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The holy month of Ramadan ends tomorrow, and around 1.8 billion people around the world will mark the end of this holiday with a celebration called Eid ul-Fitr – The Festival of Breaking the Fast.

Having had Muslim friends throughout my life, I had always been vaguely aware that Ramadan is a holy month of fasting, but honestly didn’t really know much about the month’s meaning beyond that. Instead of doing some quick Googling online and coming away with a set of dry facts about the holiday, I thought I’d talk to six Muslim friends around the world to get their perspectives on, and experiences of observing Ramadan instead.

I wanted to find out what the significance of the holiday was, both in general and for them personally, how it affected them, what they felt were the most rewarding and challenging parts of observing Ramadan, and if observing in this year’s quarantine was different in any way.

Even though most of us are stuck in lockdown and unable to travel now, it doesn’t mean we need to stop learning about different traditions throughout the world and sharing our cultures with each other.

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Worshippers at Sheik Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, UAE

With that in mind, I reached out to Muslim friends in Dubai, Los Angeles, Cape Town, Cairo, Virginia, and Pune, India, to talk to them about their Ramadan experience. Below are the questions I asked and the experiences they shared of observing Ramadan around the world.

Why is Ramadan Considered The Holy Month?

Let’s start with the basics, because in writing this article I realized I somehow knew even less than I thought I did about observing Ramadan.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, but is celebrated as it is the month that the holy Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel“, explained Michelle from Virginia, whose parents immigrated from Afghanistan.

For many Muslims around the world, Ramadan is a time of prayer, fast, reflection, and community. Those who practice Islam are encouraged to be more compassionate, charitable, abstain from bad habits and vices, and bring themselves closer to Allah.

Aman from India adds, “In the month of Ramzan (as it’s called in India and some other countries) the gates of hell are closed and the gates of heaven are open.”

There is a specific night during Ramadan known as Shab e Qadr (or Laylat al-Qadr) which is considered especially holy. It falls on one of the odd numbered nights in the last ten days of Ramadan. Aman says, “on this night we stay awake to make prayers and Allah accepts all our duas on this night.”

Duas are profound prayers in Islam, mostly prayers asking for forgiveness or favors. “Dua” literally means invocation. Many traditions place Shab e Qadr on the 27th day of Ramadan, but it seems to be a moveable-feast kind of deal.

What Are Your Traditions to Observing Ramadan?

It quickly became clear that everyone observes Ramadan slightly differently. For example, Sara in Dubai says, “I personally don’t fast, but some of my family members do so we used to celebrate its spirit by dressing up and going to each other’s houses (between family and friends) and sharing the Iftar meal together.”

The Iftar meal is the meal eaten after sunset to break the fast, while the Sehri or Suhoor meal (terms vary) is eaten early in the morning before sunrise. There are as many variations in traditional Iftar foods as there are Muslim countries around the world, but one common theme seems to be dates.

Many Muslims break their fast with dates at the table, both because of their religious significance – they are mentioned countless times in the Quran – and perhaps because they’re a good source of energy and nutrients to help blood sugar levels return to normal after a day of fasting.

Do we have enough dates?

Omar, born and raised in Cairo, adds “in my closer circle, there wasn’t much day to day practice – rather a spiritual following that acted as a moral compass. Religion gave us a sense of belonging and tradition, as well as a strong set of ethics and value system. For us, it was not so much meant to be followed to the written word. Ramadan has always been a month to reconnect on a spiritual level, detox, and rebase.”

Shameegh, from Cape Town, South Africa, does fast in accordance with the holiday and works on bettering himself. “I try to be the best version of myself, refrain from crude language, try not to lose my cool, and try to actually feel what those less fortunate than myself go through on a daily basis”.

Pej in Los Angeles, born in Iran, also fasts and spends more time during Ramadan on self-reflection: “I abstain from food, water, and sex from dawn to dusk, but also try to be more aware of my temper and thoughts, more reflective, and more empathetic in general.

There are prayers that must be followed during Ramadan. Aman explains that, “we have to pray five times daily and after the Isha (the last prayer of the day), we also pray Taraweeh which is prayed during Ramzan. I also read the Quran Sharif.” There is no requirement to complete the Quran during Ramada; however, some Muslims choose to study it while they fast.

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Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo at sunset prayer time

Why Do You Fast?

Omar explains that with fasting, “the idea is to exercise your ability to self restrain, be disciplined, and patient. So to put it very simply, feeling real hunger/thirst on a daily basis and not being able to open the fridge and satisfy that need, gives you a real understanding of your blessings and would develop a level of empathy for people who are less fortunate.

Michelle adds, “the main purpose of fasting is to attain something called ‘Taqwa’ or God consciousness. All other acts we do can be for some worldly gain or show. Prayer, for example, you might only do when people are around. When you fast, you are aware that God is always with you.”

The fast is known as Siyam/Sawm in Arabic countries and Roza in non-Arabic countries. It is the fourth of the five pillars of Islam.

Sidenote: I quickly realized in speaking to Muslims around the world that there are countless spelling and even word variations for terms used during Ramadan, due in part to Islam’s far-reaching spread among countries with different languages and writing systems.

What I’m saying is, there are definitely at least 3-4 different ways to say the terms I am saying in this article, so if you find yourself thinking, “I actually think it’s spelled like this“…yes, it’s probably spelled like that as well. I wanted to include all possible terms and spellings but quickly realized this post would devolve into an endless forest of hyphens and forward slashes, so I picked a couple of variations and ran with them.

What About Those Who Don’t Fast?

Muslims generally start fasting around the age they hit puberty, though this is defined differently in different cultures. Some start as young as seven – Omar, for example, did fast from the time he was eight – while the latest age seems to be around 12.

Even after that age, some Muslims are exempt from fasting in Ramadan. This group includes those who are old, ill, pregnant, menstruating, or have other health problems that would put them in danger if they fasted.

So what do those who don’t fast do instead?

Well, both Muslims who fast and those who don’t are encouraged to give donations to the poor, hungry, and disabled, as well as other groups in need. This form of charitable transfer is known as zakat. Those who don’t fast are encouraged to give even more donations throughout the month of Ramadan.

Zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam, in addition to fasting, prayer, pilgrimage, and profession of faith. It requires Muslims who are eligible to donate at least 2.5% of their acquired wealth to those in need.

For example, Pej, whose father can’t fast anymore, explains that his dad makes daily donations in lieu of fasting.

Though many charitable donations that fall under zakat are private transfers between individuals, and therefore hard to gauge, UNDP estimated that the amount of zakat-giving worldwide falls between $200 billion to $1 trillion.

Tell Me More About the Significance of Ramadan For You

Aman from India explains that though fasting is the most known aspect of observing Ramadan that outsiders are aware of, “fasting not only means to stay on an empty stomach but also the Roza is of the eyes so that we should not see any wrong with our eyes, for our ears so we should not listen to any wrong, and for our mouth so we should not say any bad or vulgar thing.”

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Sun setting over Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

Omar emphasizes that, “Going through the experience for a prolonged period of time gives a deeper appreciation for those pleasures that we often take for granted on a daily basis. Ramadan is a month of giving. So there is a lot of charity and support for others. “

Michelle spoke a lot as well about the importance of charity and compassion, while trying to avoid bad deeds altogether during Ramadan. As she beautifully put it, “God says he is not in need of your hunger or thirst if you continue to use foul language and commit bad deeds”. In other words, if you just fast but don’t focus at all on the spiritual, charitable, reflective nature of Ramadan, there’s not much of a point to fasting.

Omar actually pointed out that this does happen sometimes and misses the point of Ramadan. Some people will “tend to sleep all day and then overeat, which defeats the purpose.”

So in basic terms, the point of fasting is somewhat lost if you’re just finding a way to work around it. Instead, Muslims are supposed to utilize the awareness fasting brings them, and accompany it with self-improvement, reflection, and spiritual connection. Shameegh agrees, as Ramadan for him is all about “drawing closer to your creator”.

How Does Observing Ramadan Affect You Personally?

Pej shared, “my mind slows down, my body slows down, and I become more introspective. I’m very aware of the things I now can’t have due to fasting, which makes me more empathetic to people who don’t have those things in general in life“.

In the answers I got, it became obvious that the fasting and spiritual aspects of observing Ramadan were meant to reinforce one another, as fasting served to clear the mind and in a way, make more room for reflection, prayer, and empathy.

Arabic writing in Old Town Dubai – as Arabic is the language of the prophet, Muslims are encouraged to read and speak it

Shameegh also spoke of the spiritual effect of Ramadan, saying “I think it most definitely does affect one emotionally because you feel the hunger pangs, and a definite physical change occurs because your body goes through a detox process. You’re forced in a way to call upon your creator to help you through this time.

Almost everyone I spoke to who observes the fast experienced both physical and mental effects. However, even those who didn’t or couldn’t observe the fast experienced some personal changes, especially in feeling more appreciative in their lives and closer to their loved ones and community.

How Does Ramadan Affect Life in a Muslim Majority Country?

Michelle recounts, “I heard many stories from my mom about how she celebrated back home [in Afghanistan]. People were off from work, always gathering with family to break fast together and sharing food, giving food to the poor.”

In many Muslim countries, especially those with big expat populations, or international business centers, things still do shift during Ramadan, but not as drastically, it seems.

In Dubai for example, Sara says, “opening hours in malls and some other stores are different here; they open up later and shut down earlier.” Omar adds that things are similar in Egypt, with opening hours for offices, government services, and some shops shifted a couple of hours later while also closing earlier. This allows people to get a good breakfast in before sunrise (and for most, a couple of hours of sleep after as well, as many wake up very early to eat the Suhoor meal), and then have time in the afternoon to prepare for Iftar.

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The Arabian Tea House in Dubai – many shops shift opening hours during Ramadan in Muslim countries

In other Muslim majority countries, such as Morocco, it can be hard to find many restaurants or cafes open in non-tourist areas. Those that are open will serve non-Muslims.

However, I wouldn’t recommend eating your big delicious lunch in front of people who have been fasting all day. Whether you don’t practice or can’t observe the fast for health reasons, it’s considered polite to not eat in front of those who are fasting.

During Quarantine, Was Observing Ramadan Different?

Michelle had a very unique Ramadan experience in quarantine due to her job. “The one thing for me that really sticks out this Ramadan is that even prior to Ramadan, our mouths were covered due to the mask. I’m a physician’s assistant and though we don’t see COVID patients, we do wear surgical masks through our workday to prevent exposure. Due to the mask, I was not really eating or drinking throughout the day even before. So this Ramadan, we are trying to be more charitable than usual, send out some care packages to neighbors and asking our neighbors to see if anyone needs anything. We also have been using FaceTime to see family and make group prayers and instead of going to the mosque, we have started to pray in unity as a family”.

Even though observing Ramadan in lockdown brings with it the downside of not being able to go to mosque and friends’ and family homes during the holiday, it makes it easier to spend quality time with family (providing you’re quarantined with them).

Shameegh emphasized this family and spiritual aspect of a quarantined Ramadan. He noted, “the fact that we’re in lockdown does sort of put a damper on things but it’s kind of a good thing because it actually gives you time to do some soul searching and reflect on how you could change for the better and it makes you appreciate your family so much more.”

Pej, who is quarantined away from family, adds, “I was worried that Ramadan would be difficult because of quarantine – not having your mind distracted during the day by work and people – but it ended up going quite smoothly.

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Sunset over Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi

What’s the Most Challenging Part of Ramadan For You?

It’s currently winter in Cape Town, where Shameegh lives. For him, one of the challenges is that, “even though the day is not long, you feel cold and hunger on a higher level in winter.”

In fact, Muslims around the world start and break their fast at different times. Fasting occurs in accordance with the local sunrise and sunset times. So, for example, someone who practices Islam in Oslo at this time of year (May, as I write) has way fewer hours available to eat and a much longer fast than someone who practices in South Africa.

Challenges, especially in 2020, are not only physical though. As Pej says, “physically, the biggest challenge is definitely abstaining from water; emotionally, it’s not being able to break my fast with family and friends this year due to quarantine”.

What’s the Most Rewarding Part of Ramadan For You?

Everyone agreed that the best parts of observing Ramadan are the feeling of community it engenders, the closer ties that are forged between family and friends coming together to break the fast, and the feeling of religious connection as well as the peace of self-reflection and self-improvement that many Muslims experience this month.

Sara says, “for us, it’s a time of the year that brings us all together, regardless of our busy lives, and it enforces our appreciation towards one another and what we have in life.” As Omar added, “It’s customary that people host each other almost on a daily basis to break fast together”.

Michelle spoke happily about the spiritual aspect, saying, “honestly this is my favorite time of year. There’s a difference in the air, everything feels so much more pure. I really feel it’s both a physical and spiritual cleanse”.

As you can see, for Muslims around the world, Ramadan is more than just a set of rules for fasting. It’s a deeply personal, spiritual, and reflective experience. A time of year that brings Muslims all over the world closer together as they observe.

Muslims around the world may experience observing Ramadan to lesser or higher degrees. Regardless of how strictly they fast or not, the month retains its meaning of spiritual importance for most.

So tomorrow, when Ramadan ends, be sure to wish your Muslims friends Eid Mubarak as they celebrate the end of the holy month and the breaking of their fast!

Do you observe Ramadan? If so, feel free to comment about your experience below! If not, what surprised you most in this post about the holiday?