For new expats relocating to the UAE, it’s fair to say that the transformation that takes place during the month of Ramadan can present quite a cultural shock to those who don’t understand it.
Whether you’re in the more conservative area of Sharjah, or, in the more liberal Dubai, Ramadan generally plays out in the same way and the same traditions and practices are observed.
Already a thriving multicultural country, the UAE also becomes a destination for Muslims from all over the world during the Ramadan period.
Despite the diversity of inbound Muslims, Ramadan is observed by all people in much the same way as it is observed by the Emiratis.
Understanding what happens and why, is really important as this will help you get the most out of the month and make you feel more comfortable about joining in with some of the festivities.
Importantly, this understanding will also help you avoid causing unecessary offence during this time.
What is Ramadan?
As one of the five pillars of Islam, Ramadan is incredibly important.
It happens every year and is, without doubt, one of the most exciting (and challenging) periods on the Muslim calendar. During Ramadan, healthy adult Muslims are required to fast from dawn to dusk. They are also encouraged to increase their good deeds, spend more time in prayer and read the Quran from beginning to end.
The importance of spending time reading the Quran is due to the belief that the Angel Gabriel revealed the first Quranic verses to the Prophet Muhammad during the month of Ramadan.
The Quran states that fasting is an important way of coming to closer to God. Many fasting Muslims also say that, not only do they feel closer to God, but that the abstinence of food puts them into a state which feels fundamentally spirtitual and that, emotionally, they feel more relaxed.
Ramadan is also an important time for reaffirming and strengthening the ‘ummah’, which essentially refers to the global community of Muslims, regardless of their culture or ethnicity. The ummah is strengthened through people doing good deeds and cooking for each other, supporting each other during the fast, sharing the breaking of the fast in large collective groups (known as ‘Iftar’) and praying ‘Tarawih’ prayers together at night.
Tarawih prayers are specific to Ramadan and prayed by Sunnis after the reading of the fifth, and final prayer ‘Isha’ which happens at night. Each cycle of prayer (known as a ‘Raka’) involves the reading of part of the Quran. It is customary to try and complete the recitation of the whole Quran by the end of the month of Ramadan. Tarawih prayers can therefore take quite a while to complete as the Quranic recitations are often fairly long.
What is Fasting?
So, what do we mean by fasting?
Islamically, fasting requires individuals to abstain from eating, drinking (including water), smoking or taking medications from dawn to dusk.
The day can be long and tiring for many Muslims. Although the fast lasts between approximately 05:30 and 19:00 in the UAE, it starts at approximately 02:30 and continues until 21:30 for Muslims in the UK. This is an incredible 19 hours of fasting! It may be worth while you looking at some of the online fasting timetables for the exact start and finish times.
Due to the impact of fasting on energy levels, everything in the UAE slows down. This includes shops and businesses. International businesses in the UAE, for example, might well reduce working hours from 07:30 to 13:30, to allow staff to relax and sleep during the afternoon.
What does Ramadan mean for Non-Muslim Expats?
In many Muslim countries, restaurants and cafes close during the day which means that non muslims must wait for the fast to end before being able to eat out.
With such a large multi-cultural and mixed religious expatriate population however, the UAE (in particular Dubai) has become increasingly lenient in allowing restaurants and cafes to cater for non-fasters during the day.
This doesn’t mean that it’s business as usual – as it’s certainly not, it just means that you’re likely to find something open if you look hard enough. If you’re not fussy about the food you eat, then a Mall is a good starting point as many of the food courts remain open for takeaway.
Diners are required to take their food and eat it behind a specially established curtained area where they are not in view of fasting Muslims. If you get stuck, then online news outlets typically publish lists of restaurants with licenses to operate during the day.
If you are an expat staying in Dubai, then you will be able to take part in the many local government events which are intended to help remind Muslims of the importance of Ramadan. Try and particiate in these if you can, as you will not only learn a great deal about Ramadan but you will also have the opportunity to appreciate the multicultural buzz of the Ummah and to learn more about the local culture of the Emirati population.
UAE Expats’ Dos and Don’ts
It’s important that you are incredibly respectful during the month of Ramadan as this is a really special time of year for Muslims:
- Unless you’re in a specially designated resaturant or food outlet, then don’t eat or drink in public during fasting hours
- Don’t smoke in public
- Don’t play loud music or engage in any other behaviours which may distract fasting Muslims
- Accept any invitations to ‘Iftar’ if you can
- Keep the noise down during the day out of consideration for those who might be sleeping
- Be patient – fasting is incredibly tough and it can really slow people down. Don’t set your expectations too high when it comes to getting things done and if something can wait until after Ramadan then make it wait!
We hope you enjoy your time as an expat in the UAE during Ramadan.
By remaining aware of what’s involved and what to expect, you should be able to learn a great deal and participate in some enchanting events during this great month!
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