The Islamic world is arguably one of the most rewarding travel destinations and despite what some travel guides will tell you, there’s no better way to truly gain an insight into Islam than by visiting an Islamic country during the holy month of Ramadan which Muslims mark by fasting from sunrise to sunset. Before you go, it’s a good idea to read up on Ramadan so as to avoid causing unnecessary offence. Your definitive guide starts here…
A is for Arabic – the official national language as well as the official business language. Arabic isn’t an easy language to pick up – trust us, it’s a patience testing process. However sprinkle a smattering of Arabic words into your conversation during Ramadan – and they will be warmly received.
B is for bread - bread comes in a whopping 40 varieties and is eaten at every Iftar meal. Hurs is a particularly popular addition; made up of thin layers, it can be served with a number of garnishes – both sweet and savoury. Traditionally this staple is used in place of knives and forks to scoop up dips.
C is for coffee – but we’re not talking about the type served up at Starbucks; we’re referring to traditional Arabic coffee (kahwa). It’s consumed in copious quantities and usually served strong without milk. To sweeten, serve with dates or sprinkle with sugar. If at Iftar, you’re offered Arabic coffee, it is considered polite to drink about three cups (usually about the size of an egg cup.) To refuse is to risk offending your host…
D is for dates – traditionally associated with the breaking of the fast. Starved stomachs need to be lined before the real feasting commences so it’s customary to ease yourself into the meal with a date. According to legend, these were the humble offerings that the Prophet ate for his own Iftar. In ancient times, the date palm was named omm al-faqir meaning ‘mother of the poor’ because of its nutritional qualities, which could sustain the poor.
E is for Eid Al Fitr – the three-day holiday celebrating every Muslim’s achievements that occurs at the end of Ramadan. For Muslims, Eid has similar connotations as Christmas has for Christians or Diwali for Hindus. Eid takes place on a different date each year as it is based on the Islamic calendar and relies on the sighting of the moon.
F is for fasting During the month of Ramadan, Muslims must not eat, drink or have sex between dawn and sunset. Abstaining brings rewards although the good can be negated by five things: telling a lie, slander, denouncing someone behind their back, taking a false oath or greed. Fasting is designed to create empathy for the poor and hungry but more importantly teach patience and self-control while bringing people closer to Allah.
G is for God Actually, Allah is the name Muslims use for the supreme and unique God. Muslims believe that Allah decides everything and that they must submit to his will (Islam literally means ‘submission.’) Followers of Islam live their whole lives in a way that is pleasing to Allah. To convert to Islam, it is necessary merely to recite three times with conviction: ‘There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Prophet.’
H is for Hookah pipes also known as shisha – a popular and relaxing pastime in the Middle East. Hookah pipes can be smoked with a variety of flavours. Smoking shisha is nothing like smoking a ciggie. The smoke is softened by water which creates a much more soothing effect. If you’ve never smoked shisha, Ramadan is an ideal time in which to indulge as most hotels put up shisha tents.
I refers to Iftar – the evening feast that breaks the daily fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan. This is the time to tuck into traditional, tasty Arabic mezze and sweets. Um Ali – a sweet, soggy milk based pud resplendent with pistachios and plump moist raisins – is a favourite Arabic desert. Other ones to try include baklava – fabulous, flaky filo pastry drenched in honey and pistachio nuts.
J is for Jinn – a type of spirit made of fire which sits between angels and humans among rational creatures (and which is the origin it is thought, of the word genie.) These spirits have free will, can take on the shape of animals and while they can be good, are more often than not roguish. Happily during Ramadan, bad jinn are unable to bother humans: a blessing from Allah to make up for the difficulty of fasting.
K is for Kaffarah – the penalty that is prescribed if a Muslim breaks their fast before nightfall. During the time of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), this could mean they had to set a slave free. These days a perpetrator might have to fast for an additional 60 days or give a meal to 60 poor people. Certain people such as children, soldiers, the sick, elderly, mentally handicapped, and anyone who would be putting their health at serious risk – are exempt from fasting. In addition there are some circumstances where people normally able to fast are unable to - think expectant mothers and travellers. Translation? Don’t freak out if you see people eating before Iftar at the airport…
L is for Lailat al Qadr otherwise known as the Night of Power, which marks the night in which the Qur’an was first, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by Allah. Muslims regard this as the most important event in history and some will spend the whole night in prayer or in reciting the Qur'an. Lailat al Qadr is a good time to ask for forgiveness. The Prophet Muhammad did not mention when the Night of Power would be, although it was suggested it was in the last 10 days of the month. Because of this, many Muslims will treat the last 10 days of the month of Ramadan as a particularly good time for prayer.
M is for Mecca – every Muslim is expected to make the pilgrimage (Hajj) to the holy city of Mecca once in their lifetime. The end of the annual period of pilgrimage to Mecca is marked by a four day Islamic holiday called Eid Al Adha. The rituals involve the slaughtering of animals for the traditional feast. This holiday falls 70 days after Eid Al Fitr.
N is for the Ninth month – the time when Ramadan starts. Each new month begins when the new moon (the hila) is sighted and lasts for 29 days meaning a year lasts for 254 days. This is why the date of Ramadan moves by around 11 days in respect to the Gregorian calendar every year.
O is for opening hours – during Ramadan, opening and closing times of restaurants in Islamic countries change considerably so be sure to call and check before pitching up. We wouldn’t want you to schlepp somewhere only to find all the lights are off and there’s no one at home. While some clubs remain open, dance floors are most definitely shut and foot tapping is off the menu. As a general rule of thumb, business hours tend to be shorter during Ramadan.
P is for prayer – Muslims are required to pray (facing Mecca) five times a day but this is particularly important during Ramadan. The five prayers consist of Fajr at dawn, Juma in the middle of the day, Asr at mid afternoon, Maghrib at sunset and Isha at nightfall. The times vary according to the position of the sun. Most people pray at a mosque although it’s not unusual to see people kneeling by the side of the road if they aren’t near a mosque. It’s considered impolite to stare at people praying or to walk over prayer mats. The modern day call to prayer – transmitted through loudspeakers on the minarets of each mosque – ensures that everyone knows it’s time to pray.
Q is for Quran – the holy book of Islam. The Quran is considered pure perfection (intended to correct any errors in previous holy books such as the Old and New Testaments) not just as a religious work, but also as a piece of literature. Employing poetic language – think extended metaphors, rising rhythmic cadences and an unmatched elegance and turn of phrase, the Quran is held as a work of art and beauty. The text is often read aloud at Ramadan – moving many Muslims to a state of both spiritual and emotional elation.
R is for resolutions Many Muslims use Ramadan to make resolutions, similar to New Year's resolutions. It is a time when they decide how they want to live their life for the next year and try their very best to adhere to their new commitments. Some have a desire to pray more and learn more about Islam. Others wish to be better people while a few want to learn Qur'anic Arabic to better their understanding of the Holy Book. Ramadan is the best opportunity to begin this grand affair with something so personal and spiritually enlightening.
S is for sahour – a light meal eaten before the sun rises. For some, it is simply a continuation of the feast of the night before; for others a chance to grab a bite to eat before a long working day without food or water.
T is for Tamerhindi – a root based drink meaning Indian Date. It is made from the fruit pods of a tall shade tree native to Asia and has a distinctive sweet taste. It’s a refreshing drink that forms an important part of the Iftar feast. Other tipples you may want to try include Laban, a refreshing drink of yoghurt, water and salt and delicious freshly squeezed fruit juices.
U is for uniform – typically Muslim men wear the dishdash(a) or khandura – a white full-length shirtdress which is worn with a white or red checked headdress known as gutra. This is secured with a black cors (agal). Women wear the black abaya – a long loose robe that covers their normal clothes – plus a headscarf called the sheyla. Don’t don the local gear during Ramadan – some Arabs may think that you’re mocking them. But do dress more modestly than usual during Ramdan. What’s in? Long clothing? What’s out? Anything revealing.
V is for the veil – or hijab. In Mohammed's time, hijab referred to a tent-divider or curtain, behind which women might sit. In the 1970s, the term was popularly revived to refer to Islamic dress. For women, this generally means covering the body from neck to ankle, and arms to the wrists, in addition to wearing a head covering. In the Middle East today, hijab often refers to the white headscarf increasingly popular with women in less traditional countries as a sign of Islamic commitment.
W is for weight gain – surprisingly, rather than losing weight during Ramadan, many Muslims actually pile on the pounds! Despite abstaining from food and drink during the day, when the sun goes down Ramadan becomes a much more festive occasion. Friends and families come together for lavish multicourse meals, full of fried foods and rich desserts. The message? While Ramadan is about focusing on faith, family, and charity, it doesn’t hurt to keep an eye on the diet as well.
Z is for zero tolerance – it doesn’t matter if you aren’t a Muslim you have chosen to visit an Islamic country during the holy month and are expected to observe the fast – at least in public. As the saying goes, when in Rome…
Be aware of certain restrictions during the month of Ramadan. While most countries aren’t as strict as Saudi Arabia (where you can go to jail for smoking a cigarette), you don’t want to cause offence. The more respect you show, the warmer your welcome will be and who knows, you could even find yourself invited to an authentic Iftar feast!
Ramadan dos and don’ts
Don’t Smoke, drink, chew gum or eat in public places in the hours between sunrise and sunset.
Dance or sing in public at any point.
Play loud music at any time.
Wear revealing clothes while out and about.
Swear or use foul language.
Do Feel free to smoke, drink and eat in the privacy of your hotel.
Politely refuse food and drink during the day, even if offered by a Muslim.
Make a contribution to charity.
Sit back, relax and immerse yourself in Arabic traditions.
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