Our Guide to Ramadan Around The World
As the holy month of Ramadan is currently underway we thought we’d provide a guide to Ramadan Around the World for those of you travelling in Islamic countries over the next four weeks.
Our Guide to Ramadan Around the World
Ramadan is observed in diverse ways in different Islamic countries and Muslim communities across the planet, however, one thing that is common that can be challenging for travellers is the daily fasting from dawn to sunset.
Here’s our guide as to how to cope as much as how to enjoy Ramadan around the world. It’s based on almost a decade of experience living in and travelling around the Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East and North Africa, and other countries with Muslim communities.
Ramadan in United Arab Emirates and Arabian Peninsula countries
In our former homes of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, and the other surrounding Arabian Peninsula countries such as Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman, Ramadan is a very devout period of religious observance for Muslims with strict guidelines for everyone, non-Muslim and Muslim alike, despite expats comprising sizeable percentages of the populations (some 80% of the UAE population is foreign).
The days are quiet with no eating, drinking, smoking, or intimate contact allowed in public, the only exceptions being pregnant women, the elderly, ill and children. There are considerably shorter office, school and university hours, and Muslims spend much of their time in prayer.
Many restaurants close during the day, not opening until Iftar — some restaurants and bars even close for the month — although hotels will always have restaurants reserved for tourists. Live music other than traditional oud music is also planned, so dance clubs close. While many restaurants in the UAE don’t serve alcohol during Ramadan, there are also many that do. However, in Doha, no restaurants offer alcohol during the holy month.
On the positive aside, evenings take on a festive air, with hotels holding special Iftar buffets and Ramadan tents set up for the month. Expats who have worked in the countries for years and have Muslim colleagues and friends relish the nightly Ramadan rituals.
Everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, head to the fancy five star hotels for Iftar to sit in the gardens and courtyards decorated with fairy lights, peacefully listening to an oud player while they puff on fragrant sheesha pipes.
Eid al Fitr, the three-day celebration at the end of Ramadan, is a festival with a lively, family-focused, party spirit. Gulf Arabs buy sweets and gifts for loved ones, women get their hands decorated with henna, and they spend the Eid visiting family and friends.
Ramadan in Egypt and the Levant
Ramadan days are spent in much the same way in Egypt and the Levant (Lebanon, Jordan and Syria) as they are in other Islamic countries during Ramadan around the world — they begin with sohour, the early morning meal before the dawn prayer, and end with Iftar, the breaking of the fast after sunset prayer.
As in the Arabian Peninsula countries, Muslims in Egypt and the Levant work shorter hours and spend some time of each day in prayer and quietly reading the Quran. They make an effort to live piously, refraining from eating and drinking during the day, and giving up smoking for the entire holy month.
After dark, Ramadan nights in Egypt and the Levant, as in the Arabian Gulf, take on a festive spirit, with delicious long meals shared amongst family and friends, evenings passed by watching entertaining quiz shows and dramatic Ramadan serials on the television, and late nights spent very leisurely with loved-ones and friends.
The main difference is that the code of conduct expected for Non-Muslims and visitors is more relaxed in Egypt and the Levant than in the Arabian Gulf countries.
I will never forget being in Syria one Ramadan and exploring the streets of the old town in Damascus… we passed by a baker who was pulling a tray of piping hot bread from an oven. Spotting us, he passed us a piece, insisting we try it. I discretely did and it was delicious. That wouldn’t have happened in the UAE or elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula.
Ramadan in Morocco
Ramadan in Morocco doesn’t have the same festive atmosphere during Ramadan until Eid begins. Ramadan nights are not necessarily longer and evenings are often spent quietly at home.
While Moroccan Muslims still fast and pray during the day, due to the huge number of foreign tourists in Morocco and large communities of foreign residents, the rules for eating, drinking and smoking for non-Muslims are much more relaxed than elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.
During the day, work hours are only slightly shorter in government departments and banks, while those working in tourism might work as long as they normally would.
Eid, however, is when the place really comes alive. Moroccans travel from all over the country to spend the national holiday with their loved-ones (it’s not a good time to travel — trains and buses are packed), dress in their smartest clothes, visit family and friends, and feast every day.
Ramadan in India
India is unique in that the country boasts large populations of devout Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, as well as Muslims. Yet the holy month is still observed by Muslims in accordance with the Islamic calendar and follows the strict guidelines that other Islamic countries follow during Ramadan around the world.
In India, Muslims also fast from sunrise to sunset, perform prayer — known as ‘namaz’ — five times daily, give alms to the poor, and abstain from eating and drinking during the day.
One main difference lies in the food eaten for Iftar and during Eid, with the most popular dish served at the mosques and at home being ‘ghangui’, a soup comprised of meat and rice, which is thickened with flour.
Eid, which takes on a festive atmosphere, as it does everywhere, involves traditional meals and Indian sweets being shared. It’s also a national holiday, which often comes as a surprise to many foreigners, considering the country’s diverse religious make-up.
Ramadan in Malaysia and Indonesia
Ramadan is the most important holiday in the Muslim countries of Malaysia and Indonesia and is observed in similar ways. As both nations boast populations comprised of other religions, have substantial expat populations, and tourism is an important industry, the rules of Ramadan aren’t as strictly enforced as they are in the Middle East.
Unlike the Arabian Gulf countries, for instance, there are no requirements for non-Muslims to refrain from eating and drinking in public and alcohol is still served in restaurants and bars. Most tourists wouldn’t even know it was Ramadan, if it wasn’t for the lively late afternoon bazaars set up in towns and cities with Muslim communities across the countries.
Whereas the final days of Ramadan are very quiet in many Islamic countries, with Muslims feeling the strain of a month of fasting and late nights, in Indonesia and Malaysia there’s a festive atmosphere. In the week before Eid — called Hari Raya Puasa or ‘Hari Raya’ (Celebration Day) for short in Malaysia, and Idul Fitri in Indonesia — Muslims head to the Ramadan bazaars and malls to buy food and gifts for family and friends.
For the smaller Muslim populations in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Singapore, the holy month is observed in similar ways but on a more low-key scale.
Ramadan in Australia
A very multicultural country, Australia has a sizeable Muslim population. One of the biggest differences in how Ramadan is observed by Muslims in Australia is the food eaten for Iftar, the breaking of the fast, and Eid al Fitr, the three-day celebration at the end of Ramadan.
As Australian Muslims come from diverse backgrounds, the food eaten is equally as diverse with buffet-like meals boasting dishes from an array of countries on the same table. The only common thread will be that the dishes are halal, that pork in recipes is replaced with beef or chicken, and there’s no alcohol in sauces.
Recipes evolve as tastes change over generations, making the offerings even more unusual now than ever. It’s not uncommon to find Arabic dishes from the Middle East or North Africa served alongside dishes of European or Asian origin on the same table — and even on the same plate.
Travellers won’t be affected by Ramadan at all in Australia.
Tips for Travel During Ramadan
- If you’re travelling to a Muslim country during Ramadan do some research to find out what the rules are and what conduct is acceptable and what’s not. Good hotels will provide this information.
- Dress modestly and refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and behaving intimately in public places. Even if you’re in a Muslim country with relaxed rules, it’s only common courtesy to be considerate and respectful.
- Appreciate that it may be difficult to find restaurants open during the day in some places, although in more tourist focused destinations such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Muscat and so on, hotels will have restaurants for non-Muslims that have been closed off with screens or curtains so that you can eat and drink without being visible.
- Understand that alcohol may not be on sale during Ramadan. In some places, bars and clubs are closed for the month of Ramadan and some hotels will empty mini bars. If they’re important, check these things when booking.
- If you can’t do without an alcoholic drink, buy duty free before leaving your home airport and/or book yourself into a decent five star hotel, as they’re more likely to keep the mini bar stocked.
- If you can’t go without food or water during the day, as you will have to if travelling in some Arabian Peninsula countries, perhaps postpone your trip until after Ramadan.
- Take care crossing the road, especially before the breaking of the fast at the end of each day when people are in a hurry to get home and driving can be a bit erratic.
- Time your days carefully — if you’re in the Arabian Gulf countries, take it easy during the day and chill out by the hotel swimming pool, and head out after dark when the locals do.
- Wherever you are, don’t miss a Ramadan bazaar or Iftar experience, and make sure you get to a Ramadan tent to quietly puff on sheesha and listen to some live oud.
- Greet Muslims with ‘Ramadam Kareem!’
Have you experienced Ramadan before? If you live in a Muslim country, would you recommend non-Muslims visit during the holy month? What’s special about Ramadan in the place that you live in? If you’ve travelled during Ramadan, do you have any tips for travellers? Please feel free to share in the comments below.
UPDATED June 2016