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Iftar's an English Word: Thoughts on Ramadan Greetings

By Farooq Kperogi Twitter: @farooqkperogi Ramadan Mubarak. Happy start of the Ramadan fast. Bese ka noru (Baatonum). Barka da azumi (Hausa...

By Farooq Kperogi

Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Ramadan Mubarak. Happy start of the Ramadan fast. Bese ka noru (Baatonum). Barka da azumi (Hausa). Eku ongbe (Yoruba). Please add more expressions from other languages you speak or understand.

Every Ramadan, I write Ramadan-themed articles every once in a while. Today, I want to touch on a subject I’ve written about several times in the past: the expressions to use in English to greet people during the Ramadan fast.

Interestingly,’s word of the day today is “iftar,” which it defines as “the meal that Muslims eat after sunset during Ramadan to break the day’s fast.” 

We typically greet each other here in America during Ramadan by saying things like “happy iftar,” or “wish you a joyous iftar” during the feast after the fast.

As I pointed out previously, these greetings aren’t equivalent idiomatic and cultural substitutes for Nigerian greetings during Ramadan. 

“Sannu da shan ruwa” [greetings on drinking water] or “barka da shan ruwa” [blessings on drinking water] in Hausa; “Bese ka noru [greetings to us on thirst] in Baatonum; and Eku ongbe [greetings on thirst] in Yoruba make no idiomatic sense in English.

There's no basis for an interlingual translational equivalence between English and our languages because they lexicalize different sociocultural phenomena. From our greetings, it’s obvious that Nigerian Muslims perceive deprivation from drinking water, not food, as the central self-denial in the Ramadan fast.

Etymology of Iftar

Iftar has now been domesticated in English. Collins Dictionary says the first recorded usage of “iftar” in English dates back to 1722. 

Interestingly, the expression didn’t come to English directly from Arabic; it came from Ottoman Turkish, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. 

Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president, is the first American president to host an iftar dinner in the White House on December 9, 1805. He hosted it in honor of Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, the Tunisian ambassador to the United States at the time.

“Iftar” reemerged in American English lexicon after former First Lady Hillary Clinton reintroduced and instituted the annual White House Iftar Dinner in 1996. During the dinners, she her husband, and other American officials often said “Happy iftar”—or some version of that expression— to American Muslims. 

George Bush and Barack Obama continued the tradition throughout their presidencies, but Donald Trump stopped it. Will Joe Biden revive it? Let’s see.

“Happy Iftar” not Adequate

But “happy iftar,” “enjoy your iftar,” “wish you a joyous iftar,” etc. are all, as I said before, woefully incapable of encapsulating or even approximating the deep cultural, sociolinguistic signification of our Nigeran greetings during Ramadan.

For one, iftar literally means, “break fast.” It comes from the Semitic root word “ptr” (rendered in Arabic as “fatara” or “fitr” since Arabic has no “p” sound). The Hebrew word “Haftarah” comes from the same root. It denotes breaking, splitting, detaching, or separating. 

While the Arabic iftar comes from a metaphor of breaking, Nigerian languages deploy the metaphor of water in their everyday cultural salutations during the Ramadan fast.

Second, “iftar” refers to the meal after the Ramadan fast, for which Nigerian languages have lexical equivalents. 

For instance, Hausa speakers refer to the act of breaking one’s fast as “bude baki,” which literally means “open mouth.” 

Baatonum speakers say “no kora,” which literally means, “break mouth.” 

Yoruba speakers say “sinu,” a contraction of “si enu,” which literally means, “open mouth.”

So Nigerian languages use the imagery of opening or breaking the “mouth” to express the act of eating after the Ramadan fast.

The Ramadan-specific greetings in Nigerian languages aren’t limited to celebrating the end of the daily fast with a feast; they are intended to acknowledge the spirit of communal gaiety and joyful self-denial of the Ramadan fast.

The closest socio-linguistic approximations to Nigerian Ramadan greetings, in my opinion, are “Ramadan Kareem” and “Ramadan Mubarak.” Ramadan Kareem roughly translates as, “have a generous Ramadan” and “Ramadan Mubarak” roughly translates as, “greetings on the blessed Ramadan.” (“Kareem” means “generous” and “Mubarak” means “blessed”). 

Although they are Arabic expressions, they are widely understood in the English-speaking world and have entries in all major dictionaries. 

But I’d rather we stick with greetings in our languages and even export them to the rest of the world because of their uniqueness.

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