Time Out speaks to Sakina Amerjee at Eton Institute to learn more about the meaning of Ramadan and to find out what to expect during this special time of year.
What have you found to be the most common misconceptions about Ramadan among non-Muslims?
The most common misconception about Ramadan from a non-Muslim’s perspective is that fasting is only about staying away from food. During the blessed month of Ramadan, Muslims all over the world abstain from food, drink and other physical needs during daylight hours. As a time to purify the soul, refocus attention on God and practice self-sacrifice, Ramadan is about much more than just not eating and drinking. Muslims are called upon to use this month to re-evaluate their lives in light of Islamic guidance. We are to make peace with those who have wronged us, strengthen ties with family and friends, and do away with bad habits – essentially to clean up our lives, our thoughts and our feelings. The Arabic word for fasting (sawm) literally means ‘to refrain’ – and it means not only refraining from food and drink, but from evil actions, thoughts and words. During Ramadan, every part of the body must be restrained: the tongue must be restrained from backbiting and gossip; the eyes must restrain themselves from looking at unlawful things; the hand must not touch or take anything that does not belong to it; the ears must refrain from listening to idle talk or obscene words; the feet must refrain from going to sinful places. In such a way, every part of the body observes the fast. Therefore, fasting is not merely physical, but is rather the total commitment of the person’s body and soul to the spirit of the fast. Ramadan is a time to practice self-restraint, a time to cleanse the body and soul from impurities and refocus on the worship of God.
As the weather is going to be extremely hot, what is the etiquette with regard to drinking water if you aren’t fasting?
During Ramadan, drinking and eating in public is considered very offensive and can even attract a fine or a reprimand from the police. If any individual wants to eat or drink during Ramadan it has to be done indoors or in designated areas within public places such as food courts in malls, which are covered during the month of Ramadan.
What are the rules regarding dress during the Holy Month of Ramadan? For example, is it acceptable for people to wear shorts to a shopping mall?
It is recommended that both men and women dress conservatively during the month of Ramadan. Not doing so may offend those who are fasting. Hence individuals must refrain from wearing revealing and/
or tight clothing etc.
Are people permitted to listen to music during the month of Ramadan?
People in general must refrain from listening to music loudly during the Holy Month, as it may offend those who are fasting. However, you can listen to music on your smartphone or iPod with the aid of headphones.
What is the significance of charity during Ramadan?
Charity is a very important part of Islam and is even more significant during Ramadan. However, you don’t have to be a Muslim to give during the Holy Month. There are plenty of charitable initiatives, Ramadan camps, iftar camps, care packages and more, that can be taken up during the Holy month.
Are there any exceptions where it is acceptable to publically break the fast?
Generally, fasting is not recommended to people who have medical conditions or women who are pregnant. However, the same rules apply to them as well – not to eat or drink in public and to use designated areas in public that are screened from view.
Are people who work outside expected to fast during the Holy Month?
Muslims are expected to fast during the month of Ramadan, as it is obligatory. This would apply to every Muslim irrespective of their work environment. The shorter working hours during the month of Ramadan have been introduced in the UAE to make sure people are not exhausted and that they get enough time to rest and pray.
With a large proportion of the population fasting, what should people consider when driving?
As sunset approaches, a lot of people will be driving to iftar celebrations or mosques to break their fast and say their prayers. People who are not fasting should be considerate and avoid driving if they can during those times. Also, don’t play loud music in your car and avoid using your horn if someone cuts you up – something that’s fairly common in the UAE.
For those experiencing Ramadan in Dubai for the first time, what changes to daily life can they expect to see in the city?
Ramadan is a very special month and there is a lot one can expect during this time. Work timings are altered during this time, with most shops, especially restaurants and coffee shops, being closed from dawn to sunset. There are also lots of special offers and sales that take place during this time.
Are there any particular Arabic phrases that people use to greet each other during Ramadan?
The usual greeting during Ramadan, especially at the beginning of the month, is ‘Ramadan Kareem’, meaning ‘wish you generous Ramadan’. It’s also fine to use ‘Ramadan Mubarak’, which means ‘blessed Ramadan’ and is more commonly used in Asian circles.
For more information on Eton Institute, visit dubai.eton.ac.
If non-Muslims wish to get involved in the Holy Month, how would you recommend they do so?
Living in an Arab country, there are many ways for non-Muslims to get involved in the Holy Month of Ramadan. Here are a few:
• Exchange Ramadan greetings, especially at the beginning of the month. The word ‘Kareem’ in the phrase ‘Ramadan Kareem’ is the equivalent to ‘generous’, so the expression means ‘Wish you generous Ramadan’.
• Get into the charitable spirit during the Holy Month by donating to Ramadan camps, care packages and other charities.
• Fast along with your Muslim colleagues for a day or two and break the fast together at the time of iftar.
• Enjoy and get a taste of the local culture. Many restaurants and hotels offer special iftar meals during Ramadan that can be enjoyed with family and friends alike.
Should people be conscious of any social rules which apply during the Holy Month? For example, how should someone behave if they are frustrated or if someone is impolite?
It is considered polite to ask those fasting how they are doing as long as the enquiries are kept short and respectful. Since Ramadan is the month of peace and serenity, avoid getting into debates and arguments or picking fights during this special time.
If you are not fasting, what should you consider when interacting with those who are?
It is good to use Ramadan greetings such as ‘Ramadan Kareem’ or ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ when you meet Muslims. Avoid setting up meetings during prayer times and be aware of Ramadan etiquette, such as not eating or drinking in front of them.
Eton Institute is running a Ramadan Etiquette Workshop at its Dubai branch on July 3 between 4.30pm and 6.30pm. The event takes place in Dubai Knowledge Village, Auditorium, Block 1.