One of the big areas of concern some visitors and newcomers to the UAE have is the observance of the holy month of Ramadan.
It can be a confusing time if you are new to Islam and have never experienced Ramadan before. No one wants to deliberately offend anyone in their host country so there are just a few things we can do as visitors and expats to show respect and understanding at this time of year.
Here’s our Ramadan Q&A Guide for Families
(Though equally all visitors and residents alike might find this advice helpful!)
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the 9th month of the lunar calendar. One of the five Acts of Worship (or “Pillars”) of Islam is fasting during this holy month. Muslims must abstain from eating and drinking (among other things) between sunrise and sunset to teach themselves self-awareness, patience and tolerance. It is said the soul is purified of evil influence and a person’s faith in Allah becomes stronger.
Following the Hijri calendar, the start date of Ramadan is approximately 10 days earlier each year on the Gregorian calendar. In 2017 Ramadan will fall over May/June – approaching the hottest time of the year in the Middle East – and the longest days. The exact start date is confirmed by the moon sighting committee.
(We will update here when the moon sighting committee have confirmed exact dates for 2017, we expect Ramadan to commence on or about 26 May).
What do non-Muslims need to observe?
Expats and visitors are responsible for making sure there is a suitable environment for Muslims to observe Ramadan. Although you are not expected to join in with the fasting, you must show respect to those who are through your conduct and make sure your family members understand and are aware of what is expected.
Accordingly, eating, drinking and smoking in public by adults is prohibited. This is not to say you can’t get a feed during the day, in fact, an increasing number of establishments are now open for either take away only or dining in is permitted behind blacked out windows so that any consumption cannot be seen. You will find food courts and coffee shops in shopping malls are closed until dusk. All hotels will have curtained off areas where guests can still dine throughout the day.
Finding out exactly which establishments are open during the day is a bit of a world of mouth game. Visitors should ask their hotel concierge, people living here will find some details listed in local papers and magazines or Facebook social groups.
This year’s most comprehensive listing I have found has been prepared by British Mums – including restaurants, food courts, theme parks & soft plays.
In the privacy of your own home you can do as you please, but be mindful of what is private, eg can you still be seen on a balcony or in your yard? NB Inside your car out on the road is not considered private.
What about children observing Ramadan?
Younger children, especially those under six years old are not expected to participate in fasting. Pre-pubescent children between seven and 12 years old may start to observe fasting for short periods at a time. On reaching puberty participation by all Muslims (some exceptions I’ll mention below) is required.
Now that Ramadan falls over school term time, it’s important that school students of all ages understand and respect fasting. Non-Muslim children are by no means asked to participate but they may be asked to eat their lunch in a designated area of the school. Schools may also start later and finish earlier, opening hours will be advised by individual schools. (As an example my daughter’s school will be open 9am to 1.30pm).
For younger children who attend nursery of play groups, you should see no change, though hours may be reduced. You should freely be able to feed a young child when they are hungry and dress them as appropriate for the weather.
Are there any other exceptions to fasting?
There are several circumstances under which a Muslim can be exempted from fasting, including if you are pregnant, diabetic, breastfeeding, menstruating, sick or of old age; the basic premise is you should not participate if it’s detrimental to your health.
For a non-Muslim who is pregnant or breast feeding, you should still avoid eating or drinking in public, likewise for children between six and 12 years, it may be allowed but even Muslims will do this in a discreet and private way so as not to offend others.
If you are travelling through one of the country’s major international airports, you will see full food services operating as there are exemptions for travellers (although Muslims travelling will need to make up any days while travelling later on).
What is Iftar & Suhoor?
Iftar is literally the breaking of the fast, the meal taken immediately after sunset. This is a time for families to come together and eat a meal, usually an immediate snack of water and dates is taken before prayers, followed by a large meal. Many of the hotels in the UAE now put together quite extravagant Iftar buffets and open Ramadan dining tents. You may be invited to join these celebrations with friends and neighbors and it is polite to accept, you can, of course, attend one of these on your own to join in the experience.
Suhoor is the meal taken immediately before sunrise and fasting commences, again many hotels also provide suhoor.
Other things to be mindful of during Ramadan
Ramadan is not only about food, for Muslims, it is about abstention – including tobacco, sex, music – and tolerance.
Appropriate dress standard must be observed in public (much more stringently enforced than usual). All grown-ups (including teens) should be dressed conservatively and look to have arms and legs covered in public – and certainly avoiding bathers, cleavage and tight clothing; this is not the month to book your bikini-clad hotel resort retreat. (That said some Emirates are more lax than others, within the resort itself – Ras Al Khaimah resorts for example can still serve food and drinks dring the day).
Hold fire on any public displays of affection, avoid kissing, even hand holding between grown-ups (with your child is fine).
In that hour or so before sunset and Iftar, the patience of many is strongly tested and you may experience some erratic driving. Best to steer clear of the roads, and if going for your evening meal, be mindful of letting others who might need it more go before you (I did notice last year food courts started opening pre-Iftar).
It is a time for peace and giving, so try to avoid shouting and anger, and especially no rude words or gestures.
Most workplaces will modify working hours throughout the holy month to accommodate the needs of those fasting. You may also find shops have very different opening times, with many closed all day and open through most of the night. Major supermarkets and Malls can even be open 24 hours a day! You should have no problem finding an open supermarket throughout the day for groceries; you obviously just cannot consume anything until your get home.
Government departments do continue to operate throughout Ramadan but expect things to slow down with reduced working hours. If you are waiting for Visas or the like to be processed this may be impacted.
What is Eid?
To prevent any confusion there are two Eid celebrations!
Eid al-fitr is the festival of the breaking of the fast, occurring immediately after Ramadan. It is a time of festivities and day time feasts for Muslim families, also when people will dress in their new Eid clothes, ladies will have their hair and henna done and gift-giving occurs among other celebrations. It is a very busy time in the country, and also a public holiday – usually three days but for Government departments this may be extended to a week.
See this full account of what to expect at Eid-ul-Fitr by guest blogger Zeyna. Eid al-fitr is likely to commence on 25 June 2017
Charity or Zakat, another of the five pillars of Islam is considered very important during Eid celebrations, giving and thoughtfulness to those less fortunate. You may see a number of white tents popping up all over town even before Ramadan starts, these are for making donations to the needy – it can be a good way to get your children involved in Ramadan and understand the importance of giving.
Eid al-Adha which is approximately 70 days after the end of Ramadan, literally translates to “the festival of the sacrifice”. It marks the end of Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Animals such as sheep or goats are sacrificed and tradition dictates a third is eaten by the family, a third given to relatives and friends and a third given to the needy. This is another three-day public holiday though can be extended to a week also for Government departments and schools (always announced very last minute).
Zeyna has also provided us with this account of what Eid-ul-Adha means to her family here in the UAE. This year Eid al-Adha is due to commence on 1 September 2017.
It’s all about respect
Whilst for non-Muslim expats Ramadan can be a difficult and perhaps confusing time of year (and many will exit the country during this time) it is a time of year that Muslim’s I have spoken to genuinely look forward to. You may find this is actually a more culturally enriching time to visit the country – though bare in mind much is shut during the day.
Remember to park any opinions you may have about whether it is “right” or “healthy” or any other beliefs contrary to the Pillars of Islam; whether you are a visitor or an expatriate resident, you are a guest and these are the rules that must be observed.
Anyone caught eating, drinking, smoking or generally being disrespectful could find themselves being fined or arrested if they do not heed warnings. (Maximum fine is 2,000dhs or 1-month imprisonment).
For a guide on what to expect in neighbouring Qatar during Ramadan, jump over to Wandermust Family – fellow expats in Doha who have prepared a guide to what’s on and expectations during Ramadan for visitors.
For more family-friendly advice on visiting the UAE with kids, come check out our Visitors Guide and see our extensive range of activities compiled with UAE family bloggers on Pinterest. We also have a new guide to cultural activities in the UAE.
If you are new to the UAE and looking what to do over summer, especially during Ramadan, come check out our Summer Survival Guide and our Mega list of 100+ things to do in the UAE!