Living and traveling in Arab countries for the past four years has given me great insight into the way that Muslims live. I have learnt about the language, culture, food and the way people conduct their daily life in accordance to their religion; Islam. As we start the beginning of Ramadan, an important time in any Muslim’s calendar, I would like to share some background of this holy month and some advice for travelers, and like-minded individuals, who want to learn a little bit more about the meaning of this important time.
Living in a multi-cultural place like Dubai, where westerners and locals cohabitate, can sometimes be a difficult task. Creating a balance so that different nationalities live respectfully together, and get along, was never going to be easy. I believe that Dubai has achieved this in allowing westerners to live and work here (tax free!), under Sharia laws, but with a relaxation/exception to some rules, so that expats can feel more comfortable. This therefore should highlight why, for one month of the year, it is important for non-Muslims to respect the rules and make this a harmonious time for all.
The framework of Islam is translated through the five pillars of Islam, which are acts that Muslims should follow:
1. Shahadah – creed, a statement of belief
2. Salat – daily prayers, five a day
3. Zakah – charitable giving of accumulative wealth
4. Ramadan – fasting in daylight hours
5. Hajj – once in a lifetime Pilgrimage to Mecca
Over a billion Muslims believe that the Qu’ran is the exact words of Allah (God), and the teachings and enactments of Muhammad (the last prophet of God). Therefore, a Muslim must follow the Qu’ran and the obligatory five pillars religiously as acts of worship.
Ramadan, the fourth pillar of Islam, is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar – a lunar calendar which follows the moon. The calendar has 12 months, but is shorter than the Gregorian (western) calendar by approximately 10 days. Each month is determined by the new moon, therefore like any month, including Ramadan, predicting a start date is difficult. As the Islamic calendar is shorter than the western calendar, Ramadan will move 10 days earlier each year.
The Rules of Ramadan
The word Ramadan, means to ‘refrain’. Not only from eating and drinking, but from other things like sexual activity, gossip and anything which may distract people from their fast. Muslims should start fasting after puberty, with some practicing half-day fasts to get used to the concept, but it is not obligatory. Sick, elderly, menstruating or pregnant women are exempt from fasting. Also, when traveling it is not essential for Muslims to fast, but these missed days should be made up for at a later date.
Muslims should refrain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset. During this time they should focus on spiritual reflection, and increased devotion and worship. They should avoid anything bad, like greed, lust or hatred – and build relationships with people they may have fallen out with it. It is a time to rekindle relationships with family and friends, and to support and love one another.
Before sunrise Muslims will partake in a pre-fast meal called Sahoor, and after sunset, they will break the fast with an Iftar. It is traditional to break fast with dates and milk, and then complete the fourth prayer of the day, before eating a large meal. Dates give a quick rush of sugar, which after a day of fasting most Muslims will desperately need for sunset prayers.
Traveling during Ramadan?
There are numerous reasons why a traveling Muslim is excused from fasting. Most importantly it is hard to know when to fast or how long to fast for, as the sunrise/sunset is always changing. Some long-haul flights may have daylight for the entire flight, because of time difference. On a plane/train/bus there are usually no facilities for praying, therefore making it difficult to focus on religion. However, it is completely up to the individual, and many times at work I have seen customers fasting during a flight, and reading from the Qu’ran.
It is important to know that if you are living, traveling or working in an Arab country during this time, although you may not be fasting, you should respect those around you. Eating, drinking, smoking, chewing or acting disrespectfully during this time is prohibited. Most westerners will know when Ramadan begins, as nightclubs, bars and music festivals will be closed during this month. Restaurants and cafes will also pull shutters down, or build partitions outside during daylight, to shield the sight of food and drink from view.
Although you may not be Muslim, there is no reason why you can’t get involved in Islamic activity. You may want to try fasting for a day or more, to understand how it feels to be without food for a day, or to learn some self-control. Hotels and restaurants welcome everyone to try the banquet style Iftar, and I would highly recommend going with a few friends to sample the food. In the Middle East, you will traditionally find an array of salads, meats, rice and desserts, accompanied by shisha – a water pipe used for smoking flavoured tobacco. Note: alcohol is definitely not served during Iftar, so best not to ask!
Last year I visited the Atlantis Hotel Iftar at Asateer, which I would highly recommend. The Ramadan tent sits over 850 guests, and charges 185 dhs per person. I felt very welcome, and it was very enjoyable to watch the locals spending time with their families. For ladies, I would recommend covering up as much as possible – in particular your knees and shoulders.
A few other recommended places in Dubai for Iftar, include:
$$$ – Al Majlis at Jumeriah Madinat, 195 dhs per person. https://www.jumeirah.com/en/hotels-resorts/dubai/madinat-jumeirah/offers/ramadan/
$$ – Ramadan Tent, Downtown Dubai, under Burj Khalifa 100-150 dhs per person http://www.mydowntowndubai.com/en/Ramadan/default.aspx
$ – Try the Grand Iftar Buffet at the Grand Central hotel, they offer over 33 different dishes at only 59 dhs per head http://grandcentralhoteldubai.com/web/?p=95
Numerous restaurants and cafes close during daylight hours, as business is minimal, so if you need some advice on places to go for lunch and breakfast in Dubai during the month, visit: http://foodiva.net/2012/07/where-to-lunch-over-ramadan-in-dubai/
Not in Dubai?
In most big towns or cities around the world you will find an Arabic restaurant, and they should also be offering an Iftar meal or similar. You don’t have to be living in the Middle East to try one!
During the holy month it is obligatory for Muslims to give money to charity. The amount will depend upon your wealth, and if you have chosen not to fast. The recommended minimum sum is 0.025% of your savings/investments. Therefore if you don’t have much money, but own a gold ring worth $20,000, then you should donate a minimum of $5. If a Muslim decides not to fast, then traditionally they can give money for every day they chose not to. It is important to know that no one checks to make sure a Muslim has given money and, like many religions, what they do and don’t do is a matter between themselves and God.
One thing I have learnt whilst living abroad, and working with over 130 different nationalities, is that everyone has different religions, beliefs, and superstitions. What you believe, someone else might think is bizarre, like walking under a ladder, or decorating a dead tree in your living room! So my best advice is, live life enjoying your beliefs, and respect others for theirs.
I would like to wish all my friends and colleagues around the world Ramadan Kareem, and I hope this month gives you great inner strength and generosity!