CAIRO — The Muslim holy month of Ramadan — when worshipers fast from dawn to dusk — began at sunrise Saturday in much of the Middle East, where Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has left drive up energy and food prices.
The conflict has cast a pall over Ramadan, when large gatherings around meals and family celebrations are a tradition. Many in the Southeast Asian country Indonesia were planning to start observing on Sunday, and some Shiites in Lebanon, Iran and Iraq were also marking the start of Ramadan a day later.
Muslims follow a lunar calendar, and moon-sighting methodology can cause different countries to declare the start of Ramadan a day or two apart.
Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, had said the month would start on Saturday morning.
A Saudi statement was broadcast on the kingdom’s Saudi public television on Friday and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates, congratulated Muslims on the arrival of Ramadan.
Jordan, a predominantly Sunni country, has also declared the first day of Ramadan to be Sunday, breaking away from Saudi Arabia. The kingdom said the Islamic religious authority was unable to spot the crescent moon indicating the start of the month.
Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic group, Muhammadiyah, which has more than 60 million members, said that according to its astronomical calculations, Ramadan begins on Saturday. But the country’s religious affairs minister announced on Friday that Ramadan would begin on Sunday, after the country’s Islamic astronomers failed to sight the new moon.
It was not the first time the Muhammadiyah had taken a different view on the matter, but most Indonesians – Muslims make up nearly 90% of the country’s 270 million people – are expected to follow the government’s official date.
Many had hoped for a happier Ramadan after the coronavirus pandemic kept the world’s 2 billion Muslims out of many rituals for the past two years.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, millions of people in the Middle East are now wondering where their next meals will come from. Soaring prices are affecting people whose lives have already been disrupted by conflict, displacement and poverty from Lebanon, Iraq and Syria to Sudan and Yemen.
Ukraine and Russia account for a third of global wheat and barley exports, which Middle Eastern countries rely on to feed millions of people who subsist on subsidized bread and cheap noodles. They are also major exporters of other cereals and sunflower seed oil used for cooking.
Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, has received most of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine in recent years. Its currency has also plunged, adding to other pressures pushing up prices.
Shoppers in the capital Cairo visited earlier this week to stock up on groceries and festive decorations, but many had to buy less than last year due to soaring prices.
Ramadan tradition calls for lanterns and colored lights strung in Cairo’s narrow lanes and around mosques. Some people who can afford it set up tables in the streets to serve free iftar meals after the fast to the poor. The practice is known in the Islamic world as the “Tables of the Compassionate”.
“It could help in this situation,” said Rabei Hassan, the muezzin of a mosque in Giza, as he bought vegetables and other food at a nearby market. “People are tired of prices.”
Worshipers would come to the mosque for hours of evening prayers, or “tarawih.” Thousands of people packed the al-Azhar mosque on Friday night after attendance was banned for the past two years to stem the pandemic.
“It was difficult (the times)… Ramadan without tarawih in the mosque is not Ramadan,” said Saeed Abdel-Rahman, a 64-year-old retired teacher as he entered al- Azhar for prayer.
Soaring prices have also exacerbated the woes of Lebanese already facing a major economic crisis. Over the past two years, the currency has collapsed and the country’s middle class has been pushed into poverty. The collapse also led to severe shortages of electricity, fuel and medicine.
In the Gaza Strip, few people shopped on Friday in markets that are usually crowded at this time of year. Traders said Russia’s war on Ukraine has sent prices skyrocketing alongside the usual challenges, putting a damper on the festive atmosphere that Ramadan usually creates.
Living conditions for the 2.3 million Palestinians in the impoverished coastal territory are harsh, made worse by a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since 2007.
Towards the end of Ramadan last year, a deadly 11-day war between Gaza’s Hamas leaders and Israel clouded festivities, including the Eid al-Fitr holiday that follows the holy month. It was the fourth deadly war with Israel in just over a decade.
In Iraq, the start of Ramadan highlighted widespread frustration over soaring food prices, exacerbated last month by the war in Ukraine.
Suhaila Assam, a 62-year-old retired teacher and women’s rights activist, said she and her retired husband were struggling to survive on their combined pension of $1,000 a month, oil prices from baking, flour and other essentials more than doubling.
“As Iraqis, we use a lot of cooking oil and flour. Almost every meal. So how can a family of five survive? she asked.
Akeel Sabah, 38, is a flour distributor at the Jamila wholesale market, which supplies food to the entire Rasafa district of Baghdad, on the east bank of the Tigris. He said flour and almost all other foodstuffs are imported, which means distributors have to pay for them in dollars. A ton of flour cost $390. “Today I bought the ton for $625,” he said.
“The devaluation of the currency a year ago has already led to an increase in prices, but with the current (Ukrainian) crisis, prices are skyrocketing. Distributors have lost millions,” he said.
In Istanbul, Muslims held the first Ramadan prayers in 88 years at Hagia Sophia, nearly two years after the iconic former cathedral was transformed into a mosque.
Worshipers filled the 6th-century building and the plaza outside Friday night for tarawih prayers led by Ali Erbas, the government’s head of religious affairs. Although converted for Islamic use and renamed Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque in July 2020, COVID-19 restrictions had limited worship at the site.
“After 88 years of separation, the Hagia Sophia mosque has regained tarawih prayer,” Erbas said, according to state-run Anadolu news agency.
Associated Press writers Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia; Andrew Wilks in Istanbul; and Abdulrahman Zeyad in Baghdad contributed to this report.