In the Philippines, although it’s Catholic-dominated, there’s almost always a Muslim community in every big city. Being the second largest religion with over 10.7 million of Muslims from the total population of the country, rest assured there will always be Muslims celebrating the month of Ramadan with much delight, which is also to say there’s almost always a masjid present in every Muslim community.
Far out in the largest lake of the south end of an island called Mindanao lies the largest community of Filipino-Muslims, a place I call home. I’m a 23-year-old Masters of Science student currently studying at a university an hour drive away from home. It’s not that distant but the difference in way of living is a comparison. In May 2019 Ramadan falls during the summer season meaning longer days (15hours of daylight), and shorter nights. It is the warmest time of the year and university will be out soon. So I’m going back to the province – to my hometown. Alhamdulillah.
The Beginning of the Celebration
When the crescent moon appears on the ninth month of the lunar calendar, the Ummah rejoices with delight, for with it comes the greatest gift of God –Ramadan. It brings peace to our hearts. It reminds us that there is more to life than the glories in this world. It is when a believer’s heart and soul is ready to be healed and protected with the remembrance of Allah.
A week just before the month comes you can feel the change in the atmosphere, a fresh start is coming. We do general cleaning in the whole house; it’s mandatory for my family so it’s pretty much a bonding of its own. “It is to welcome our very special guest, Ramadan,” my grandma would always say.
The month of Ramadan is bestowed upon us as an immense blessing to be grateful for. We are meant to heal, to be reconnected and to be replenished. We are united in this miraculous month, rich and poor alike; living for one purpose to live by the Sunnah of the prophet and to praise and glorify God with a pure niyyat (intention). Ramadan is like a magical time of its own, a haven from the world. We try to have delightful food, homes would get decorated, and families would get together. You can say it’s like a month-long festival. Calendar of the praying time for the month would be handed out for free from the locals. Stores would stock up on groceries staple for a Ramadan menu.
Alongside this joyful celebration, people don’t forget the real essence of Ramadan that is to practice the art of balancing physical discipline (fasting and abstaining from self-indulgence) and spiritual needs through ibadah (acts of worship). In this special time, people encourage each other to be more kind and tolerant, to help the poor and share whatever one has with others. Many work hard to increase their acts of worship by reading the Qur'an (a lot), strengthening kinship, listening or watching religious lectures and going to Islamic gatherings. Everybody is particularly trying their best to be the best version of one’s self in the holy month. We are enriching our self-worth, self-strength, self-discipline through prayers and worship.
Iftar, Tarawee and Ramadan Activities
Iftar programs are very common in the Philippines; different organizations, associations and/or families provide iftar in places and events where there is a remembrance of Allah. In the Masjid, it’s usually the men who go to iftar sessions since women just stay generally at home for prayer. A lot of homes host iftar for family and friends and are also open to neighbours and visitors.
Peanut butter sandwich, local-style fruit salad, beef or chicken meat, dates (usually given as gifts from the local masjid or from friendly neighbours) and of course rice – these are the stars of every Muslim-Filipino Ramadan meals. Rich and the poor essentially become solitary as neighbours are so keen to share meals with one another, and so just 30 minutes before iftar it becomes an exchange of dishes from the whole block of neighbourhood.
Tarawi prayer is commonly the time when Masjids become full - so full that others have to extend their praying areas to the veranda. Men and women alike are so keen to pray tarawi in the masjid, which shows how Muslims commit themselves more to God. At night, you can feel the swift charge of energy in the atmosphere. Muslim-owned restaurants, which close during the daytime, open at night to accommodate people coming straight from prayer. Different programs like Qur'an reading contests, giveaway programs and other sorts also start after the tarawi.
Since Ramadan will fall into the summer-break season this year, there will be a lot of summer classes which offer a variety of subjects related to Islam. The schedule can vary from weekdays to weekends depending on the institution. Living in a non-Muslim-majority country, it is a huge blessing to have a Muslim community that helps fellow Muslims to learn and spread the word of Islam. Other Islamic activities are also available, like multaqa (seminar talks), iftar programs and volunteerism. In sha Allah I will come to these kinds of programs this year. Usually, I’d be super shy to go by myself but thankfully I have a strong support system, which is my family, who always pushes me to become a better Muslim.
Struggles during this Time
I find it difficult when Ramadan doesn’t fall into summer-break season. I have to stay at the university away from home and family. Between schoolwork, home chores and completing the Qur'an, free time is barely enough to get the chance to spend it to other activities. The feeling of loneliness and homesickness also gets to me. But I know I’m not alone. In this modern world, people have less time and more stress than ever before. I relieve my worries by re-focusing my goals, keeping in mind that everything that I do, big and small, I offer it to the Almighty. This helps lightens the weight in my chest. It can be easier said than done but that’s all that there is; completely believing in the Almighty and His power (tawakkul).
With the support of Muslim-student organizations and other associations, Islamic activities like free seminar and iftar sessions are provided within the university. It also warms my heart to think that some of my non-Muslim classmates care. They are conscious of a fasting Muslim seeing them eat. I find it so cute when they hide their food if I come around with food in their hands. They’d ask me how I am when classes last till late afternoons, I’d tell them its fine. They ask me questions like why we do we starve or do we really eat nothing at all and other questions. I try my best to give simple and concise answers. Although I don’t think they truly understand the essence of Ramadan for us, they just know it’s a huge and sacred celebration (like Christmas for them).
Our saddest memory also lies in Ramadan. The Marawi-Siege broke just a few days before Ramadan of 2017 forcing the people to leave. Since then, folks became sensitive when this period comes around. Now, with a little fear inside, people try to focus and become solemn during this time.
Today, two years after the war, many are still displaced; lost homes with high worries of the crucial rehabilitation but people are learning to pace out their selves and strive to be more consistent with their worship, praying and hoping for a better Marawi. Of course, not everyone can be in total synchronization but at least the majority is sharing the same effort. For some (who didn’t lose their homes), they try to celebrate as normal they can but for others, they centre their prayers for strength and courage. Since the heart of Marawi is now unoccupied, the people have moved to other parts of the area. Slowly now, the businesses are re-rising, the foods are cooking, and the smiles are slowly reaching the eyes again.
It’s not perfect, the struggles will always be there but that’s what makes it even more beautiful. It’s tough and difficult but we push through, we get through no matter how heavy the load is. It’s because just by being consciously perceptive that we’re doing it for the sake of The Almighty it makes the struggle feels a hundred times manageable. It makes our process more meaningful and heartfelt. Thus in every believer’s heart, Ramadan is a saving grace.
Countdown to the Last Days of Ramadan
Muslims celebrate each Ramadan as if it will be their last because not everyone has the privilege to be alive during the sacred month. Masjids become full during tahajjud prayer (night prayers) in the last ten days. People wake at two in the morning to pray in hopes to meet the Laylatul qadr (a blessed night better than a thousand days of fasting). We ask for forgiveness, relieve all our worries to the Almighty and receive inner peace.
In the countdown of the last days of Ramadan, the shopping sale banners come out along with the display of racks and racks of mukna (female prayer garment), kimon (male prayer garment) and other praying dresses. Markets and grocery stores are sure to sell out. Even non-Muslim shop owners know to stock up during this high-demand-of-goods season.
The very last day is also the most emotional; bidding farewell to a dear guest that only comes once a year. It is when people reflect on their actions. Did I do well? Did I make changes? Will every deed be accepted? Only God knows. But as the adhan starts calling and the time comes for the last iftar, it’s a mix of emotions. My grandma would always cry with her hands raised for du’a. The takbeer starts from the nearby masjids and homes. A heartwarming anthem expressing our gratitude and glorification to The Almighty. It marks the end of the beloved Ramadan. With a positive state of mind, we enter a new chapter of our lives, hoping to take along all the lessons we learned during the sacred month of Ramadan and challenge ourselves to become better Muslims.
Festivity of the Eid
A festival is coming! All the family members, living from different cities, usually come home and cramp in inside grandma’s house for the Eid al-Fitr. The women of my family are the busiest preparing food for the Eid. The dining tables become full; it’s a feast for everyone after all. Every household will try to make the best of their speciality. The menu options differ in every culture. In my family, there’s always yellow rice, beef rendang, bihon noodles, local desserts (browa, tiateg, lokatis) and other classic Filipino-style food like biko (sweet rice cake), maja blanca, spaghetti and chicken.
In the early morning at 5am, the children are in charge of giving the zakat away. They knock homes and give out the customary donation to the poor and disadvantaged along with a bowl of special sulabay (a dessert soup made of coconut milk, banana, sweet potato, glutinous rice balls and other additional special ingredients).
At around 7am, we’d be at the masjid or in an open area (a field or stadium) which can hold a great number of people and start the Eid prayer. After the praying, we go for house-to-house visits, and “mririlae tano(let’s forgive one another)” comes as greetings as we exchange kisses with the aunties and salaams to other family and friends. We’d have quick catch-up on our lives and have some food. It’s a joyful time. We’d visit as many relatives as we can, other times we act as the host and people visit us in our home.
By the end of the day we’d come home full at tummy and at heart. With all the celebration and happiness going, we do not forget that we continue our spiritual training during the month of Ramadan, to be steadfast with our journey of increasing our faith and becoming better Muslims for the sake of Allah.