By Vincent Favier
A banner scrolls at the bottom of the TV screen during the news on Télé Sahel, Niger’s national channel: the thinnest moon crescent has been sighted in Zinder and Maradi, two major southern cities close to the Nigerian border and considered as cradles of Islam in Niger. The holy month of Ramadan is officially starting although one couldn’t see the moon yet in the western part of the country and Niamey, the capital city. Some people don’t rely on such reports and prefer to start fasting when they see the crescent by themselves, invoking that it is how the Prophet Muhammad did. Following precisely the steps of the Prophet is crucial during the holy month. Yet the majority simply follows official statements given by religious authorities, and Ramadan remains a collective, nationally organised event.
On April 13th in Niamey, the thermometer reads 43°C. Fasting, and not drinking in particular, from roughly 5 AM to 7 PM during the hot season is a real challenge for many. Some male students use this opportunity to show their determination and endurance capacities. Regardless of gendered attitudes, most people can’t wait to start fasting. A general excitation and craze characterize the days before and the first days of Ramadan. Finally! One will dedicate more time to prayers, to read the Qur’an, and thus increase one’s chances of going to heaven.
On the campus of the Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey, the Association des Étudiants Musulmans du Niger organized a few conferences before and during the first days of Ramadan. The topic “How to do the Ramadan successfully?” attracted many students to the talk given by an Islamic scholar or Oustaz invited for the occasion. One of these conferences took place at the Faculty of Arts’ mosque, attended by roughly a hundred male students sitting outside on mats while female students gathered inside the mosque. The Oustaz presented the meaning and objectives of fasting during Ramadan and emphasized the necessity to perform it as the Prophet did so as to get closer to Allah and to multiply one’s chances of entering heaven. The questions asked by students after the lecture mostly focused on practices and on a variety of hypothetical situations. Students are afraid of anything that could invalidate their Ramadan.
Prayers on campus during Ramadan gather more people than usual, especially at the beginning of the holy month. The most important prayer is undoubtedly the last one of the day, Isha. In Sunni Islam – the major trend on campus –, one must perform four Rak’ah (a Rak’ah is a cycle of praying movements) during Isha’ prayer. Yet during the holy month, this number rises to 17 Rak’ah at Isha’ so that the prayer lasts almost forty minutes instead of ten. Although several mosques surround student halls, male students like to gather at the former bus stop, a sandy and empty square located right after the campus main gate. During the first nights of Ramadan, the attendance was so massive that the row of prayers slightly impinged on the campus main road. Unlike in some places in town during Friday prayers, it didn’t block the traffic. This massive student presence during prayers did not last more than a week. Fewer students would gather for prayer in that space after a couple of weeks, and many would start leaving before the end of the prayer. But other groups would unconditionally perform this prayer until the end and gather for a session of collective Qur’anic recitation, sitting on mats in a corner of the square.
“Descending” the Qur’an – reading it completely – at least once during Ramadan is highly encouraged, and almost compulsory for those who can read Arabic. Although translations are available, reading the Qur’an in Arabic is much more valued. In fact, some students who regularly attended Qur’anic schooling may know how to read Arabic but don’t necessarily understand it. Yet, a majority of university students today come from the public schooling system and couldn’t acquire such skills by lack of time or interest. For this reason, the Muslim student association offers courses on how to read the Qur’an in 12 lessons. As attractive as it may sound, very few students attend the course. Nevertheless, students often take time during their day to go to the faculty’s mosque and recite a few Qur’anic verses. During Ramadan, the melody of murmuring voices of readers reciting verses faded down day after day and was soon replaced by the constant snoring of tired bodies between seminars and daily prayers.
Students and lecturers are exhausted after a couple of weeks of fasting. The usually loud and joyful campus life during the day gave way to a silent and strange atmosphere. Crushed by the heat, students seek shelter in their dorms during the day or some hypothetical fresh air during the night, sleeping under the stars on the halls’ rooftops. Many lectures and exams were cancelled during the fourth and last week of fasting.
It is only when dusk breaks out that the campus finally wakes up as people gather for Maghrib prayer. In observance of an official and widely spread Ramadan schedule, Muslims can break the fast a few minutes before the evening prayer, drinking for the first time after roughly 14 hours of drought. Like the prophet did and recommended, they would start by eating an odd number of dates (usually three) to break the fast. The collective meal is often taken between the two evening prayers. Beyond the pleasure of drinking and eating again after a long day of abstinence, it is a crucial time for exchange and socialization. Many student clubs and associations try to offer once or even several times a collective diner to their classmates or members and thus enhance their reputation. For this purpose, associations often rely on the help of international Islamic NGOs. Subsidizing food supplies during the holy month seems to have turned into a moral economy. Indeed, alms-giving during this month is much more rewarded and supports donors’ quest for paradise. For instance, the leader of the Student Union obtained from a Nigerien businessman a cheque of 20 million FCFA to finance free meals at the campus restaurant for all students during the whole month of Ramadan, a news that rapidly spread on social media.
Despite the hardship of performing Ramadan under exceptional climatic circumstances, Muslims find courage and motivation again toward the end of the holy month. Most of them would seek the benefits of Laylat al-Qadr, the night of fate, among the odd last nights, a moment that shall give more chance to Muslims to enter paradise. Massive collective prayers would take place during this time on two different sites on campus, the one outside led by the Tijaniyya, a Sufi order, the other in the Friday Mosque, led by the Sunni-Salafi, from approximately 1 AM to 4 AM.
Nights turned into days, days into nights, and time seemed to stop until the liberating final sermon of Eid al-Fitr. Gathering at one of the campus mosques, the Cheikh warned off Muslims that this Islamic celebration should not become a mere social event. Traditionally, at the end of Ramadan, everyone asks their friends and relatives to forgive them for all the wrongdoings they might have committed, voluntarily or not, in the past year. With a hint of both nostalgia and rejoicing, the Eid al-Fitr celebration could finally start as people went back home and met with their families, friends and neighbours, eating all day until night.