The Holy Month of Ramadan
Ramadan — A Guide for Non-Muslims
Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. That doesn't mean September. This year, 2016, it began on June 7 and ended on July 7. The Islamic year has twelve lunar months, totaling 355 days. Each month starts on a new moon. This means that Ramadan begins about 10 days earlier each year (compared with the Gregorian Calendar used in the West). The Islamic New Year also advances by 10 days per year. The current Islamic year, 1437, began on October 14, 2015 and will end on October 4, 2016.
Why is Ramadan Special?
According to tradition, it was during Ramadan that the Archangel Gabriel selected Muhammad to receive and speak the words of Allah which are preserved to this day as the holy Quran. Unlike the Christian Bible which is nearly always read in translation, the Quran is normally read in its original Arabic language. Thus, in Islam, the Quran is especially sacred as the direct word of God. (The classical Arabic of the Quran is of a higher, more complex, form than the Arabic of modern books and newspapers).
Fasting for Ramadan
Muslims mark Ramadan by fasting each day from sunrise to sunset. This is a strict fast: no food and no drink of any sort, not even water. It is hard for smokers because that too is disallowed, as is any sexual activity while fasting. The faithful rise early in the morning and take a meal, Suhoor, before dawn and first prayers. Their next meal is called Iftar and is taken after the sunset prayer. Within the faith, exceptions are made for the old and infirm, young children, and pregnant and nursing mothers.
Throughout Ramadan, families get together to share food and company in the evenings and night-time, and the emphasis is always on reflection, prayer, and charity. Ramadan is not a commercialised festival.
Fresh Dates, Perfect for Iftar
Some Tips for Non-Muslims
If you live in the West, your life goes on as normal. Nevertheless, it is good to be aware that your Muslim colleagues may well be fasting. It is considerate to respect this, and not to make a show of eating and drinking in their presence. It is good to say 'Ramadan kareem' in greeting. It will be appreciated, as I'm sure you would appreciate a 'Merry Christmas' from the locals if you were working in Saudi or the United Arab Emirates.
If you live in an Islamic country, Ramadan is enshrined in law. It is not simply a religious option. You are not obliged to fast, but you are required to respect the traditions. Here are some tips to avoid accidental offence:
- Take a good breakfast in the privacy of your apartment before venturing out for the day. If you must have lunch, take a packed lunch and find a private place to eat it. Better still, try to do without. Most of us carry a few extra pounds anyway.
- Don't snack. Avoid coffees, cakes, biscuits and sweets during the day. Chewing gum is also frowned upon. Most of our grazing is habit, rather than necessity, so it's a good discipline to avoid it. You'll want to drink water. Try to find a private place.
- Try not to smoke. If you really must, find a private place, but also consider why you must!
- Be careful on the roads! Driving standards are low in the Gulf States at the best of times. Around sunset, the roads are full of people rushing home to break their day-long fast with their families. Many are dehydrated and very tired. Seriously, be careful!
Ramadan 2016 (1437) was particularly tough for those fasting because its four weeks almost exactly straddled the longest day, June 20. In Northern countries, the effect is further amplified, with very early sunrises, very late sunsets and only a few hours of darkness to fit in all meals. And what about the lands with the midnight sun? Mercifully, Islam allows certain compromises in the fasting regime for these impossible climes!
Extra Tips for Gulf Travellers:
Shopping, business and Government office hours change during Ramadan. Most establishments post a notice of Ramadan timings at their entrance. Cafes, restaurants and takeaway food outlets do not open in daylight. However, food shops do open and you can buy food to cook at home. Expect hotel restaurants to be closed during daylight. International hotels will provide room service.
Dress code during Ramadan is more restrained. Legs, shoulders and arms should be covered. In stricter quarters, even the wearing of jewellery is frowned upon, though this is not universal.
Alcohol outlets (if any) usually remain closed throughout the month. In Dubai, hotel bars open in the evenings (after Iftar) but with no live music. The Filipino bands are usually allowed home for the month. In stricter states, bars are closed for the whole month, even for residents (though minibars may be stocked).
Lewd or offensive gestures or speech, never popular in Islam, are particularly to be avoided during this month when people are trying to keep their minds pure. But that's always good advice!
Extra Tips on Fasting
Sometimes, non-Muslims living in the Gulf states choose to take part in the Ramadan fasting regime, either as a token of respect or in some cases simply because of circumstances. If you are not used to fasting but decide to try it, the following suggestions may help:
- For your pre-dawn meal, choose slow energy release foods like pasta, rice or whole meal bread. Avoid empty calories (sugar and sweets) and avoid fried or heavily salted foods that will make you thirsty all day. Drink plenty of water with this meal.
- During the day, unless you wish to be very strict with yourself as a discipline, drinking water is better for your health than doing without, especially in hot countries. Dehydration is not good for the body.
- When you break your fast at sunset, take a little fruit and water first (dates are traditionally served) to take the edge off your hunger. Then take dinner later in the evening.
- Go to bed early as you will be rising early to eat. Sleep deprivation has no health advantages.
As an aside, there is concern often expressed in the local papers that some Muslims, though they fast through the daylight hours, may over-indulge in the evenings and through the night, socialising to excess with friends and family, even to the extent of putting on weight through the month. This is contrary to the true spirit of Ramadan and has parallels in the West in the over-commercialisation of Christmas.
Ramadan Kareem! And thanks for reading.