Fasting gets all the attention during Ramadan, but it is in fact only a warmup for the real task of focused worship. For many Muslims, the true focal point of Ramadan is the optional evening tarawih prayer (at least for Sunni Muslims like myself – Shia Muslims generally do not offer them). When asked what the most meaningful part of Ramadan is, many of my friends cite the congregational tarawih prayer.
During the obligatory five daily prayers, Muslims recite various verses of the Qur’an. Tarawih prayers are extended nighttime versions of these prayers, after dinner and the last obligatory prayer of the evening, during which the imam reads a full 1/30th (a juz in Arabic) of the Qur’an, with the goal of finishing the entire book during Ramadan.
Here in America, imams with the most eloquent Arabic pronunciation are sought out for the largest congregations, and mosques are nearly as overflowing as they are during the Friday prayer. As tarawih is between 2-5 times as long as the longest obligatory prayer, it can take up to an hour to complete (most of it standing), making it somewhat of a physical challenge for an already fast-weary body.
Shared with friends after fasting much of the day alone, tarawih is also one of the more communal practices of Ramadan. Rather than being in a hurry to leave after the prayer, many linger on, perhaps catching up with friends over coffee, reflecting on the small sermon (khutbah in Arabic) the imam gives in the middle of prayers, or joining fellow Muslims at the nearest 24-hour diner for some late night food.
Having small children at home, few babysitting options, and a hectic schedule (which includes writing this daily journal), tarawih is more of a luxury to me these days. Years ago, I used to spend every night at the mosque for tarawih, where our congregation would perform the less rigorous version with some time reserved beforehand to listen to the imam’s beautiful recitation of the Qur’an. I used to sit on the lush prayer rugs and follow along with my English translation, and for me, it remains the most perfect environment in which to properly absorb God’s message.
If Ramadan is an opportunity to reaffirm one’s commitment to God, then tarawih can be seen as a type of ceremony of re-dedication, where Muslims stand at attention before God while being enveloped in His words.