Many of us experience the Holy Month without truly understanding it. Time Out speaks to Nasif Kayed, general manager of the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, to learn more about Ramadan and its deeper meanings.
What is Ramadan all about? How would you explain it to a non-Muslim?
It’s about a community of believers coming together for an exercise in improving one’s self through fasting, restraining from negative habits and increasing good behaviour. In this way, it can be compared to a person deciding to begin to exercise or go on a diet. No one is isolated and everyone goes through the same experiences, so, in this way, for a whole month, the entire community strives to be better human beings, practising patience and tolerance, and learning to have empathy for others.
What are the reasons for fasting?
The aim is to enable human beings to learn and exercise patience, perseverance and discipline. Fasting has been prescribed to all mankind throughout all revelations for the purpose of providing a window of opportunity for us to rise above human desires and improve the patience and empathy we have for others.
What does the Holy Month mean to a local Muslim in the UAE and would this be reflected in the average household?
Local or not, for Muslims the Holy Month is one of the five acts of worship – if you qualify, then you fast. From a worship point of view, no day or month is equal to the month of Ramadan in terms of reward for any kind of good that one may do. It’s when the level of spirituality rises and the Holy Book [the Quran] is read daily, and you are on your best behaviour, striving to be the best you can. On a social level, it is a time for families to get closer, for neighbours to get to know one another, and for the rich to support the poor and less fortunate.
What do Muslims hope to learn from Ramadan?
We hope to learn to be better human beings, by simply choosing right over wrong, good over bad. It’s a great month-long exercise for the whole community, as it should, in time, help us all be better people throughout our lives.
Do all Muslims fast or are there exceptions?
The sick, the elderly, pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, kids under the age of puberty and travellers need not fast – after all, this exercise is not to punish or harm, but to help us improve ourselves.
Are there any ways non-Muslims can get involved?
Yes, by respecting the code of conduct in public. For instance, dress modestly, eat and drink discretely, stay away from gossip and backbiting, and, most importantly, try to fast for a day or two, to see how it works for you. Also, join your Muslim colleagues in a traditional iftar at a family home – Ramadan is all about sharing with each other – and definitely try an iftar at the SMCCU.
How should non-Muslims behave in public and towards fasting colleagues and friends?
Abstain from what a fasting person must abstain from during daylight hours in public places. In addition, dress modestly and behave appropriately, being as good as you can – just think of all the good we like to have in our lives. These actions can not only have a positive effect on you, but they can also aid the fasting person in perfecting their fast.
For non-Muslims afraid of making a ‘mistake’ during Ramadan, is there a degree of tolerance and will minor transgressions be forgiven?
To forgive and be kind is what it’s all about, as long as a person’s actions are not blatantly in poor taste and done on purpose to spite the faith, or the rules and guidelines in place.
With such a large number of non-Muslim expats in the UAE, does this affect or make it harder for Muslims observing the Holy Month?
It’s great. The more you are kind to others, influence in a good way and act as a good example, the better. It all lies in the manner of which we accept each other and enjoy and tolerate our differences. It may or may not be difficult to abstain from eating and drinking while others around you don’t. It depends on the individual person and that’s where cultural understanding comes in. As we say at the SMCCU, ‘Open doors.
What are iftars and suhoors?
Iftar is the meal to break the fast after sunset. Typically, people will enjoy dates, dried apricots and Ramadan juices, before heading to evening prayer. After that, large meals are the norm, usually with family and friends. Suhoor is a meal taken just before sunrise, before the day of fasting starts. Many hotels host smaller buffets, entertainment and more to celebrate until the small hours of the morning. Turn to page 45 for details of iftar and suhoor feasts across the city.
The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding is a non-profit organisation established to increase awareness and understanding between the various cultures that live in Dubai. It strives to remove barriers between people of different nationalities and raise awareness of the local culture, customs and religion of the UAE. For more information, visit www.cultures.ae.
Don’t miss the Centre’s Ramadan iftar. Held in the courtyard of a traditional wind-tower house in the heart of historic Bastakiya in Bur Dubai, the evening commences after the Athan (call to prayer). Break the fast with your Emirati hosts and enjoy Arabic coffee and dates. Then take a moment to watch your hosts pray, before iftar is served. Guests are invited to ask any questions they may have about Ramadan and the culture or traditions of the UAE. After iftar, you will be invited to visit the Bastakiya Mosque, before returning for dessert and more Arabic coffee.
The event starts approximately 15 minutes before the call to prayer every night from Sunday July 22 until Wednesday August 15. Tickets are Dhs135 per person and under 12s go free. All payments must be made in advance. For further details or to make a booking, call 04 353 6666.
What is Eid and why are there two?
Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha are two celebrations at the end of Ramadan. Eid al-Fitr translates as the ‘festival of breaking the fast’ and happens immediately after Ramadan, with daytime feasts. Family and friends gather in their best clothes, bearing gifts. Expect traffic to increase in the days leading up to this, as people hurry to get new clothes, haircuts, henna and procure all the sweets and ingredients for their feasts. Some even buy new furniture for the occasion. Eid al-Adha translates as the ‘festival of sacrifice’, and that’s just what it is. Traditionally, animals like sheep and goats are slaughtered. It’s roughly 70 days after the end of Ramadan, and celebrates the end of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Both holidays typically last three days.
Watch the firing of the cannon
The firing of the cannon before the breaking of the fast is an important Ramadan tradition in Dubai. Though the practice began in neighbouring Emirate Sharjah in 1803, it was adopted by Dubai in 1912 when the imams were instructed not to call for iftar until they heard the firing of the cannon. The tradition is preserved today, and attracts a sizeable crowd. There are a number of cannons placed around the city, each fired to announce iftar.
The Dubai Police are in charge of firing the cannon before iftar. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 04 269 2222.
Impress your Muslim colleagues, or simply stop a stranger in the street and rattle off a few of these (reasonably) easy to use phrases during Ramadan:
Ramadan mubarak – Blessed Ramadan
Ramadan kareem – Happy/generous Ramadan
Iftar shahy – Have a good iftar
Mubarak aleik al shahr – May you get the blessings of the month
Kil aam wa inta fee kheir – May each year pass and you be well