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A time when our religion belonged to us

By Bashir Goth - posted Monday, 21 November 2005


I live with the perpetual fear of the Somali cultural heritage and the tolerant, almost native Islam being eroded by torrents of alien and jihadist movements of Salafism, Tabligqhi and Al Ittihad Al Islam, which are all different variations of Wahhabism. So I thought it might be useful if I set down my childhood memories about the tradition of Ramadan back home, particularly as my son, like so many others, has not seen the home that is his birthright and he, also like others, finds it hard to relate (to) parents’ practice of Islam, especially with the distorted image they encounter everywhere at the present time.

To my Son

My Son, with great pride and delight I can tell you that growing up in Somaliland was full of fun and excitement and the most exciting month of all was Ramadan. In our village of Dilla where I grew up, and in every village of Somaliland, the excitement used to start in the evening of the first day of Ramadan. With everyone filled with the urge and expectation to be the first to spot the crescent of the new moon, people of the village rushed to open areas and higher altitudes on the outskirts of the village to participate in the great search for the Ramadan moon.

Once the Ramadan crescent was spotted “Bileey bil khayr ...” resonated through the whole crowd with the children singing all the way back to the village, "bileey bil khayr... bileey bil kheyr ..."

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Ramadan nights

Ramadan nights had the feeling of modern day music concerts. Crowds of people gathered in tea shops, sitting side by side in rows on straw mats, all chewing the narcotic khat, sipping light, sweet black tea and burning incense once in a while on a little stove, or girgire, strategically positioned to warm the place and to help the effect of khat to kick in. The "rock and roll stars" of Ramadan nights were the clerics who mesmerised the audience with their chanting of religious lyrics. So when the cleric uttered the first line, a wave of nostalgia gripped the crowd and with the drum and clapping all would reach the highest realms of spiritual delight.

The evening's program mainly comprised of several lectures and several Qasidas, or religious lyrics. As soon as the sheikh uttered the first line a talented drummer set the tone with exotic beats on the oiled drum amid the rhythmic clapping of the crowd. The drummer would be innovative in his task: surprising the audience every night with new beats and stunts, such as throwing his sticks into the air and juggling between them, while continuing his beautiful beats without any disruption.

For us, children, this was the most hilarious experience of the month because in the absence of circus groups and amusement parks we looked forward to such skilled demonstrations of talent. In our village, Ramadan drummers were our stars, our heroes and our role models. Their beats and stunts dominated our thinking and dreams. It was not unusual to see a man or two, pseudo-Sufis, reaching nirvana through the shouting, drums and chorus singing.

The iftar and taraweeh

My Son, the time of breaking the fasting, usually known in all Muslim countries as iftar, was a feast time. As the sun went down over the horizon and the time for the evening prayer call (adhan) came near, all people sat around the iftar food which mainly consisted of water, dates, sambuusa, shurbad (a kind of soup made of barley and cooked with little pieces of meat and vegetables) and tea.

After taraweeh prayers, men spent their Ramadan sessions in the tea shops listening to religious lectures and singing religious hymns amid clapping and drum beat. Some affluent or prominent individuals used to hold their own private Ramadan sessions in their homes.

Your grandfather, who was the grand sheikh of the area, used to spend Ramadan nights at home with one or two learned friends with whom he conversed and discussed issues of religious, cultural or social importance to them. He would once in a while make a round of the tea shops and when he arrived at any of the congregations, complete silence was observed out of respect. He would greet them, say a few wise words, and leave them to enjoy their nights as they pleased.

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Look, my Son, as a man who was schooled by the hands of scholars of eminent standing in the old and famous Islamic learning centres in Zeila, Harar, other parts of the Somali territory, Yemen, Sudan and finally at Al Azhar University, your grandfather, Sheikh Omer Good Nur, had the Islamic knowledge, cultural understanding, social intelligence and experience needed to teach people by good example and by the power of the good word.

He saw Islam as a religion that could thrive and prosper in any culture. He saw that different cultures in the wider Islamic world demanded different approaches to the teachings of Islam. During Friday sermons and every time the occasion demanded, he would remind people of what the duties of a good Muslim were: he would tell them the merits and rewards one would get in being a good practicing Moslem, but he would never harshly reprimand or disown anybody for not being an adhering Muslim.

Looking back at his moderate way of educating people, I can now understand why he viewed Islam as a message of universal truth that should find its way into the hearts and minds of people without imposing rigid and draconian codes. This is how your grandfather and his fellow sheikhs used to educate people. They contented themselves explaining and highlighting what they saw as the truth. Their philosophy, as the popular saying goes, was "you can take the horse to water but you cannot make it drink".

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This is an edited and much shorter version of an article called "The spirit of Ramadan and Eid in Somaliland before the advent of Wahhabism" first published in Awdal News on November 1, 2005.



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About the Author

Bashir Goth is a Somali poet, journalist, professional translator, freelance writer and the first Somali blogger. Bashir is the author of numerous cultural, religious and political articles and advocate of community-development projects, particularly in the fields of education and culture. He is also a social activist and staunch supporter of women’s rights. He is currently working as an editor in a reputable corporation in the UAE. You can find his blog here.

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