All Elements of Ottoman Society Fasted during Ramadan
The fourth pillar of Islam is fasting during the month of Ramazan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, and requires that Muslims abstain from food, drink, smoke, snuff, and sexual activities every day from sunrise to sunset.
Fasting is not obligatory for children before the onset of puberty, people with an illness or medical condition, nursing and pregnant women, travelers, and those fighting on the battlefield. Despite these rules, children, pregnant women, travelers, and soldiers in the Ottoman era fasted during the entire month.
Though the duties of the holy month are arduous, members of all social classes in the Ottoman era observed them with exceeding devotion and zeal, and they condemned any open and public infraction with uncommon severity.
Decorating the mosques with lamps
The mosques were brilliantly illuminated, and they were crowded with worshippers. Cords were “slung from minaret to minaret,” to which lamps were attached and “the rising or lowering of these cords,” produced magical transitions. As a European visitor to the Ottoman capital observed, these unique lamps rendered “the illuminations of Istanbul unlike those of any European capital.”
Breaking the fast (iftār)
As the hour of sunset approaches, people prepare themselves for the sound of the cannon and the cry of the muezzin, calling the faithful to prayer. The second cannon discharge signals iftar, or breaking of the fast, with an evening meal that includes family and friends. The poor often ate a large meal at once, while the rich broke the fast with a light meal — a morsel of bread with yogurt, dates, fresh or dried fruit, especially watermelon, sweetmeats, and muhallabi, “a thin jelly of milk, starch, and rice flour,” washed down with water or lemonade.
The evening prayer is performed after breaking the fast. At times, the faithful smoked a pipe, drank a cup of coffee or a glass of sherbet before performing the evening prayer. Then he sat down with family and friends to the main meal.
Muslims in Sarajevo still observe the Ottoman tradition of firing a canon to mark iftar. Each night Muslims flock to Zuc hill in Sarajevo waiting for the ‘bang’ so they can open their fast.
The nights of Ramadan
After the meal, streets became crowded with throngs of people. Some spent their time in a coffeehouse smoking water-pipes filled with tobacco and listening to storytellers and singers, while others walked through gardens, sitting in the moonlight and enjoying cakes, toasted grains, coffee, and sugared drinks as they watched the performance of the Karagöz shadow puppet theater.
Many walked to a mosque and listened to prayers and recitations from the local imam, while others spent part of the evening with local dervises at a Sufi lodge (tekke) although during the holy month, zikrs (literally remembrance of God), or ecstatic worship through devotional singing, were rarely performed.
Pre-dawn Meal (suhūr)
Shortly before midnight came the call to prayer, at which time the late wanderers returned home to prepare for a morning meal. In the large urban centers such as Istanbul and Cairo, shortly after the arrival of midnight, the cannon sounded a warning to the faithful that it was time to eat their morning meal. In small towns and villages, drummers walked through narrow streets and alleys warning the faithful to eat their early morning meal before the sunrise.
The morning meal was usually eaten an hour before the morning prayer. In homes of the rich and powerful, the servants brought water for ablution, spread the leather cloth (sofra, Arabic: sufrah) — well tanned and generally of a yellow color bordered with black — and placed a meal on it which at times included remnants of the evening’s meal. Then sounded the salam, or blessing on the prophet, an introduction to the call of morning prayer. Many took the last puff on their pipes. A second gun was fired as a sign of imsak, or the order to abstain from eating and drinking.
Intention to Fast (niyet)
Then the faithful waited for the call to prayer, which was followed by a ceremony called “purpose” or “intention” (niyet / niyat). For instance, the worshipper could say to himself, silently or audibly, that he intended to pray two bows of prayer to God. He then proceeded with his prayers and went to sleep immediately. Different schools of Islamic jurisprudence required different forms of niyet.
The generosity of Ottoman officials
Some among high government officials celebrated the arrival of the holy month by opening the doors of their homes and showering their dependents and servants with kindness and generosity. In his Book of Travels, Evliya Çelebi wrote that at the beginning of Ramazan, his patron, Melek Ahmed Pasa, distributed various precious goods from his treasury such as expensive garments, vessels, weapons, armor, jeweled muskets, swords, sable furs, and coral prayer beads to his servants and agas, in return for a complete Quran recital and their prayers and invocations. Every Monday and Friday evening during the month, the doors of his home were opened to the public, who were served fruit syrups and musky sweetmeats of pistachios and almonds, while they listened to recitations of prayers from the Quran.
The sultan and his officials used Ramazan as an occasion to sacrifice a variety of animals either at a mosque or at a public place such as an open street or the main gates of the city. The meat was distributed among ordinary people, particularly the poor and the needy.
Visiting the relics of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ
Numerous religious ceremonies and observances also took place throughout the holy month. On the fifteenth of Ramazan, the sultan and high government officials went to pay homage to the relics of the prophet Muhammad, which they held in great veneration. These included the prophet’s mantle, “a black woollen jacket, measuring 124 centimeters, with wide sleeves and cream-colored wool lining,” his flag and battle standard, the hair from his beard, a piece of his tooth, and his footprint set in a piece of stone. The ceremonial uncovering, display, and veneration of these relics followed the noon prayer. Though conducted privately, the ceremony was nonetheless an occasion of great religious significance.
Even before the arrival of the bayram, the sultan — as well as the rich and powerful who surrounded him — demonstrated their devotion, charity, and piety by distributing alms to the poor. Some families prepared a variety of dishes and sent them to their neighbors, as well as to the poor and the needy.
Outside the palace, before the arrival of the new month, the faithful who had fasted for 30 days made their customary fast offering. Such an offering required them to distribute among the poor and the needy a certain amount of wheat, barley, dates, and fruit. This purified their fast for it was believed that until a Muslim had distributed these gifts, or their equivalent in money, god kept his fasting suspended between heaven and earth.
Among the wealthy and powerful families, every member of the household, including servants and slaves, received a valuable present according to their status, “the length and difficulty of their services,” or “the degree of favor in which” they “were held.”
In the Arab provinces of the empire, where this practice was called sadaqat ul-Fitr or zakat ul-Fitr, the alms were distributed one or even two nights before the end of Ramazan. The head of household was responsible to pay the alms on behalf of every member of his family. Approximately two kilograms of grains was distributed on behalf of each family member. Some among the rich and powerful chose to distribute money instead of grains or dates.
The Night of Power (Lailatul-Qadr)
The most important of all holy nights was the Night of Power, which was observed on the 27th of Ramazan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. It celebrated the angels’ descent to earth with the Holy Quran and the Angel Gabriel’s revelation of it to the prophet Muhammad. The night was also significant because it was believed that special blessings were sent down to the truly devout from heaven. Upon the arrival of the Night of Power, a solemn and meditative spirit overcame every Muslim household.
From the large urban centers to the humblest village, young and old, men and women, state officials, merchants, artisans and peasant farmers, participated in night prayers, for they believed that on this night the fate of every devout Muslim was shaped for the following year.
The end of Ramazan was marked with a three-day Islamic holiday called Ramazan Bayrami (Ramazan Festival) or Seker Bayrami (Sugar Festival) also known in Arabic as Eid ul-Fitr or Eid us-Sagheer, Minor Festival. The month of fasting ended and the festivities began with the first appearance of the new moon heralding the month of Shawwal. At times, the bayram was delayed if the weather was cloudy and the new moon did not appear in the sky. If the sky remained cloudy and the moon was obscured, it was simply presumed that the new moon was present and the month of fasting had ended. In Istanbul, the end of Ramazan was officially proclaimed with discharging of cannons at the imperial palace. The lights and lamps on the minarets were extinguished, and drums and trumpets were played in public places and the homes of high government officials and court dignitaries.
In the courtyards of the main mosques, markets were set up to sell meat, fruits, vegetables, sweets, clothing, fabrics, candles, toys, and a host of other popular goods. On the first day of Shawwal, the tenth month in the Islamic calendar, came the Ramazan celebration.
On the first day of the new month, men bathed, perfumed, and dressed in their finest clothing to attend congregational prayer. Having distributed their required alms, worshippers assembled outside their town or village in a large space especially set aside for the large congregation who attended the bayram prayer. There, led by an imam, they performed prayers. After the end of the prayer, the imam ascended the pulpit and delivered a sermon. 33 The prayer marking the new month had no call to prayer and no iqama, which was called to make all in attendance aware that the prayer was getting underway. Once prayers had ended, all worshippers embraced and wished one another a happy and healthy bayram. They then returned to their homes, taking a different road from the one they had taken coming to the prayer.
On the occasion of the arrival of the bayram, parents bought new clothes for their children, who proudly displayed them as they walked through the streets. Women wore their best jewelry and most splendid dress. The rich and powerful distributed presents among their servants, dependents, and the poor. During congratulatory visits, the young kissed the right hands of the older members of the family, who gave them sweets.
An important part of the bayram was the restoration of friendship between those who had quarreled or hurt each other’s feelings. After the mid-day service at the mosque and exchange of visits, some people set off for cemeteries, where temporary markets were set up to sell flowers, prayer books, and water for watering the plants around the grave. The rest of the day was spent in relaxation and amusement, such as listening to performances by the janissary marching band (mehtaran) or watching the popular Karagöz and Hacivat shadow theater.