If you’re planning to visit a country with a large Muslim population this June, you’re probably going to encounter many people celebrating the month of Ramadan. Whether or not you choose to take part in this important Islamic holiday, it’s still a good idea to have an idea of what the occasion is about and what to expect while you’re visiting. We take a look at the origins, traditions and practices of Ramadan, and what this may mean for you during your visit.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, and has been observed as an annual holiday since the 7th century. For Muslims, Ramadan is the “best of times”: not only is it believed to be the month when the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, but also the time when God sent all holy scriptures to mankind, including the Psalms and the Gospel.
The main practice among those observing Ramadan is the act of fasting from dawn to sunset. This fast is much more comprehensive than just not eating in daylight hours - it also includes abstaining from drinking liquids, smoking and having sex during this time. Of course, fasting for a whole month just isn’t feasible for anyone - that’s why after the sun goes down, celebrants receive a welcome lull from the fast. Dates are often used to break the fast, as according to tradition Muhammad broke his fast with three of these sugary fruits. Islam has spread to many different corners of the globe so the nature of the evening meals can differ from culture to culture but the first meal of the night (known as iftar) is often a social event that brings together communities - a festival atmosphere is not uncommon. A little before the sun rises, Muslims observe a pre-dawn meal called suhur.
It’s not all about fasting and feasting though. Voluntary charity, an important facet of Islam at all times, is especially encouraged during Ramadan, with many giving generously to the poor as all good deeds are believed to be more handsomely rewarded during Ramadan. Prayer and the reading of the entire Quran are also traditional features of this month.
Traveling during Ramadan
If you’re spending time in a Muslim country during the month of Ramadan (starting at sunset on the 5th of June and ending on the 5th of July in 2016) there are a few things that you should take into account. While this is a time of joy and celebration for Muslims, unprepared visitors may find their expectations challenged in more ways than one. The bustling markets and sizzling street food that many expect from Muslim-majority cities will be notably absent until night falls, businesses often close early, most eateries won’t be open during daylight hours and it’s not uncommon to find that people are a little tired and cranky toward the end of the day (understandably so!).
Laws differ from country to country, but it will certainly pay to do some research into the rules around Ramadan in the country you are visiting. In some countries, eating or smoking in public (even if you’re not Muslim) is considered a crime and will be prosecuted as such. Even if it’s not expressly forbidden it’s a good idea to be courteous and respectful to those who are going without, by refraining from eating during the day in front of those observing Ramadan.
Non-Muslims are welcome at the feasts as well, and attending one is highly recommended - Iftar in particular tends to be a very social event. Not only will you be treated to delicious food but you’ll also get to be part of a very special cultural event rarely experienced by those outside the Islamic world.