Ramazan in Azerbaijan – Not Only Religion, but Tradition
Azerbaijan is a very colourful and diverse country. Despite most citizens considering themselves Muslim (Shia), they hold an interesting range of views as to how to celebrate the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, which, in our language, is called Ramazan. For many Azerbaijanis, the month is less tied to religion than it is an expression of traditional culture.
In Islam, during Ramazan/Ramadan, believers abstain from eating and drinking between dawn and dusk. Indeed, during daylight hours, not only should food and water be avoided but also other “impure” things, such as sexual intimacy, smoking and gossiping. Technically, even bleeding is thought to break your fast.
So that’s the theory, but many Azerbaijanis, rather than giving all that up, simply refrain from alcohol for the month. But, hang on – I hear you say – isn’t drinking alcohol strictly forbidden in Islam every day of the year?
This is just one place where religion gets murky for us in the Caucasus. For many, abstaining from drinking for one month is more than enough to show respect for Islam.
Once, when I was sixteen, my birthday came just one day after the Ramazan holiday. I had fasted for a month, and on that day, I didn’t allow my father and uncle to drink liquor at my party. I was under the impression that this, along with my own Ramazan sacrifice of fasting, should have been enough to protect their “holiness.” Maybe it doesn’t make sense, but such doctrinally muddled notions are part of my country’s tradition. The funny thing is, this “holiness” only lasts a few days. And it’s certainly not unusual that someone you saw fasting during Ramazan might now raise their glass of araq (strong Azerbaijani spirits) and intone a post-holiday toast in honour of the abstainers - “May Allah bless them!”
Azerbaijan has many other Ramazan traditions. Iftar is the post-sunset act of breaking the Ramadan fast each day. On a religious level, the idea is to feed people in need without making them uncomfortable or embarrassed. But on a traditional level, it’s just a good excuse to see your loved ones and tuck into a lot of food. Oh yes, we enjoy our food. Especially during Ramazan! More traditional and time-consuming recipes are prepared during Ramazan, and there are pastries only seen during the holiday. Plus, a game we play: if someone knows you are fasting and they are not, then they will feed you more. I can’t count how many times our neighbours sent us delicious dishes such as dushbara, plov or fisinjan. And of course, you can`t return the plates empty! We’d need to send back something even more delicious the next day. It’s the best kind of “food battle.”
Despite all this food during Ramazan, it would be considered disrespectful to show it off. So, to avoid causing extra anguish for those who might be doing the complete fast, most families don’t cook anything aromatic until Iftar, or perhaps half an hour before. There are fewer ads for food on TV and even fewer on social media. It’s rare to see someone bothered by someone else eating on the street during Ramadan (or expressing such annoyance), but it is still considered rude. However, as the Iftar hour approaches, you will often see fast-breaking tables at most restaurants and quite a few supermarkets, filled with free khurma (dates), water, and qogal (traditional pastries).
Sometimes people also cook “Ehsan,” a meal made in memory of their deceased relatives, then shared with random people on the street.
Sharing food is a big part of my culture. And eating food too. Perhaps that’s why various people often have different intentions regarding “fasting” during Ramazan. Some in the younger generations use Ramazan as an opportunity to eat less, be healthier, or just lose weight. Of course, few would admit that that was their reasoning.
Endurance amongst fasters also varies considerably. The Ramazan fast is meant to last an entire month, but some people cut it short. My sister is always very enthusiastic when Ramazan arrives, both for religious reasons… and as an opportunity to eat less. She finds it hard to fast alone, so every year, she convinces my mother and me to fast with her. Each year, we agree, and each year all goes well for around the first three days, but after that, she can’t take it anymore and quits. It happened yet again this year – and my mother, having been convinced to start, was left to fast alone. For her, it’s all or nothing.
Our neighbours have a different attitude. The whole of their family, including a 10-year-old girl, is fasting. Until you reach a certain age, fasting is not necessary in Islam. However, kids often take an interest and imitate their parents. Young ones are sometimes tricked that they only have to fast until 4 pm or even 2 pm. It’s not true, of course, but this way, the kids still can feel like they are taking part in the family tradition without feeling like they are starving. No one in my country is willing to correct this “misunderstanding” for the sake of the children.
Another traditional part of Ramazan is the “black holiday.” Ramazan is a holiday of joy, giving, and grace. Should someone die just before the Ramazan holiday, it’s considered especially sad. We hold a special ceremony for such people at the end-of-Ramazan holiday, inviting relatives, preparing halva and qogal and visiting the grave of deceased relatives to pray for them. Like most of our holidays, this “black holiday” exists to support the family and show respect. Families without newly deceased relatives just have a regular Ramazan holiday.
Ramazan has become one of the great traditions of Azerbaijan. We respect, love, and celebrate this holiday. It is a great chance to be with family and relatives, share food and have a good time. That’s why even non-Muslim Azerbaijanis celebrate this holiday. So, as we say in Azerbaijan: Ramazan Bayramınız Mübarək! Happy Ramadan!