Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic/Hijri calendar, has always been very special to Muslims everywhere, and the Ottoman Empire was no exception. Despite the challenging nature of some acts of worship which are performed especially in Ramadan, such as fasting during the daylight hours, they were performed with devotion and enthusiasm, and in general it was for many Ottoman subjects (as it is for many Muslims today) a very lively and happy time. Here are a few glimpses of Ramadan in the Ottoman Empire.
Decorating the mosques with light.
In major cities such as Constantinople or Cairo, most of the schools and shops in the marketplace were closed. The mosques would be brilliantly decorated for the nighttime, and one particular way this was done was to suspend many rows of cords between two minarets of the mosque and then hang lamps from these cords. These cords could then be lowered and raised, producing mesmerizing transitions of light at the mosques during the nighttime.
Breaking the fast (iftār).
Being one of the three gunpowder empires of the Muslim world (the others being the Safavids in Iran and the Mughals in India), in the Ottoman Empire the faithful were reminded of the approach of iftār time by the sound of a cannon. At sunset, the adhān and another round of cannonfire signaled that it was time to break the fast. The wealthy would often start their iftār with appetizers: dates and water, in accordance with the sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (s), but also fresh or dried fruit, a morsel of bread with yogurt, and lemonade. At times one might also find people at this time smoking a pipe and drinking coffee or sherbet. They would then perform the maghrib prayer, often at home, before sitting down with their families for the main meal. Those who were not so wealthy were more likely to eat the main meal as soon as they broke their fast, not only because they appetizers were costly and not really necessary, but also because they were more likely to have been doing arduous labour during the day and were famished at this time. After finishing the meal, they would perform the maghrib prayer.
The lively nights of Ramadan.
The dishes in the main meal really depended on personal preferences, but foods that have been mentioned in historical documents include soup, sliced cheese, eggs, fish, rice (especially pilāf) and pastries. After the meal, many Muslims would go to the mosque for nightly prayers after having bathed at a hamām (public bath), but others stayed home and were entertained by storytellers and poets, and others went out to the now-bustling marketplaces, parks or coffeehouses. Most of this enjoyment was reserved for the spring, summer or fall months (i.e. in Turkey and the Balkans, Ramadan could be a cold, snowy month in the winter), and again, for the most part it was only for the wealthy. For the poor, they tried to eat at regularly intervals during the night and get as much sleep as possible, as they were obliged to work on the following day.
Keeping the fast (suhūr).
At the time of suhūr (the pre-dawn meal), cannonfire would again remind the faithful of how much time they had left to eat. In smaller cities or villages, cannonfire was replaced by drummers. The meal was usually eaten about an hour before dawn, and often included what was left of iftār from the previous day. At the end of the meal and just before dawn, the faithful would make wudu (ablution) and send salawāt on Prophet Muhammad (s). They would then perform the fajr prayer and go to sleep.
Paying the zakāt al-fitr.
The zakāt al-fitr would be collected throughout the month of Ramadan and would be distributed among the poor by government officials on the last or second-last night of the month. The head of the family was responsible to pay it on behalf of his dependents, and it amounted to about two kilograms of grain per person.
The generosity of Ottoman officials.
Often during Ramadan the Ottoman sultan and his officials would personally sacrifice animals in public and then distribute the meat among the poor. Ottoman officials would often open the doors of their houses to the public during this month as a gesture of hospitality and generosity, and they would be especially kind to those under their authority. Melek Ahmed Pasha (Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, 1650-51), is one such example: every Monday and Friday during Ramadan, the doors of his house would remain open for anyone to come and enjoy refreshments and listen to the recitation of the Qur‘ān. He would invite the qurrā (reciters) to come and recite the complete Qur‘ān (not all at once, of course) in his home, and he would distribute some of his precious possessions among those who successfully did so, such as expensive clothes, armour, swords and muskets.
Visiting the relics of Prophet Muhammad (s).
The Ottoman sultan also participated in many traditional ceremonies which occurred in the month of Ramadan. On the fifteenth day of the month, for example, the sultan and his important officials would privately visit the relics which reportedly belonged to Prophet Muhammad (s), including his mantle, his flag and standard of the battlefield, a hair from his beard, a piece of his tooth, and his footprint set in a slab of stone.
Source: Mehrdad Kia, Daily Life in the Ottoman Empire (Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press, 2011), 136-140.