As the holy month of Ramadan is currently underway we thought we’d provide a guide for those of you travelling this month as to how this month of dawn to sunset fasting is observed in diverse ways in different Islamic countries and Muslim communities around the world.
As we’ve just spent time in Australia, we thought we’d start here. 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 during Eid al Fitr, the three-day celebration at the end of Ramadan. As Australian Muslims come from such diverse backgrounds and there is occasionally inter-marriage between different cultures, 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 used in a sauces. Recipes also develop as tastes change over generations, making the offerings even more unusual. It’s therefore not uncommon to find Arabic dishes served alongside ‘Australian’ dishes of European or Asian dishes on the one table – and even on the same plate! Travellers won’t be affected by Ramadan at all in Australia.
Malaysia and Indonesia
Ramadan is one of the most important holidays in Malaysia and Indonesia and is observed in similar ways in the two southern Asian countries. While both are Muslim nations, their populations are comprised of other religions, with substantial expat populations, and tourism is an important industry to both countries, so 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 Ramadan bazaars that are 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, a festive atmosphere starts to take shape in the week before Eid – called Hari Raya Puasa or ‘Hari Raya’ (Celebration Day) for short in Malaysia, and Idul Fitri in Indonesia – with Muslims heading to the Ramadan bazaars and malls to buy food and gifts for family and friends.
United Arab Emirates and the Arabian Gulf countries
In the Arabian Gulf countries, 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 (eg. 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 spent much of their time spent in prayer. Many restaurants close during the day, not opening until Iftar – some even close for the month – although hotels will always have restaurants reserved for tourists. In Qatar, for instance, restaurants won’t serve alcohol during Ramadan. On the plus 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 the nightly Ramadan rituals and it’s usual for everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, to 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 itself turns into a festival, with a lively 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.
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 – beginning with sohour, the early morning meal before the dawn prayer, and ending with iftar, the breaking of the fast after sunset prayer. Muslims 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, however, Ramadan nights take on a more festive spirit than they do in many other Islamic countries, 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 codes of conduct for Non-Muslims and visitors are a little more relaxed than they are in the Arabian Gulf countries.
Morocco, by contrast, doesn’t boast the same festive atmosphere during Ramadan until Eid begins. During Ramadan, the nights are not necessarily longer and evenings are spent quietly at home. While 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 more relaxed. 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.
India is unique in that the country boasts large populations of devout Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs, as well as Muslims, and yet the month of Ramadan is still observed in accordance with the Islamic calendar, following its strict guidelines. 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. The 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, with traditional Indian sweets being shared, is a national holiday, which often comes as a surprise to many foreigners, considering the country’s diverse religious make-up.
* if you’re travelling to a Muslim country during Ramadan, do a little research to find out what the rules are and what conduct is acceptable and what isn’t. While some travellers don’t mind going without food or water during the day (as they will if sightseeing in the Arabian Gulf countries), some do, so you don’t want Ramadan to spoil your holiday.
* if you can’t do without a drink during Ramadan, make sure you buy duty free before leaving your country and book yourself into a decent five star hotel if it’s within your budget, as they’re more likely to keep the mini-bar stocked than not. Check these things when booking if they’re important.
* 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 the Ramadan bazaars, an Iftar buffet experience, and make sure you get along to a Ramadan tent to puff on some sheesha and listen to oud.
* even if you’re in a Muslim country with relaxed rules, do behave considerately and respectfully: dress modestly and refrain from eating, drinking and behaving intimately around Muslims.