The Etymology of Ramadan
The moon appears in our title graphic because the beginning of Ramadan (as with all months of the Islamic calendar) is based on actually seeing the hilal — the crescent or new moon. In years when this is not possible, an imam may set the start of Ramadan. Because the Muslim calendar is a lunar year, when translated into a western gregorian calendar year, the actual date of Ramadan may migrate throughout the gregorian calendar.
In the word Ramadan, the Arabic trilitteral verbal stem is /r-m-d/, said, with one set of vowel pointings, as “ramida.” Its prime meaning is ‘be burning hot (so that the ground is dry).’
Ramadan in Arabic is رَمَضانُ (ramadānu)
Compare one of the cognate Arabic nouns ramad ‘dryness, parchedness.’ Other Arabic cognates include ramdaa ‘sunbaked sand’ and a well-known Arabic saying: kal mustajeer minar ramadaa binnar ‘to jump out of the frying pan into the fire.’
One of the Arabic colour adjectives is ramadi ‘gray’ (gray as dry, lifeless, waterless soil?). Ar Ramadi الرمادي is a city in central Iraq, about 70 miles west of Baghdad, whose name may be derived from the gray adjective or, more probably, from the adjective of ramad to make Ramadi mean ‘dry place.’
Ramadan is the name of the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and its name described the weather and the condition of the earth and of the soil and of human travelers during this scorching Middle Eastern month. The Koranic religious metaphors in Arabic about the burning-cleansing by Allah of the soul’s impurities through fasting etc. came AFTER the weather-descriptive naming of the month.
Ramada Inn? No! Disambiguation? Yes!
With no sacrilege intended, let us indulge a brief moment of disambiguation. So linguists now like to term: making clear that similar forms differ in their meanings. Linguistic disambiguation is the removal of ambiguity and the subsequent clarification of false similarity.
Contrary to the notions of some Wikipedia readers, Wikiwonks did not invent the word disambiguation. For that useful term, English is indebted to British systematic botanist George Bentham who coined it in his 1827 book Outline of a New System of Logic, with a critical examination of Dr Whately’s Elements of Logic. The Bentham family was renowned. George’s father was the brother of the English Utilitarian philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham. Jeremy Bentham was one of the most eccentric of British moral philosophers but is well worth reading.
The well-known chain of hotels and motels, Ramada Inn, bears no relationship to the Islamic month of fasting, although it must be admitted that after one of Ramada Inn’s “free” sticky-bun breakfasts, fasting may be quickly selected as a palate-saving alternative.
Ramada Inn took its name from the Spanish word ramada, first an adjective ramado ‘made of branches,’ then a Spanish noun, una ramada, for a temporary, open-air shelter built of branches (Spanish rama ‘branch’). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Mexico and later in the southwestern United States, ramadas were used to shelter farm workers during harvest time, branding roundup or roundup for shipment to market.
The Spanish word rama is derived from the Latin noun ramus ‘branch, bough, stick.’ This root appears in the modern English word ramification, literally in medieval Latin ‘a forming of many branches.’ English botany has the learned adjective ramose ‘abounding in branches.’
In the American southwest, early in the 20th century, rancheros (ranch hands) cool off in the shade of a ramada. In the right hand corner of the picture, note their cowboy hats drying off on a stump.
During Ramadan Koranic teaching says that, in this ninth month, as the Prophet Mohammed wandered in the desert, the angel Jibril (Gabriel) appeared to him and gave him a golden tablet upon which reposed the first few verses of the Koran, the first to be revealed to Mohammed.
Laylat al-Qadr (lit., the night of destiny) is this night of revelation when Muhammad was first taught Koran by the angel. Also on Laylat al-Qadr, Allah determines the course of the world for the coming year. Muslim children are taught to watch for the opening of the sky on Laylat al-Qadr and make a wish.
Lail and Layla, the beautiful Arabic word for night, is a common Muslim given name for women. Why, someone once asked, would one name a beautiful female baby with a word such as Layla meaning ‘night’? What could be beautiful about night? Ever spent a day in the desert?
Layla may be given as a first name to a baby girl born at night. Or Layla may refer to her dark hair, the infant promise of a raven-tressed beauty to be, sleek as night.
Layla shows up in the title of the Middle East’s greatest treasury of stories, The Arabian Nights, also known as The Thousand and One Nights. In Arabic: Alf Layla wa-Layla (literally ‘one thousand nights and one night’).
Eric Clapton’s Guitar Hit “Layla”
Proclaimed by critics and fans as one of the deftest rock-blues guitarists, Eric Clapton drew from his Fender Stratocasters some of the sweetest, most plangent riffs in the history of rock guitar. A big Clapton hit was “Layla” played with his band Derek and the Dominos. After a difficult love affair during which Clapton fell in love with a woman already married to his best friend, Beatle George Harrison, another friend gave Clapton a book entitled The Story of Layla and Majnun by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi, detailing a hopeless love affair, very much like Shakespeare’s story of Romeo and Juliet, where young lovers are thwarted by a family feud. The hero’s name mirrors his fate; Majnun Layla means ‘driven mad by Layla.’
The Purpose of Ramadan
The fasting of pious Muslims that takes place during the month of Ramadan is to celebrate the gift to Mohammed and through him to humanity of the Koran and to teach the Koranic virtues of self-restraint, patience, trust in Allah and trust in oneself, for only Allah and the fasting person know truly if the faster has strictly observed the fast. Allah grants to one who has fasted properly through the entire month a certain amnesty for past sins. After sunset each day of Ramadan, iftar breaks the fast. It is by tradition a meal of sweet dates.
Allah is said to open the spiritual portals of Islam's heaven during Ramadan. Just as the word of Allah came to earth at such a time, now truly during this holy month, so the prayers of Muslim supplicants go up to Allah more quickly than at any other time of the rolling year.
Critical reflection upon one's deeds during Ramadan ought to subdue misdeeds, such as envy, prevarication and resentment.
Ramadan mubarak! I wish my Muslim readers a blessed Ramadan.
© copyright 2016 William Gordon Casselman,
June 06, 2016
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