days. However, some Huffaz complete the Qur'an in three or five or ten or fifteen days, as the case may be. 

Tarawih gives a golden opportunity to the Huffaz to revise their memorisation of the Holy Qur'an. On the concluding day of the Tarawih prayer, called Khatm, sweets are distributed and Huffaz are honoured and bestowed with gifts and monetary benefits. The occasion provides a grand spectacle on that day when children can be seen queuing for receiving sweets. 

These days some Arab Huffaz, especially from Egypt, visit various Indian cities and people flock to hear their recitation of the Qur'an.

The fasting begins with sihri (suhur) which is a light breakfast shortly before dawn. Hence, the faithful are regularly intimated about the timings of sihri. In the years bygone, there used to be drum-beaters who used to do rounds of the locality and wake up people for sihri. However, the traditional methods are fast giving way to the modern ones. Moreover, there is dearth of such people who have migrated elsewhere in search of better livelihood. Now, sirens and loudspeakers in the mosque have replaced the drum-beaters, and people are kept informed of the timings by announcement on the loudspeakers at regular intervals until the end of the sihri time..

Ramadan is a period when businessmen try to make fast buck. In Muslim localities prices of eatables like fruits, dry fruits and other essentials soar due to the increasing demand. Dates imported from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran are in great demand here since the faithful prefer to break their fast with a couple of dates following the tradition of Prophet Muhammad (SAW).

During this pious month, nightlife comes alive and bustling especially in Muslim localities, like the walled city of Old Delhi and particularly around the vicinity of the famed Jama Masjid, which was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.

An air of festivity can be seen all around. People can be spotted jostling around and vying with each other to have their bags full of commodities. Glitter of plasticwares, glass bangles, aluminium paandaans (betel cases), colourful arrays of skull caps, sensuous ittars (non-alcoholic perfumes) all provide a dazzling look.

The smell of seekh kababs, degchis of nahari and paaye tender trotters that have simmered all night in their own juices and mouthwatering masalas, bowls of thick pudding all invite the faithful to break his fast with the sunset call of adhan.

The month of Ramadan also comes with its own mark of providing that extra touch the strengthening of communal bonds. It is a special occasion for politicians who organise lavish iftaar parties to woo Muslims. This is a period when politicians of all hues, from the prime minister to ordinary aspirants, try to send across a message that the people of India are one and tolerant of others as well.

Danish A. Khan

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