Q&A Guide for Non-Muslims during their first Ramadan
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.
This guide was first published in 2015 and we have been updating it annually with changes that residents & visitors should be aware of.
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 2019 Ramadan will fall over May/June – approaching the hottest time of the year in the Middle East though no longer fulling over the peak of summer. 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 2020, we expect Ramadan to commence on or about 23 April 2020.
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 some shopping malls are closed until dusk. All hotels will have curtained off areas where guests can still dine throughout the day.
[PLEASE NOTE: we saw massive changes towards the end of Ramadan in 2019 whereby the municipality ordered all stores serving food to remove the curtains and blackouts and freely serve non-fasting customers. This came as quite a shock to both Muslims and non-Muslims. We are yet to confirm if this will be a permanent shift and the legality of eating and drinking in public will be removed as Ramadan moves into prime tourism season – watch this space!]
*** Issues will be further complicated in 2020 with Covid-19 restrictions on establishments which are allowed to open. We expect many will remain shut throughout the entire month due to health restrictions, rather than Ramadan directives**
A reliable source of daytime dining options for many years has been the fabulous FooDiva who has these great listing for Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Increasingly, Friday Brunch is also continuing in Dubai during Ramadan, check out this listing by Mr & Mrs Brunch.
In the privacy of your own home, you can do as you please. However, 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 will still be undertaking distance learning in 2020; We await news if teaching hours will be adjusted due to Ramadan]
Schools will also start later and finish earlier, opening hours will be advised by individual schools but are normally restricted to a maximum of 6 hour days.
After school clubs are variable depending on who is operating them. Times may be adjusted or they may stop completely.
For younger children who attend nursery or playgroups, 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 breastfeeding, 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 neighbours 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 for a new day, again many hotels also provide suhoor.
Other things to be mindful of during Ramadan
Ramadan is not only about food, for Muslims, but it is also 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 and Fujairah resorts, for example, can still serve food and drinks during the day. Enquire on a case by case basis, this is one area that has changed significantly over the eight Ramadan’s we’ve personally experienced.
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 you 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 daytime 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 23 May 2020
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”. Arafat Day falls first, on the second day of Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca – the 9th Day of Dhu Al Hijja on the Hijri calendar. This is immediately followed by Eid al-Adha 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 to four-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 Arafat day is due to occur on 30 August and Eid al-Adha is due to commence 31 July 2020
Looking to take a short escape over the Eid breaks? Check out this guide to Eid Vacations
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 bear 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). But do see our note above that rules seem to be changing. Restaurants no longer appear to need licences to serve during Ramadan or to blackout windows so this brings into question the validity of this law.
More resources for Ramadan
- Visiting Qatar during Ramadan? Jump over to Wandermust Family former expats in Doha who have prepared a similar guide on expectations during Ramadan for visitors.
- Expat Tone from The Other Trail shares ways that non-Muslims can still get involved and enjoy Ramadan in Oman.
- Think of visiting Jordan? Guide-2-Jordan have this fabulous list of do’s and don’ts to guide you through visiting during the Holy Month.
- 6 Children’s books about Ramadan thanks to InCultureParent.
- Want to involve your kids in Ramadan crafts, customs and activities?
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, Abu Dhabi’s Best Indoor Activities our Mega list of 100+ things to do in the UAE!
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