I feel there is always a sense of anticipation and occasion in the air as Ramadan approaches; whether a Muslim or non-Muslim, everyone readies themselves for the special month ahead.
Ramadan is a very important time for Muslims because it is believed that, during this month, the Qur’an was first revealed to the Prophet Mohammed. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and this year, started on Saturday 26th May 2017. The start and end dates of this holy month move forward every year depending on when the new crescent moon is sighted.
What do Muslims do during Ramadan?
For Muslims, Ramadan is a period of generosity, charity, reflection and spiritual devotion, the most obvious manifestation of which is fasting. Fasting (Sawm) is one of the five pillars of Islam which all Muslims are expected to follow, the other four being Faith (Shahadah; reciting the Muslim profession of faith), Prayer (Salah; performing ritual prayers five times a day), Charitable Giving (Zakah; to support the less fortunate and needy), and the Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj). Throughout Ramadan, all healthy Muslims fast from dawn until sunset, refraining from all food, drink, gum chewing, tobacco use and any kind of intimacy.
The purpose of fasting is to cleanse the body and the spirit, so fasting in Islam isn’t just about refraining from food and drink but also from every kind of selfish desire and wrong-doing. The fast is not merely of the body but of the spirit as well; the physical fast is an outward expression of an inner fast.
Is this your first experience of living in a Muslim country during Ramadan?
By now, you will no doubt have seen the obvious signs that Ramadan is underway. For example, most restaurants and cafes are closed until sunset; a few may open for take-away food and drink or, if located in hotels, may stay open as usual, though doors will be closed and windows covered to respect those who are fasting.
You will also know that working hours for schools, malls, banks, government departments and other businesses have changed or shortened; this is to acknowledge that fasting affects levels of energy and performance during the day.
The pace of daily life slows down during Ramadan. I live in the centre of Doha, the capital of Qatar, and apart from the rush hour, to and from work, it’s pretty quiet during the day. However as soon as the sun sets, Doha bursts into life again! The malls get busy, the roads get very busy and all restaurants and cafes open again for Iftar – the first meal after sunset – and Suhoor – the meal consumed early in the morning before dawn and before the next day’s fasting recommences. There is a great feeling of celebration and it’s a time when families and friends make a point of spending a lot of time together.
Non-Muslims are not expected to fast during Ramadan – though may choose to – but we are expected to pay attention to and respect the customs and traditions of Ramadan. It’s a special time which we can all enjoy, being mindful of a few Dos and Don’ts!
Consume food, water or tobacco in public from sunrise to sunset. I remember during my first Ramadan being told that this also meant I could not take a quick gulp of water whilst in my car, as this would be deemed unacceptable. Its normal here, as in most hot climates, to have a bottle of water to hand so instead, I make sure I drink plenty before going out.
Eat or drink at work in front of colleagues who are fasting, out of respect for their beliefs and for what they are experiencing. It’s likely that guidance will be issued within organisations to support people through Ramadan. I used to work for a company which had small kitchens on each floor and during Ramadan, rather than take our cuppas back to our desks, we had to stay in the kitchen whilst we drank them. It actually became a very sociable time and I would have great conversations with colleagues whom I might not usually see that often; the kitchen was the place to be during Ramadan!
Play music too loudly, dress inappropriately, show public displays of affection. In Qatar, it’s advisable to avoid all this anyway out of respect for our Muslim hosts but it is especially the case to behave in a polite manner in public during Ramadan.
Go to the supermarket later in the day or just before Iftar. Paradoxically, everyone stocks up on food during Ramadan in preparation for breaking their fast at sunset with fantastic Iftar meals, so supermarkets can get very busy! Try and buy your groceries earlier in the day – unlike other businesses, supermarkets tend to stay open all day.
Drive around sunset. I don’t know what this time of day is like on the road in other Middle Eastern countries but in Qatar, it can be more of a challenge that usual. Many people are rushing to get home or to visit other family members to break their fast together at sunset and after so many hours without food and drink…..well, let’s just say that levels of concentration and patience can be low!
Wish your friends and colleagues “Ramadan Kareem” or “Ramadan Mubarak”, which essentially mean “Happy Ramadan”. This is a time of celebration and joy which should be acknowledged.
Accept invitations from your Muslim friends or colleagues to an Iftar or Suhoor. These are happy gatherings around a feast of amazing food. Most of the hotels and restaurants in Doha put on Iftars and Suhoors and you don’t need to be a Muslim to attend one; you can take your friends and family along yourself – it’s a great way to experience local culture. I particularly enjoy going to Iftars in Souq Waqif, the most well-known souq in Doha.
Consider fasting yourself! Maybe just for a day or two? In this way you can experience what your Muslim friends are doing and get a small insight into what it means to fast. Have I done it? Err…..not yet! But it’s a challenge I am willing to take!
Be charitable in thought and deed. We can mirror the charitable intentions and actions of our Muslim friends by also focusing on ways in which we can demonstrate kindness and support for those less fortunate than ourselves.
Be considerate towards those who are fasting as the whole month disrupts usual sleeping and eating patterns which do take a toll. Be patient and sympathetic and if you start to feel irritated, just take a deep breath and smile!
Ramadan is an opportunity to witness and learn so much more about Islamic faith and traditions so, whether this is your first experience of this special month or, as in my case, my fifth, enjoy Ramadan!