The spiritual demands of the month of Ramadan goes beyond the everyday rituals a Muslim is obligated to subject himself to. More is required of him as the blessings of the month are ceaseless. A hadith mentions the extreme generosity of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and how that generosity is amplified when the holy month comes by. The Prophet was so generous, when he died, he had only 7 Dinars (the currency in use at the time) and a paltry sum of other belongings even though much of the Arabian Peninsula was under his command at the time. Such was the nature of al Mustapha.
One of the most commonly increased act of worship is the daily prayer. The required set of prayers a Muslim is supposed to observe to keep his faith in tact is 5. What comes after this are optional acts of prayers called nawaafil. These were prayers the prophet performed beyond what Allah commanded but whatsoever the prophet does and commands his followers to replicate is seen as of Allah even though not directly commanded by Him.
In non-Ramadan months, the nawaafil are observed by the spiritually ambitious Muslim. However, the number to be observed in the sacrosanct month is significantly increased, especially for those said after the final required prayer of the day, Isha. Taraawih is the large set of prayers said exclusively in the month of Ramadan.
The number to be observed for Taraawih varies from country to country and creed to creed. There however seems to be a unanimity in Ghana on the number 10. In the USA however, I had to stand through 20! Yes 20! After the tenth prayer, I thought for a minute whether the imam was in a state of forgetfulness when he stood up for the next set of prayers. But being one of the only black bodies standing in rows of Indian and Arab faces I had to keep mute and pray someone else would notice. That never happened.
The Taraawih prayers can be the longest thing you will ever have to stand on your feet for. In addition to the huge number of 20, this mosque was reading longer verses. Way longer than Ghanaian imams did. The following day, I had to find a mosque which had a shorter number of prayers. I was directed to one which prayed 8 sets. How delightful I was! But my glee was short lived after the imam at this mosque spent the same length of time as the one at the “20 prayers” mosque did. One and a half hours of standing in prayer was no easy task. Forget about leg day, Taraawih can work out your leg muscle better than any gym instructor could ever do.
In Ghana, such mosques will pray virtually empty. The longest time spent for Taraawih prayers is about 40 minutes. Imams who pray this longer usually have smaller congregations during Ramadan. It is those with Usain Bolt type of speed which attract the largest crowd. Affectionately called Express, these are mosques which do not spend a lot of time for the Taraawih prayers. In an average time of 20 minutes, everything is wrapped up, including the Isha prayer itself.
Express Mosques are honeypots attracting people from far and wide. In Ramadan, you will find people who live tens of kilometers away making long and perilous journeys just to catch standing spaces in such mosques. Imams of such mosques are largely old schooled scholars and their congregants are the youth who want to rush through prayers to catch a soccer game on TV or “pick their runnings.”
Express mosques get a lot of flak for the speed with which they rush through the prayers. Some of their imams drop one liner verses and have you thinking whether they do indeed read the supplications in each part of the prayer. But essentially, they do turn their faces to God in prayer and that is what matters the most.