As well as a time for prayer, fasting and reflection, Ramadan is a month to reconnect with family and loved ones. But when it comes to observing the customs that go hand in hand with the Holy Month, it can be a confusing time for expat families. Time Out speaks to Debbie Jaunich from the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding to find out more.
Why is the Holy Month such an important time for families?
Families tend to spend more time together during Ramadan, in part because of the nature of the fast, where we gather together at the end of the day to share a meal. We can all get busy with our lives and Ramadan is a time to reconnect with family and friends. It’s also an opportunity to get to know new neighbours, inviting them for a meal. In general, it’s a time for the community to bond together for a common spiritual cause.
Are there any particular customs observed by families at this time?
Every family tends to have their own traditions when it comes to Ramadan. Most of the customs within families, especially ones with small children, centre on food. Special dishes are made, including lots of sweets, and homes are usually abuzz with neighbours, friends and extended family gathering for meals. Muslims usually start the day with suhoor, a traditional meal before dawn. All family members usually partake in this meal, and for young children it can be exciting and different, eating breakfast in the small hours of the morning, and there are sometimes special foods, which can differ from family to family, usually including dates and plenty of water. Of course there are also the preparations for Eid, the buying of new clothes, which is recommended if you have the means, and the giving of gifts during the Eid festivities – children enjoy preparing small gifts to exchange with their friends and family. Homes can also be decorated to mark the end of Ramadan.
How can non-Muslim children living in Dubai find out more about Ramadan?
The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) has evening iftar dinners at its centre in Bastakiya. These are a favourite for families and it’s a way to get to know the customs and traditions of Ramadan through a meal, where Emirati hosts share their thoughts on what happens in the Holy Month and why. Families have the opportunity to visit the Diwan Masjid during the event and learn about its role and the worship activities during the month. Of course, if your family is invited to an iftar dinner by a neighbour, friend or co-worker, accept the invitation – this is the best way to experience how the fast is traditionally broken. If your family wants to get involved with charity, an important part of Ramadan, the place to start is right next door. Look at your own environment and those in need. Share something with them.
What are the rules of the fast for kids?
Children are required to start fasting from puberty, but generally start practicing around the age of seven. They may fast for part of the day or give up their favourite sugary cereal, for example, according to their ability and their age. Most children try to fast well before they are required to according to Islam, because they want to be a part of what their siblings and parents are doing. But there is more to fasting than just not eating and drinking. The emphasis is on doing extra good deeds, or being extra careful to obey their parents, not arguing and fighting with siblings, or avoiding hurting someone’s feelings.
Are there any other customs that kids should know about?
Muslim children should perform the obligatory prayers that are put into practice by the age of ten. They may join their family in extra prayers called Taraweeh (or ‘relief’), which are the night prayers performed in the masjids after the Isha, or late evening obligatory prayer. It is a prayer which helps relieve or remove the burdens of this life.
Any advice for parents of older children who are fasting for the first time?
Have your children join in the fasting at a young age, before it is required of them. This way, they can be ‘in shape’ for when it really counts. Children can start by fasting for part of the day, and practicing the extra good deeds early on. For those who have children who will be fasting for the first time as teens, my advice is to get them involved in all aspects. This way they will stay busy during the day then wake up and have a healthy suhoor before dawn. Schedule time to read the Quran, or have them plan a lesson for the whole family about one of the prophets. Let the children get involved with the preparation of the evening meal, and try to get them to join in with some extra activities. Every child is different and we should keep in mind their limitations, but as long as they are healthy they should be able to manage, always considering the heat at this time of year. Their non-fasting friends can be silently supportive by choosing activities that don’t put any extra stress on the body, or that don’t distract during the fast.
Check out My First Ramadan by Karen Katz. Kids are sure to enjoy following the story of a young boy as he experiences the Holy Month with his family.