What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the Islamic holy month. Its exact dates are dependent upon the lunar-based Islamic calendar and the sighting of the new crescent moon over Mecca, which means it moves back 10 or 11 days each year.
Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. This means that from the pre-dawn prayer (Fajr) to the sunset one (Maghrib) Muslims may not eat, drink, smoke, or have sex.
This month is meant to allow more time for prayer and focus on God as well as studying the holy Qur’an. The fasting also reminds people of the suffering of others and of the importance of charity. Many Muslims focus on family during this time, with loved ones gathering each evening to break the fast together.
The ‘rules’ for Muslims:
- Every Muslim is expected to fast, which means no eating, drinking, smoking, or sexual activity from pre-dawn till dusk, not even water. Right now, at the beginning of Ramadan in Oman this amounts to almost 15 hours of fasting.
- Muslims are fined if they are caught doing any of these things in public.
- There are exceptions: children, the elderly, and the severely mentally ill are not expected to fast. However, the elderly are required to give a meal to a needy person for every day of fasting that they skip.
- Those who are sick, breastfeeding, pregnant, or menstruating are also exempt, but they are expected to ‘make up’ the missed fasting days before the next year’s Ramadan.
- There’s another exception for those on a journey of more than 50kms from their homes, but I feel like this is left over from the days when people traveled by camel out in the heat rather than in comfortable air-conditioned cars. Anyone who breaks their fast for a journey also has to fast at another time to make up the days they missed.
The ‘rules’ for me:
- I also cannot eat or drink (or smoke, but I don’t anyway) in public. However, I read that as a foreigner, I will not be fined if I do. I would expect some glares and probably a good talking-to though. And really, knowing what the Muslims are doing, I’d be a real asshole if I started eating or drinking in front of them.
- I should dress even more conservatively than usual. I haven’t changed much though, because I already stay pretty covered up here! The only thing is that I’ve been making sure to cover my arms a little more than normal.
So what happens during Ramadan in Oman?
The morning meal (Suhur) must be finished by the Fajr call to prayer, which in Sohar today is at 4:01am. This means people get up around 3:30, most have a light meal of fruit, milk, and maybe rice, plus a few glasses of water. Then they pray, and they go back to bed.
On weekdays they’ll get up at whatever time is necessary for work or their children, and go about their day as normal, possibly with a long nap after work. On weekends they might sleep in quite late, as there is nothing else to do and the lack of food makes one tired! Most people tend to refrain from any kind of strenuous activity.
The hour or so before sunset is the worst time to be out on the streets. Everyone is rushing home for Iftar, and you’ve got people driving who haven’t had a bite of food or anything to drink since before 4am, and probably also haven’t had a whole lot of sleep. Let’s just say their reaction times probably aren’t at their best.
The fast is broken with Iftar (literally break fast) after the Maghrib call to prayer (6:47pm today) with a small snack of three dates, maybe some fruit, and milk or laban (a yogurt drink). Then they go to pray and return to the table for a much larger meal.
Night is the active time during Ramadan. After satisfying their bellies, families go shopping or visiting friends, and this is the time when the streets are busiest with cars, people, and even kids on bikes.
How does it affect me as a non-Muslim?
- My work day has been shortened to six hours instead of eight! This would be wonderful if it was winter, but now it’s basically too hot to be outside and not much is open during the day, so I’m catching up on blog stuff, trip planning, and Netflix. Although I have to say, it is going to be an adjustment when I have to go back to staying at work until 4 o’clock instead of leaving at two!
- There is far less traffic on my way to work, because I start at 8 and most people are starting at 9! It’s great!
- I can go do my grocery shopping at Iftar time and be guaranteed that the store and the streets will be very quiet!
- Not eating or drinking in public can get difficult. It’s hot out and I have to plan carefully. Last year when I went to the mall I made regular bathroom visits so I could have a drink of water, or hid in my car in a dark corner of the parking lot and took sips when no one was around.
- The school cafeteria is closed, so I have to pack a lunch. (I know, poor me…)
- At work I can’t have tea or water at my desk; I go to the small kitchen around the corner from my office and eat and drink in there with the door closed. Shortened working hours means there isn’t always much of a lunchtime scheduled, or if there is it might be at 10:30am! I just end up snacking at various times throughout the day, as well as when I get home.
- There isn’t much to do. Restaurants, cafes, and food courts are not open during the day. Museums and other cultural attractions are also closed. Combined with the hot weather, weekends are spent inside and generally at home. Good thing I’m never bored!
- There is no alcohol available. Even bars at fancy hotels are closed (with the odd exception, but not here in Sohar) and the booze shop staff went on holiday for a month! I don’t drink all that much these days anyway, so no bother but I know people who are looking forward to stocking up their supply again!
- Everyone is working shorter hours, which could get inconvenient if you want to run errands or sort out any documentation. So far this has not been a problem for me, as my paperwork was done long ago and most things I’d need are open in the evening after Iftar.
I was thinking I’d try fasting just for a day, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t make it an entire 15 hours. I’m fairly confident I could handle not eating – I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I could do it – but I need water! I get headaches very quickly if I get a little bit dehydrated, and I know if I went from 4am without water I’d have a raging headache by noon, and it would take a couple of days to recover. I honestly don’t know how people go all day without anything. I guess your body gets used to it after a few days, but it’s still pretty impressive.
A friend here said to me that it’s a choice; that Muslims don’t have to fast but make the decision to do so. I don’t see it that way though. If you are a Muslim in Oman it is simply expected that you will fast, as it is one of the pillars of Islam and as a good Muslim why wouldn’t you? It seems to me that there is a fair bit of societal pressure to do so, not to mention the consequences of not fasting on one’s relationship with God. It’s serious self-discipline and a huge commitment, yes, but a choice, not so much.
So when does Ramadan in Oman end? When the next crescent moon is sighted, this year tentatively June 14, the festival of Eid-Al-Fitr is celebrated with new clothes, special prayers, visits to family and friends, and of course a ton of food. Then life will go back to normal until Ramadan next year.
Where have you experienced Ramadan? Was it similar to this, or different? Tell me about it in the comments!