Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 22 – Khanjar

We're coming down the home stretch of Ramadan, roughly one week to go. It's unclear exactly when Ramadan will end as it depends on seeing the first light of the crescent moon to indicate the next month but it will be the evening of July 4th or 5th.

I was at my friend's majlis the other day and he showed me a set of things that he recently received from a relative.

A set of old knives and swords. We weren't sure what some of them were, especially that unusually S-curved one at the far end, but the ones that look like a ‘J’ are a popular Arabian dagger called a khanjar.

Khanjar are mostly found in Yemen and Oman, and in those countries men will frequently wear them. They are so important to the culture of Oman it is on their national flag, and the Sultan will sometimes wear one in formal settings.

When I’ve been in Oman you see khanjar for sale in many tourist places, especially at Mutrah Souq in Muscat. I’ve seen khanjar for sale at sword shops in Qatar but it is not traditional for Qataris to wear them. Qataris prefer longer swords, as indicated during sword dances at weddings. I've never seen a Qatari wear a khanjar and I suspect if you walk around wearing one the police might have a chat with you.

Khanjar are not just a decorative item or fancy accessory, in some places in Yemen men continue to wear them, and use them if need be, though nowadays guns are preferred for fighting. Here's a picture of some Yemeni fighters from the current war, as you can see many of them wear khanjars.

As for my friend the swords and khanjars are purely decorative, he plans to hang them up on the walls of his house.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 21 – Qur’an Discussions

Last night I was out at a sohour dinner with some friends and given that it was Ramadan the topic soon moved to Islam. One of my friends discussed some of the complications regarding interpreting the Qur’an and Sunnah given things such as nuskh (abrogation, some verses supersede other verses), and that some passages in the Qur’an were meant to apply to the specific situation at the time they were revealed whereas others had a more general application, and that scholars sometimes disagree as to whether the verse was specific or general.

So I asked a question that any Westerner who has read through the Qur’an probably had, why are the verses ordered in the way they are?

The Qur’an is ordered into a number of chapters, called surahs, and their order is not by chronology but by length. Aside from the first surah, which is short but not the shortest surah, thereafter they are organized from the longest to the shortest (so the second surah is the longest surah in the Qur’an, the third surah is the second-longest, etc). As for the verses in the surahs, at first glance they would appear disorganized. Topics can have verses spread out over many surahs, and the text seems to jump from one thing to another usually without any smooth transitions. For example there are four verses in the Qur’an on alcohol and they appear over (I think) three different surahs. Given that some supersede the others you would need to know all of the verses to make sense of the restrictions.

My friends weren't entirely sure why it was ordered the way it was. They knew that the Prophet Mohammed had determined the order of the verses but none of them were sure why it was in that order. After Internet searching I guess that is the correct answer. The Prophet Mohammed ordered the verses during his lifetime and there seems to be a consensus that he was consistent in how the verses were ordered. During his lifetime most people were illiterate and to preserve the revelations they memorized the Qur’an (a significant feat) and the order of the verses was consistent. I believe the official written version was finalized after the Prophet's death, around the time of Caliph Omar or Caliph Uthman. As for why, I believe that the Prophet claimed it was due to divine revelation that they had to be ordered that way and, in the end, never said why they were ordered that way.

I recall an article by an Islamic scholar that I read long ago that speculated the verses were “jumbled” to force the reader to know and be familiar with the entire Qur’an, rather than focus on just a section or a few chapters. If someone wanted to know what the Qur’an had to say about a specific topic you could not just be aware of one verse, you had to be familiar with potential verses that could be in other chapters of the Qur’an. This was even more important given that some verses superseded others, and some were considered to be for a specific event that was happening at the time it was revealed rather than to be applied generally. When I mentioned this to my friends they thought that was a reasonable explanation but given that there was no official reason given as to why the verses are in the order they're in it could only be, at most, speculation.

And with that we concluded sohour. It was almost 1am y’know.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 20 – Hadiths continued . . .

Man, there’s hadiths for almost everything. The Prophet Mohammed lived a long life, he died in his early 60s, and had started to receive the Revelations around 20 years prior, so there was plenty of time for followers to ask him questions and to take note of the things he said and did. Sometimes I feel that maybe people took note of a few too many things (do you want to know how many stones he used to wipe with after going to the bathroom? There’s hadiths discussing that) but thanks to the diligence of his followers there are tens of thousands of hadiths, providing detailed insight into how a Muslim should live his life. There are issues regarding authenticity of hadiths, even during the time of the Prophet people were starting to falsely attribute things to him, and many fake hadiths started to spread. Scholars have spent centuries studying hadiths to verify their authenticity and hadith collections, such as the Sunan Abu Dawud, contain ones that have been reasonably verified as authentic.

I've now come across a small book in the Sunan Abu Dawud, the Book of Lost Items, with hadiths covering what to do when you find things that belong to someone else. Let’s see…

If you find something that belongs to someone else but you don't know who the owner is you should announce it for at least a year that you have the item and the owner can come claim it. Scholarship disagrees a bit with the timeframe, one hadith notes that the Prophet told someone to announce it for a year but that when he returned after the time the Prophet told him to announce it for another year (and a third time after that). All agree that one year is the minimum though. If no one claims it then you can benefit from whatever it was you found, but even then if the owner shows up you still have to give it back.

There are hadiths that indicate you do not need to do this for small amounts. There was a case where someone found a dinar at the souq and they were able to use it immediately after they went to the Prophet to ask what to do. The owner did show up later though so the person gave him a dinar back.

With livestock the general rule is you should leave it alone if it is capable of surviving on its own (for example, camels) but if it is not then you should take it with you and make announcements for a year for its owner to claim it, “ . . . it is either for you, or your brother, or the wolf.”, meaning that for smaller animals such as sheep or goats if you don't take it with you it will likely die on its own and be eaten by wolves.

What about fruits/dates on trees? A hadith states that it is okay, if you are in need, to eat from the tree, but you cannot “gather any in your garments”. So it is not theft if you eat from the tree but it is theft if you gather some up to take with you.

Finally, if you think the item belongs to a Hajj pilgrim then it is better if you leave it where you found it. Hajj pilgrims do not stay for a year so they would have a better chance of finding their lost property it was left where it was.

This segues nicely into the next Book in the hadith collection, the Book of Hajj and Umrah. It’s long though so it’ll take a while to read. I’ll post about it in a few days.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 19 – Taste Test of Non-Alcoholic “Malt Drinks”

Non-alcoholic malt beverages are fairly popular in the Gulf, more popular than they are in North America, and are sold in every grocery store. Occasionally my Muslim friends ask me how they compare in taste to real beer and, based on past experience, I usually dismiss it and tell my friends that, no, they don't actually taste like beer. Recently someone asked me which one is closest in taste to real beer and in truth I had no idea. I've actually haven’t tried any of these non-alcoholic drinks for a few years so it gave me an idea -- to buy one bottle of all the brands that I find in the grocery store and give them a try. I found seven of them.

Many of these malt beverages also come in fruit flavors and stuff like that. I didn't bother with any of the added flavours, all the ones I sampled were just “malt”. I kept them chilled for a couple of days so they were all nice and cold when I tried them.


Looks: has a nice amber colour, but barely any foam when I poured it. Within seconds it looked flat.

Taste: it had a strong and very obvious malt flavor, but that's not necessarily the same as a beer flavor. You could basically consider it just a malt drink (which I suppose that’s what it is.)

Does it taste like beer? No, this wouldn’t fool anyone.

3 Horses

Looks: again, nice amber colour. Lots of foam so it was a real contrast to Rich

Taste: watery. Not much taste to it at all really. Slight malty taste, sort of, but really weak. Was it even a malt taste? Hard to tell.

Does it taste like beer? Absolutely not. Sure looks like it though with the foam so you could use it as a practical joke and serve it to your friends making them think it’s beer. Keep a video recorder handy for the WTH reactions.


Looks: nice amber colour, light foam

Taste: water. Mixed with . . . I don’t even know. Regret, maybe? Whatever it is it’s not a beer taste. Ugh. Didn’t even want to take another sip.

Does it taste like beer? Hahahahaha, hell no.


Efes is Turkish and one of the most popular brands of beer in Turkey. So this is a non-alcoholic malt beverage made by an actual beer company. I have high hopes.

Looks: amber, but a bit darker than the others I’ve sampled. Light foam, less than if you poured a real beer.

Taste: wow, this actually has a beer-like taste. Malt flavour is a touch strong, slight bitterness to it as well.

Does it taste like beer? Actually it was a pretty good attempt, and leagues better than the other ones I've tried. I think for a frequent beer drinker the extra bit of malt taste would give it away but I could see some people being fooled for at least the first few sips (until the lack of alcohol starts to become apparent).


Looks: dark brown, darker than the other ones. Something about the colour just seems a bit off to me and it kind of doesn’t look like a beer. That said I'm not a beer expert so maybe it does look like some darker beers. Foam was really light, though not as bad as Rich.

Taste: watery, with a moderate malt taste. Similar to Rich the taste is far more like malt than beer, just that the taste is weaker. So, a Rich with more water.

Does it taste like beer? Nope.

Barbican - Special Edition

A special edition of a non-alcoholic malt beverage? Whatever. I hope it's an improvement on the original.

Looks: dark, similar to Barbican original maybe just slightly lighter. Foam was much better than the original though.

Taste: still watery but the taste is more developed, a bit more complex than a Barbican. Malt and something else. It does taste better than the original so at least it has that going for it.

Does it taste like beer? The richer flavor gives it a somewhat-beerish flavour but it’s highly unlikely this would fool anyone. So far though this is in second place behind the Efes.


A look akin to a stub-nose bottle?! I'll give it an extra point just for that. Nostalgia.

Looks: A decent light-brown colour, very beer-like. Almost no foam though.

Taste: water. Oh wait, there was a slight malt taste in there somewhere. Then there was some weird after-taste, like, like, I have no idea. It was just odd. Not a fan.

Does it taste like beer? It doesn't even really taste like a malt beverage, let alone a beer. Just . . . no.

Overall impressions:

Efes was the clear winner and the only one that actually tasted somewhat like a beer. I suppose that's what you get when a beer manufacturer actually makes it.

I was impressed with the colour of all of the brands, pretty much all of them had a nice beer colour and a bit of foam (though the amount of foam varied and I'm not sure if even the foamy ones would reach the level of foam from pouring a normal beer).

Barbican Special Edition also wasn't bad and came in a solid second place but if you are a beer drinker I doubt this would be a replacement.

The rest of them are for people who like malt beverages but don't kid yourself that it tastes like beer.

The bottom two? Holsten gets my vote for bottom of the pack, though Moussy gave it a run for its money. Maybe the fruit flavour ones are better.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 18 – Zakat continued . . .

In my previous blog post I discussed Zakat without mentioning what it was for. I remember calling it a religious tax but the money collected for Zakat can only go to specific causes.

The uses of Zakat are outlined in Surah 9:60 of the Qur’an (items in brackets are clarifications from the translator):

(Zakat is) only for the poor, and those employed to collect (the Zakat); and to attract the hearts of those who have been inclined (towards Islam); and to free the captives; and for those in debt; and for Allah’s Cause (those fighting in a holy battle), and for the wayfarer (a traveler who is cut off from everything); a duty imposed by Allah. Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise.

So Zakat is not a general tax that can be spent on things like road maintenance or government upkeep.

My Zakat post timed well with a news article that I saw in the paper yesterday. The Sheikh Thani Bin Abdullah Foundation for Humanitarian Services had a radio fundraiser to help Qataris who are in jail because of defaulting on debt (in Qatar there is no such thing as personal bankruptcy, if you cannot pay your debts you go to essentially a debtor prison). As it is the season for generosity they were able to raise around QR 4 million (~$1.35 million) from the community.

To some Westerners a radio appeal to help people with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of consumer or business debt would seem a bit odd but for Muslims it is one of the Five Pillars of Islam to give Zakat, and one of its uses is specifically to help people in debt.

What about others, especially non-Muslims, who might be in prison due to debt? There are differences of interpretation between the various Islamic Schools but in general Zakat cannot be given to a non-Muslim, while a minority are of the view that it can be given to non-Muslims after all Muslims have been assisted. I believe the Hanbali scholars (Hanbali is the main school of Islam in places such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia) abide by the “Muslims-only” interpretation. Internet searches, such as this website, indicate that as well.

As the Holy Month continues there will be further charity appeals to help the poor and people in debt.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 16 – Zakat

One of the Five Pillars of Islam is for a Muslim to give Zakat, essentially a religious tax. It is roughly 2.5% (one-fortieth) of your assets. Unlike taxes in most Western countries it is not based on income but how much you own. Because it would be a burden for the poor to pay this there is a minimum threshold, called a nisab, any amounts you own above the nisab is subject to Zakat. Zakat is then distributed to the poor, to pilgrims, or for other charitable purposes.

Naturally this led to many questions about how it is determined, how one should pay it etc, so there are many hadiths related to Zakat. In my Sunan Abu Dawud there are around 90 pages of hadiths discussing Zakat. Here’s some of the interesting things I’ve learned from reading those chapters:

I didn’t realize at first but many hadiths use a different word, Sadaqah, instead of Zakat. That got confusing for a while until I realized it was referring to the same thing.

If parents have children who possess wealth then it is the responsibility of the parents to either pay the Zakat on behalf of their children or make their children pay the Zakat.

Jewelry worn by ladies is subject to Zakat. There were a few Hadiths about this so it was clearly an important point. For many ladies of the time jewelry was a means of savings, it could be sold during hard times or could provide some financial security for a woman if her husband died.

There were a lot of Hadiths regarding Zakat on animals. Back in the day for many people herd animals (goats, sheep, cows, camels) were the majority of a person’s wealth. How do you value the animals? How do you provide 2.5%? Round up or down? Can you give an old, sick or injured animal as Zakat? Do pregnant animals count as double? What if you only have one or two camels? There are some hadiths, in some cases very long hadiths, that deal with these issues.

Another hadith specifically exempts horses and slaves from Zakat calculations, so you do not have to pay Zakat on that.

What about crops? The 2.5% is not universal, crops and produce have different percentages applied. Apparently it matters if the crops were irrigated by rain or a river (10% Zakat) or if the crops were irrigated artificially (5% Zakat). For fruit trees like dates there is a more complex calculation based on estimates of how much fruit you would have when the fruit is fully ripened.

Honey has a Zakat of 10%, even though back then many people did not ‘own’ the beehives and were collecting honey from the wild, so if you own stored honey you should pay Zakat on it.

As for the nisab (the minimum wealth one should have before you pay Zakat) there are many Hadiths around what the minimum should be. The Hadiths make it clear you should not be paying Zakat if doing so would just make you poor yourself. I think nowadays it is based on a certain amount of gold and how much that is worth.

More Hadiths to come over the next couple of weeks . . .

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 15 – Souvenirs from Mecca

During Ramadan most Qataris do not travel, preferring to remain in Qatar during the month. There is one exception to this, performing Umrah in Mecca. The Umrah is a pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca and can be undertaken at any time of the year, unlike Hajj which occurs at a specific time. An Umrah is not as involved as Hajj (it doesn’t span many days unlike Hajj) and unlike the Hajj is not mandatory, while it would be preferable for a Muslim to perform Umrah sometime in their life it is not a requirement. Because Ramadan is a Holy Month it is one of the most popular times for Muslims to perform Umrah.

One of my friends just returned from performing Umrah and he generously bought some souvenirs for me.

First, there's a small jar of perfume, a mixture or aoud, anbar (ambergris in English) and other fragrances. Traditional Arab perfumes are an oil rather than a spray. You take a little bit of it, just a little because these types of perfumes are quite strong, and put it on your wrists and then rub it on to your neck, the back of your hands or wherever.

The next thing is a set of prayer beads, called a misbaha. Some of them are 33 beads but in this case it’s a long one of 99 beads. They can be made of various materials, this one is made of wood but I also have one made of amber (see here), which is a popular material for misbaha.

One of the main uses for a misbaha is to recite a tasbih, a type of prayer. The tasbih requires a Muslim to say, 33 times each:
Subhan’allah (Glory be to Allah)
Alhamdulallah (Praise be to Allah)
Allahu Akbar (Allah is the Greatest)

So the misbaha can be used to keep count, moving your finger to the next bead as you recite the prayer. Misbaha will typically have a smaller bead between every 11 or 33 beads so that the person will have a better idea where he is in the count.

Finally, do you have any idea what this is?

I had never seen one before either. It’s a vintage souvenir that was quite popular in Mecca back in the day. There is a small lens that you can look through and see a picture, by pressing the bottom of the “TV” it then rotates to another picture, very similar to the ViewMasters that were popular in North America in the 70s.

I managed to get a couple of pictures through the view lens.

In it are eight pictures of Mecca, including the mosque, the Kaaba, the Black Stone, and worshipers performing pilgrimage. My friend loves vintage things and when he saw a shop that sold these he immediately picked one up for me.

It was kind of my friend to buy these things for me, given I can’t go to Mecca myself.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 14 – Garangao

Last night was Garangao, a holiday for children common in the Arabian Peninsula that is held on the 14th evening of Ramadan.

I assumed that everyone would just go to the planned events at places like Katara, the Pearl or Souq Waqif but I just spoke with a Qatari friend of mine who has just finished building his home in a new area way out of town, and despite the fact that only about 10 homes are finished, he had Garangao callers at his door. That caught him off guard and he didn’t have any nuts and sweets prepared. He’ll be ready next year. It’s nice to know that some Qatari children still do Garangao the traditional way of going door-to-door in their neighbourhood.

I went to Katara to see the activities there. I think it has been four or five years now that Katara has been hosting a Garangao event and it gets more popular every year. This time I think they have become too popular, the place was really crowded.

I’m not sure how entertaining it would have been for families overall, it was a hassle getting through traffic to the parking lot, big crowds wherever things were being handed out, and it just seemed to lose the traditional feel of the holiday.

I did have the benefit of also checking out some of the exhibits at Katara. The most recent exhibit had many galleries dedicated to the human body.

They even had tables where you could receive free hearing and vision exams. I did them and was fine. One of my eyes is a bit weaker than the other, a result of getting ophthalmic shingles about 5 years ago, but I still don’t need glasses (yay!).

As for Garangao I think next year I will go to one of the other events.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 13 – Canadian Labneh

Labneh is a strained yogurt that I believe originated in Turkey. Every Friday morning I would meet a friend of mine for breakfast and the meal always came with labneh, with which he’d put a bit of zaatar and drizzled with honey. Because I try to minimize sugar in my diet I was always having it without the honey. I tried it with honey one day though and sure enough it was really good.

For Ramadan I picked up some labneh to have with iftar but I decided to Canadianize it with some maple syrup:

It’s amazing! Try it when you get the chance. No, you can’t have mine.

Tonight is Garangao, a celebration on the 14th night of Ramadan where Qatari children wear traditional clothes and go door to door singing a Garangao song and people then give them sweets and nuts. Nowadays going door-to-door is not very practical (too hot, homes are far apart, reckless drivers) and many places in Qatar have Garangao activities. I plan to go to the one at Katara and take some photos. I’ll post them tomorrow.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 12 – Hadiths

I have now moved on to volume 2 of the Sunan Abu Dawud. I figured I had moved on from the chapters surrounding prayer only to find that continues in volume 2, for over 200 pages. The intricacies of when and how to pray are clearly a significant issue in Islam.

Some of the sections dealt with very specific types of prayer. The first chapter in volume 2 listed hadiths about prayers for rain. Praying for rain is one of the few instances outside of the regular daily prayers where groups of Muslims will get together to pray to Allah, and in this case for a specific thing. There are numerous hadiths discussing the Prophet Mohammed doing this type of prayer and in the Gulf organized prayers for rain still occur. In Qatar they are usually led by the Emir himself.

Next were hadiths discussing prayers that should occur during eclipses. A Muslim should pray during an eclipse (either lunar or solar), and the hadiths discuss how many Rakas etc are required. Other hadiths also mention that a Muslim should donate to charity when there is an eclipse, or free some slaves. Mosques in the Gulf will be open for prayer when an eclipse occurs.

Next was a short chapter (around 30 pages) of hadiths related to praying while traveling. There are a number of exceptions and modifications that Muslims can make to the obligatory prayers while they are traveling, such as shortening the prayer. If the Muslim is at war, in enemy territory, or in battle, there can be further exemptions. Not surprisingly, one is not expected to stop in the middle of a dangerous situation to perform prayer.

Finally, I came across a commentary on a hadith that I found interesting. It states:

There are only three Masjids (mosques) in the world for which one may make a journey with the intent to worship there for a higher reward. These are: Masjid Al-Haram in Mecca, the Prophet’s Masjid in Al-Medina, and the Masjid Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem.

Upon reflection I don't recall any of my Muslim friends mentioning making religious visits to anywhere else. Mecca is of course the most important place, but many Muslims who traveled to Mecca on a pilgrimage typically will then go onward to Medina to visit the Prophet’s Mosque. Visiting Jerusalem is a lot more difficult so I'm not sure how many non-Palestinian Muslims can make the journey. It is not a problem if they can’t, unlike performing the Hajj in Mecca there is no particular requirement for a Muslim to visit Jerusalem.

Note that this is a Sunni interpretation. Shi’a Muslims definitely hold those three mosques as holy but Shi’a Muslims also do pilgrimages to other holy sites, such as the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Iraq, or the Imam Hussain Shrine in Karbala, Iraq.

More hadith reading to come . . .

Friday, June 17, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 11 - Some Traditional Arabic Food

Last night I was hanging out at a friend's majlis when at around midnight we were presented with a sohour of traditional dishes.

With the exception of the warak enab (stuffed grape leaves) all of the other dishes contained meat. Meat with rice and pasta, meat with rice and nuts, etc. Even the pot of yellow-brown stew in the second picture is a dish similar to harees, very finely ground meat blended with potato, animal fat, and some spices (I think it's name was something like mathooba).

It seems like a lot of emphasis on meat and rice but you have to bear in mind that historically in this part of the Gulf there were not a lot of food options. The harsh desert climate meant that there was not much in the way of crops, and while there was plenty of trade with places like India or Persia perishable goods would spoil so only foods that could last for a time in the heat could be sent. This means that food options were broadly limited to:

Fish and other seafood
Herd animals (sheep, goats, camels)
Hunted animals (such as oryx or birds)
Rice or, less commonly, other grains such as wheat
Lentils and beans
Vegetables that can store for a while, such as onions
Sugar and honey
Coffee and tea

It was only last night that I realized that potatoes were also available, my friends told me that potatoes are grown in some parts of Saudi Arabia. It is less common in Qatar cuisine than rice though.

Thus meat/rice/spices is a fundamental cornerstone of Qatari food (here's other examples), with the rice and spices giving it an Indian touch. Naturally with refrigeration and faster shipping all sorts of food is now available, and Doha has restaurants serving cuisine from all over the world, but Qataris are by and large holding onto their traditional foods and it is still common for these foods to be served in their homes or at celebrations. I've never been to a Qatari wedding that did not serve lamb on rice with spices or lentils for example, and whenever my friends and I go camping in the desert goat or lamb on rice is the main dish.

If you wish to try traditional cuisine there are a few places at Souq Waqif that serve these dishes. There are of course many Arabic restaurants in Doha but I'm not sure how many of them serve Qatari food as opposed to, say, Egyptian or Levant cuisine. Some Ramadan events may also have traditional cuisine available for you to try.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 10 - Vimto

One of the unusual things about Ramadan in the Middle East is that somehow, traditionally, Arabs like to drink this during the month:

The British fruit cordial Vimto.

This is not some minor thing, in the lead up to Ramadan some places in the Gulf had to limit how many bottles of Vimto a customer could buy. Last year the company sold something like 31 million bottles in the Middle East, with about half of that occurring in the lead up and month of Ramadan

Now prior to coming to the Middle East I had never heard of Vimto, and it's not really to my liking (very sweet, I'd rather eat the fruit), but I haven't seen a day go by this Ramadan where I did not see somebody drinking it or buying it. I was curious as to why exactly this British drink became a popular Ramadan staple but my friends weren't able to answer, it had always been that way. Maybe Vimto is the Ramadan equivalent of eggnog for Christmas.

A quick Google search showed that even the British find it's popularity in the Gulf unusual. Both the Telegraph and the Independent had articles about it this year (here and here). Apparently the sweetness is one of the reasons for its popularity, after a day of fasting sugar is a good way to get some quick energy and calories so Arabs tend to gravitate towards sweet items for iftar, such as dates.

According to this website my friends were correct about Ramadan and Vimto "always being that way". Vimto first arrived in the Middle East in 1928, almost ninety years ago!

So if you're inclined to try a Ramadan tradition get some Vimto for the evening meal.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 9 - Ramadan Souq at the Exhibition Centre

Last night I went to the Ramadan Souq at the Exhibition Centre down in West Bay. I wasn't planning on doing any shopping, but since the Souq opens at eight it was a good excuse to walk around for a while before meeting friends after the tarawih prayer.

The place is pretty big, probably had something like 150 shops. Most of the shops were new to Qatar so they probably have stuff you wouldn't find in the malls. they can do things like clothing, carpets, incense burners and perfumes, serving dishes and trays, and other items to typically find in a Arabian souq.

What I thought was pretty cool was the amusement area in the back. Mini-soccer field, go-kart racing (inside the Exhibition Centre!) and a small food court were found there. The games don't open until nine o'clock though so no one was using it when I was there.

While my pictures don't show it being particularly crowded the longer I was there the busier the souq was getting. I left around 9 and a lot of people were starting to come in. I assume by around 10pm it'll be pretty busy as most shoppers would arrive after the tarawih prayers.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 8 – More Hadiths on Prayer

This will be my last post covering the Book of Prayer, is such a long section of the Sunan Abu Dawud, covering hundreds of pages, but there's no way I'd be able to adequately summarize it all. So I've just been reading it and picking out the parts that I find interesting or unusual. I've still got four more volumes of the Sunan to go though and I do want to read some of the other sections.

There are a couple of hadiths that state there was a lady named Umm Waraqah bint Nawfal, who had memorized the Qur’an, and asked the Prophet if she could have a Muadhdhin (one who makes the call to prayer) in her house, and she was given permission to do so. This means that it is permissible for a woman to lead the prayer. The commentary to the Sunan says it is permissible for a woman to lead other women in prayer (but not men). I'm assuming that it is implied through the hadith that women can lead prayers with other women only as the hadiths themselves do not explicitly state that, just that Umm Waraqah “(was commended) to lead the people of her house in prayer”.

Sure enough when I went to a wiki page about female imams, this hadith was one of the ones cited as support that a woman should be able to lead a mixed-gender congregation, taking a broader interpretation of “lead the people of her house in prayer” to mean the men and women of the house. The person who compiled my translation of the Sunan Abu Dawud disagrees with that view, and that view appears to be shared by people in this region -- I don’t think there are female imams in the Gulf. On the other hand, according to the wiki page, Turkey does allow it.

So what should men wear when praying? There's a number of hadiths about this but it appears that the recommendation is you should be wearing at least two garments, and if you are only wearing one (such as a thobe) it must cover both shoulders. So a man shouldn’t be shirtless when praying, if possible.

Speaking of wearing things, here’s an interesting hadith:

Amr bin Shu’aib reported from his father, from his grandfather, that he said: "I saw the Messenger of Allah pray barefooted and (also saw him praying) while wearing sandals."

This one surprised me. The hadith must be referring to if you're praying outdoors because you should never wear shoes when entering a mosque. Anyone who's visited a mosque will see that before the door there will be an area where you store your shoes and sandals. Outside of a mosque Muslims (at least Sunnis) tend to use carpets and prayer rugs, so you wouldn't wear your sandals on that either. I also assume given the bowing and kneeling required for prayer it would be easier to not wear sandals while praying. So while the hadith indicates that might be permissible to wear sandals I doubt many do.

Other hadiths stressed the importance of not praying directly behind people who are sleeping or talking. One must also take care to not walk right in front of people who are praying (or, in one hadith, ride a camel in front of people who are praying) and the hadiths note that you should actually try to stop a person from walking in front of you. So if you are a non-Muslim please bear in mind it would be considered rude to walk directly in front of Muslims while they’re praying. It’s fine to walk in front if you are some distance away but you should not be too close during prayer. In the open a Muslim might use any large object (called a sutrah) to help prevent people from walking too close in front of them. According to hadith a person's prayer is broken if they do not use a sutrah and someone passes in front of them. Different hadiths mention different things passing in front of you could break the prayer: men, women, donkeys, dogs or people riding animals.

One interesting side note is that one hadith is more specific about a dog crossing your path breaking the prayer -- a black dog. The Prophet was asked why a black dog and not dogs of other colors and he said: “The black dog is a Shaitan (devil)”.

Finally, during prayer you should not look up to the ceiling/sky. Again I didn’t expect that one, it is common in Christianity to look upward towards heaven but in Islam when you are praying don’t do that.

Now I'll start looking at volume two of the hadiths to see what it has to say . . .

Monday, June 13, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 7 - Camel Television

Camels are serious business in the Gulf. Herding is not as widespread as in the past but camel racing remains a popular sport and there are also events like camel beauty contests, for example:

I have seen camel races but never a beauty pagent. Turns out everyone can watch if they know the timing of the pagent, boy was I surprised when a friend told me that there's a TV station dedicated to camels and camel events, Al Saha TV.

If you can't see the livestream there's an example of the programming on this YouTube video (10 minutes of what I assume are camels gearing up for a race or an upcoming beauty pagent).

So there you go, your TV station for all things camel.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 6 – Hadiths, part three

As an aside, I have updated my post "Varieties of Dates" for two more varieties – Majdool and Khenaizi.

More hadiths about praying. I learned two things today:

Firstly, children should start trying to do the prayers starting from age 7. By age 10 they should be doing all five prayers properly. If they are younger than 10 they should not be punished for missing prayers or making mistakes.

Secondly, there were many hadiths regarding the origin of the call to prayer, the lengthy call that is announced from every mosque to inform Muslims that it is time to come to the mosque for prayer. It is known as the Adhan.

According to the hadiths in the Sunan Abu Dawud there was discussion with the Prophet about how it would be best to inform everyone it was time for prayer. A few ideas were put forth: using a flag (no), using a horn, using bells (no, that would be confusing as Christian churches use bells). So the matter was left undecided and people went home. That night a man by the name of Abdullah bin Zaid bin Abd Rabbih had a vivid dream where the Adhan was revealed to him. The next day he went and reported his dream to the Prophet and the people around him. This was later confirmed by Omar, who said that he had a similar dream a couple of weeks ago (maybe 20 days) but had not reported it. The Prophet concluded that these dreams may have been messages and so asked Bilal, a follower known for his strong and powerful voice, to learn the words from Abdullah bin Zaid and recite them.

Bilal is henceforth famous as the first person to call the Adhan, and would be the one to call the Adhan for the followers thereafter.

If you ever listened to the Adhan (if not you should search it on youtube) the hadiths in the Sunan Abu Dawud repeat the Adhan many times, though with slight variations from hadith to hadith. I believe the Adhan was finalized in its current form shortly afterwards. I listened to it last night with my book in hand to follow the words, and I believe it goes like this:

Allahu Akbaru
Allahu Akbaru
Allahu Akbaru
Allahu Akbaru
Ashhadu anla ilaha illallah
Ashhadu anla ilaha illallah
Ashhadu anla Muhammadan rasulullah
Ashhadu anla Muhammadan rasulullah
Ashhadu anla ilaha illallah
Ashhadu anla ilaha illallah
Ashhadu anla Muhammadan rasulullah
Ashhadu anla Muhammadan rasulullah
Hayya alas-salat
Hayya alas-salat
Hayya alal-falah
Hayya alal-falah
[if the morning prayer then say: As-salatu khairun minan-nawm, As-salatu khairun minan-nawm]
Allahu Akbaru
Allahu Akbaru
La ilaha illallah

Now the story I given above is apparently the Sunni-accepted version. Shi’a believe that the Prophet had the dream, not Abdullah bin Zaid or Omar, and the Adhan is slightly different from the one I listed above. Both groups agree that Bilal was the first to conduct the call to prayer.

More hadiths to come . . .

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 5 – Hotel Iftar

Yesterday afternoon a friend called and invited me to join a bunch of people at Iftar at a hotel, one of those ones with the lavish buffets. I went and just kept telling myself to take it easy and not stuff myself, something that is not easy to do when you break your fast surrounded by food.

So we all sat and chatted while we waited for the announcement of the end of the fast, drank some water, ate a few dates and some soup, then my friends went off to pray before returning for the meal. When they got back we wandered around to see what was on offer: there was a huge salad area, a variety of sushi, pasta station, lamb, roast beef, tons of traditional entrees, a huge dessert area with crepe station, all sorts of cookies, cakes and treats, a chocolate fountain . . . OM NOM NOM NOM.

*sigh*, I wound up stuffing myself.

I had been pretty good so far this Ramadan about not going overboard with food but, dang it, it's really difficult for me to not go crazy when I break my fast at a buffet, especially when there's so many tasty things available. My stomach is clearly stronger than my mind. The only minor upside is at least we had to leave just before 8 so my friends could go to tarawih prayer, not that an hour or so wasn't plenty of time to pack the food in. I joined my friends at a majlis after the prayer and while there was plenty of snacks and treats around I didn’t have any just because I was so stuffed from iftar.

The struggle to not gain weight continues. I'm sure I will be going to at least a couple of more hotel iftars and sohours over the course of the month. Next time I'll try loading up on salad first.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 4 – Hadiths, part two

Moving to the next book of the Sunan Abu Dawud is the Book of Prayer, the hadiths regarding the five daily prayers. This Book runs over 400 pages, 1000 hadiths, and on its own is probably about half the size of the Qur’an. That's a lot of information for a Muslim to know, which gives you an idea of why it takes many years of study to become an Islamic Scholar. Islamic scholarship is not just about knowing the Qur’an, you have to be very familiar with the thousands of hadiths and learn how to assess or interpret them in light of what the Qur’an says.

While reading the Book I came across a hadith that at first might appear to be a little innocuous:

Jabir bin Abdullah said, “I would pray Zuhr with the Messenger of Allah, and would take a handful of pebbles in my hand in order to cool them. I would place them for my forehead, and prostrate on them due to the severe heat."

It doesn't seem like much but I wondered if this was one of the key hadiths for Shi’a Muslims. I’ve noticed in my travels that, unlike Sunnis, when Shi’a Muslims pray they place a small clay disc on the ground and their foreheads touch that when they bow on the ground. A little googling later and my assumption was incorrect. The disc is called a turbah and there's a number of other rulings and hadiths that Shi’a use to support praying with a turbah. This hadith maybe provides additional support to the concept but it’s not the main reason. Sunnis do not use turbah but rather I think they take the interpretation that it's fine to pray with your head touching dirt or pebbles, but it’s not mandatory and you can pray on a carpet if you wish, and nowadays prayer rugs are a standard item for prayers.

Many hadiths relate to the timing of prayers. While nowadays people just use prayer timetables developed by scholars & astronomers, recall that back in the time of the Prophet your average Muslim would not have had access to such detailed information. Thus being able to tell the position of the Sun was important, but it would not have been an exact science for most people. Hadiths cover this in-depth, with discussions of the size of shadows or how to time the prayer based on the Sun rising/setting.

The hadiths to give some leeway to followers, noting that it is okay if the prayer is delayed by a little bit, and specifically says if the mid-day prayer will be in the extreme heat of the day then it is permissible to delay it for a little bit until a cooler time (I think this was referring to if you're doing prayers outdoors, I don't think it would apply if you were indoors). Even if you miss a prayer, such as because you overslept, it's fine to do the prayer late. However, a few hadiths warn that deliberately delaying the prayer is a sin, so followers should not be using the previous hadiths to justify delaying prayers to whenever they feel like it or when it is convenient.

I later found an interesting hadith, something that I was not aware of:

Abu Hurairah narrated that he heard the Messenger of Allah say: "Whoever hears a man announcing his lost animal in the masjid (mosque), then let him say, ’May Allah not return it to you,’ for the masjids have not been built for this purpose.”

So you're not allowed to make announcements in a mosque regarding lost items. My copy of the Sunan Abu Dawud has an aside that notes that scholars differed on whether you can make an announcement about lost children, some say you can and others say you should not. I’ll ask my Muslim friends about this one and see what the Hanbali interpretation is.

Next up was about a dozen or so hadiths regarding spitting in a mosque or during prayer. No surprise, you shouldn’t spit in a mosque, if need be spit into your garment and carry the spit out. If praying, and not in a mosque, never spit forward (the direction of Mecca) nor to your right side. Two hadiths state that preferably you should spit under your left foot and use your foot to rub it into the dirt, three different hadiths reported witnessing the Prophet Mohammed do this.

Finally, I read an interesting hadith that noted the Prophet said: “All of the earth is a place of prostration, except a hammam (bathroom), and a graveyard.”

I hadn't really thought about it before but in Qatar and other parts of the Gulf I haven't seen any graveyards or graves next to or surrounding a mosque. Graveyards in Qatar tend to be secluded places well out view, the main one is close to the Industrial Area and I haven't visited it yet. Contrast that with many European churches where there is a graveyard next to the church (or even have graves in the church). I'm not sure whether this hadith is universally applied in the Islamic world, I have seen mosques in Turkey and Damascus that were near, or contained, grave(s) of notable leaders or religious individuals.

(The next hadith added an additional location you shouldn't pray in, camel pens, but I'm sure people wouldn't be too inclined to do that anyway.)

As I read more hadiths through the month I’ll summarize them in later blog posts.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 3 - Doha News and a Ramadan Cannon

Doha News had kindly asked me to write an article about fasting, giving a non-Muslim perspective. They published it on their website today.

The comments were a mix of positive and negative, like with anything published on the internet. I will address one general point from some comments, that me fasting is weird. Well, yes, non-Muslims fasting during Ramadan is not normal so by definition it is weird. While I am living in this region I prefer to try things like this as a way of learning about Islam and trying to be more knowledgeable about the history and culture (which is of course deeply intertwined with Islam). It's a shame that makes me 'odd' but so be it.

Anyway, yesterday I went down to the State Mosque to watch the Ramadan cannon mark the end of the day. By the time I got there the soldiers had already cleared the kids off of it (check my blog in previous years for pictures of kids on the cannon, in some pictures there's so many kids you can barely tell there's a cannon).

Unlike previous years there was no warning, they waited to hear the call from the mosque then immediately fired. Previously an officer would follow the time then use a flare gun to signal when to fire the cannon. That was what I was expecting so when they fired the cannon I was caught off-guard and didn't even have time to cover my ears. Luckily the blast did not seem as loud as in the past so my ears weren't ringing. Maybe they toned the noise down a bit because it used to scare babies and toddlers.

Afterwards some went home and others broke their fast at their cars with food and water they had brought with them. I had water and a small snack of dates and nuts ready in my car for breaking the fast.

If you're interested in seeing the cannon go to the State Mosque from about 5:45 or so. Hopefully they still let kids play on the cannon. The cannon will fire around 6:20-6:25 (currently at 6:23).

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 2 - Hadiths, part one

As I mentioned earlier my Ramadan reading is the Sunan Abu Dawud, a collection of hadiths compiled by Abu Dawud. The five volumes might be the complete work, there are over five thousand hadiths in the set. It will take a while to get through but the first section was pretty interesting - The Book of Purification, a series of hadiths regarding bathroom habits and how to purify yourself for prayers.

If you're not familiar with the Qur'an and the hadiths you'd be surprised at how much of the day-to-day rules are found not in the Qur'an but in the tens of thousands of hadiths. The Qur'an itself is not as big as the Bible, it's roughly 1/11th the length, but the sayings and doing of the Prophet (hadiths) add a lot more context on how a Muslim should live their life. In the Abu Dawud hadiths the Book of Purification is probably the same length as a third of the Qur'an. It's a lot to go through.

So what did I learn today? There are a lot of hadiths regarding going to the bathroom, such as:

-- you should be secluded or hidden from view

-- there is an Arabic phrase you should say when entering the bathroom. The hadiths list a few variants but essentially you seek Allah's protection.
-- but never say it while urinating/defecating because you should not use Allah's name at that time.

-- you should not face or have your back to the Qibla (the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca) when going to the bathroom (I never thought about this, are any toilets in Qatar in line with the Qibla? I'll keep an eye out for that.)

-- wipe with at least three stones, and never with bones or dung (remember, paper and leaves were hard to come by back then)

-- never use your right hand when going to the bathroom (this is why Arabs will traditionally not hand you something with their left hand, nor use their left hand to touch communal food such as a platter of lamb and rice)

-- don't chat with people while using the toilet/urinating
-- even if someone says "Assalamu Alaykum", don't respond until after you're finished

-- do not carry something with Allah's name into the bathroom with you

-- do not relive yourself in waterways, paths, and under shade where people may congregate

-- do not urinate into burrows or other holes made by animals

Like I said there's a lot of rules, this was only a sample. It must take a while to learn them all.

There'll be more reading over the course of the month.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Ramadan 2016, Day 1 - Fasting

I woke up at 3am, ate my meal on the nightstand, then went back to sleep until 7:30am. For a Muslim after eating they would then go to prayer, which means they wouldn't be back to bed until sometime after 4am. At least two of my work colleagues told me that they couldn't get to sleep after that so they hadn't slept since 3am. I wondered if Muslims would be used to the change to Ramadan but it appears it's not just me who struggles initially with changing your sleeping and eating patterns. Some people at work were absolutely exhausted.

Thankfully I work indoors so did not have to deal with the heat. I was fine up until noon or so when the tiredness and thirst started to hit. You can feel your mind start to go a bit numb and tasks requiring complex thought are a bit of a struggle. Surprisingly I didn't get hungry, in the past I recall that around lunch time my stomach would kick in and start growling for lunch but this time nothing happened.

During Ramadan my office closes at 2 so I went home, busied myself with some chores, then went to have a nap. My plan was to go to the Ramadan cannon for the first announcement of the end of fasting but I woke up after 2 hours, about 20 minutes before the fast was to end! Dang it, I'm clearly going to have to set an alarm for my afternoon nap.

Surprisingly I wasn't starving, and didn't really feel hungry or thirsty, just a bit tired. I went to the kitchen and prepared a quick iftar meal: dates, olives, a small bowl of oatmeal, 2 glasses of water, and a handful of nuts.

I didn't experience any headaches today so I successfully kicked the caffeine in time. Now I just need to be careful about drinking too much coffee at night.

After posting this I will head out, distract myself with some mall walking, then head over to a friend's majlis for sohour. I have to get out of my apartment so that I don't snack on things, I suspect the sohour will be a big meal.

Day 1 of fasting went well, probably easier than in the past.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Ramadan has begun!

Keen-eyed Muslims were able to see the first light of the crescent moon tonight, signifying the start of a new month in the Muslim Calendar (the calendar is lunar-based so a month starts with the crescent moon). This was important as it marks when the Holy Month of Ramadan begins.

With the announcement of Ramadan there's a lot of changes in Qatar:

-- Muslims (and me) will be fasting, from the first light around 3:15am until sunset around 6:20pm.
-- Schools, Government offices and many businesses will change hours. Most offices will be on five or six-hour workdays since many people will be fasting, and many businesses won't be open during the day and instead have extended hours in the evening, sometimes as late as midnight or 1am.
-- Restaurants will be closed throughout the day, I think some hotels will have food available but only for guests. Many grocery stores will have daytime hours though.
-- No alcohol will be sold anywhere. The liquor store is closed for the entire month, as are all bars. I witnessed it once at a bar many years ago, as soon as Ramadan was called carts came out and all bottles of alcohol were taken off the bar, even display bottles. The drink you had in your hand was your last one. I was told that the police would be by in an hour or so to check that everything had been put away.
-- You should not eat, drink or smoke in public during daytime. There are some exceptions of course for children and so forth but even then families tend to be discreet about giving food or water to their children.
-- Things will get lively after around 8:30-9:00pm when the tarawih prayers are finished. That's when everyone starts going out for shopping, sohour meals and so forth.

So fasting starts tomorrow. I have my meal on my nightstand and the alarm set for 3am so I can get up to eat it. The first couple of days should be the toughest since it will take my stomach time to adjust to fasting.

Ramadan Kareem everyone!

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Preparing for Ramadan 2016

Ramadan is nearly here, this year it’ll start on either Monday or Tuesday, depending on which night the crescent Moon is sighted. That means it’s time to start preparing for this year’s fast.

For those of you not familiar with my blog I’m not Muslim but for the last six years I have been doing the Ramadan fast. It’s a great way to keep yourself on the same time as the rest of the country (stay up late, have a nap in the afternoon, have meals around the same time) and it’s one of those things that allows you to experience what most people here are experiencing, a way to help integrate into Qatar better.

For the past week I’ve been weaning myself off of the caffeine, I’m now down to one coffee and one tea a day. By Monday I should be down to 1-2 teas a day, something that’s easy to stop without caffeine withdrawal. Caffeine withdrawal really sucks and there’s no way I think I could get through a day both fasting and having splitting headaches.

Got a lot of my shopping done: dates, olives, whole wheat pastas and breads, lentils, nuts, soup. Picked up three kinds of dates including my favourite type, Ajwa al Madinah (I taste-tested a bunch of different varieties of dates a few years ago, you can find that blog post here). Ajwas are really expensive though, typically 3-4 times the price of other varieties, so I also bought some cheaper varieties and I’ll mix them when I break my fast with dates.

I also have my reading material picked out. Every Ramadan I try to read something related to Islam in order to understand it better. One year the Qur’an, other years hadiths, and one year a book on Islamic jurisprudence. This year I’ll dig into something that I purchased at the Book Exhibition a while back.

A collection of hadiths called the Sunan Abu Dawud, after the man who compiled them (Abu Dawud, “Dawud” is Arabic for “David”). It is considered by Sunni Muslims as one of the six authentic collections of hadiths, but it is of lesser importance than the Al-Bukhari hadiths and the Al-Muslim hadiths, which I already own a summary of. This set of Abu Dawud hadiths is five volumes so it’s huge. It’ll take a while for me to go through it, finding hadiths that interest me and shine a window into Muslim culture and practices.

Less than a week to go, I think I’ll go out for a nice dinner this weekend before the fasting sets in.