Ramadan around the world
* This report initially published in 29 July, 2014
According to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, almost 25 percent of the world’s population is Muslim. Although most people tend to associate Islam with the Middle East and North Africa, the large majority of Muslims do not live in this region. Given that it’s the birthplace of Islam, the spot of much religiously-inspired violence, and has the highest proportion of Muslims per capita, it’s certainly not wrong to view Islam through the lens of the Middle East.
However, Islam is not defined by any one region, and to appreciate its diversity, one has to look at around the world. One can look at the United Kingdom, which has more Muslims than Lebanon, or China, which has more Muslims than Syria and about the same number as Yemen. Or one can compare the practices of Muslims living in Europe, who make up only six percent of the continent’s population, to those of the Middle East and North Africa, where 93 percent of the population adheres to the Islamic faith.
One could also compare the influence of pre-Islamic religions on the lives of Muslims in South and Southeast Asia, where more than three-fifths of all Muslims live, to that of the Middle East. Ramadan, the ninth and holiest month in the Islamic calendar, is the perfect time to observe Islam in all its diversity. For four weeks, about 1.6 billion Muslims from around the globe observe one of the five pillars of their religion, fasting from sunrise to sunset. Why they fast, when they fast, and what they get out of it, partially has to do with where they fast.
Wherever they are, the central idea of Ramadan for Muslims around the world remains the same: the month, which is believed to be when the first revelation was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed, is a time for increased prayer, charity, and recitation of the Quran, in addition to abstaining from food, drink, and sexual activity during daylight hours. While many do treat the month as a spiritual endeavor and increase their religiosity, others simply stay out late at night and sleep through the day. Perhaps this is the result of a youthful generation— the median age for all Muslims is 23, compared to a global average of 28—living in an increasingly urbanized and multicultural world.
However, the observation that many people don’t practice Ramadan as they are supposed to is as old as the tradition itself. Indeed, the Prophet Mohammed himself is reported to have said, “some people will practice Ramadan, but all they will get out of it is hunger and thirst.” The Yemen Times asked Muslims around the world about their Ramadan experience. From Canada to Bangladesh, Germany to South Africa, people wrote about what makes Ramadan unique in their country, the obstacles they face, their favorite Ramadan memory, and how their traditions are received by non-Muslims in their community.
Health and Ramadan
It is a commonly held belief among Muslims that fasting during Ramadan is beneficial to one’s health. Medical fasting, more so than Islamic and other religious-based fasting, does have numerous health effects. However, the fasting undertaken for Ramadan can pose certain health risks.
Some of the negative health effects to note are dehydration, which can be particularly severe for manual laborers; migraines, which effect women much more than men; and daytime sleepiness, which results in impaired cognitive functioning. Overeating is also quite common—many families spend more on food during Ramadan than any other month.
In addition, fasting increases the toxicity of commonly used medication. This is potentially harmful not only for people taking prescription medication, but also for commonly used and readily available pain-killers like Paracetamol. Toxicity from Paracetamol is the most common cause of acute liver failure in many western countries, and fasting only increases the toxicity of the drug.
Qat chewing during Ramadan may be an additional health concern, especially for Muslims in countries such as Yemen and Somalia, where the plant is ubiquitous. The Yemen-based Al-Najat Foundation for Qat Effects Awareness (NFQEA) reported that “the excessive consumption of qat during Ramadan nights for long hours causes many health hazards, particularly if the qat is sprayed with pesticides.” However, no scientific studies have yet been conducted on the issue of qat during Ramadan.
There are reports across the Muslim world of worsened emergency services and less blood donations during Ramadan. Dr. Mohammed Al-Kamali, who works at the Yemeni state-run Al-Jamhouri Hospital, says he has noted a similar phenomenon during this year's Ramadan. In fact, he said that blood donations are not allowed during Ramadan at all and that if someone wants to donate blood he or she must break their fast.
This is especially concerning considering the rise of hospital patients during Ramadan. According to Al-Kamali, “the hospital sees an increase in violent crimes and car accidents during Ramadan, particularly before sunset. "At such a time, people are angry and easily irritated.”
The fact that fasting during Ramadan produces negative health effects need not be seen as a criticism of religious fasting in general. Indeed, for the healthy Muslim who hydrates sufficiently and eats a moderate amount of healthy food while the sun is down, there is little if anything to worry about.
Rather, it is important to understand that Ramadan does have health consequences in order to mitigate their risks or avoid them altogether.
Debate exists within the Muslim community on how to determine the sighting of a new moon. Traditional methods mentioned in the Quran require the slight crescent moon to be seen by eye, though others use technological means to determine the sighting. Also controversial is where exactly the sighting should occur. Many Muslims believe that sighting the new moon from their own country is the correct way, while others say the sighting should be from Saudi Arabia because it carries on the tradition of the Prophet and unites Muslims worldwide. Alternatively, many people living in Muslim-minority countries look to the closest Muslim country for guidance on the matter.
Islamic holidays are determined by the lunar-based Islamic calendar. The lunar year moves back about 11 days each 365-day solar year, meaning that every 33 years the lunar year—and thus Ramadan—passes through the entire solar calendar. Therefore, when Ramadan occurs in the winter in a certain place, 16-and-a-half years later it will occur in that same place in the summer.
In an article in the New Scientist by Ziauddin Sardar titled “The astronomy of Ramadan,” Sardar says: “the adoption of the pure lunar calendar had many advantages for Islam. It made it easier for even the least instructed Muslim to calculate his time and observe Ramadan and go on a pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj), in the prescribed months, even if he lived in the desert and was cut off from the rest of the world. It enabled Ramadan and the Hajj, both of which require a certain amount of physical hardship, to rotate around the seasons so the old and infirm could choose a more appropriate time to go on Hajj.”
Katerina Nordin, 25
Ramadan in the UK during the summer can be quite tough. Nineteen-hour fasts and the heat, combined with working a full-time, nine-to-five job can be grueling. In preparation I had read numerous articles that painted a glossy picture of Ramadan and prescribed what to eat, how to schedule your time, and how to maximize productivity. Within a few days of fasting and working full time, I was already feeling the strain. I would start work at 8:30 AM after a night of brief, punctuated sleep. I would be nearly useless by the afternoon, barely able to string along coherent sentences. By the time I had broken my fast and prayed as much as I could, it was time for the whole process to start again.
Ramadan has a special way of highlighting the things that can otherwise go unnoticed, and of improving ourselves in both subtle and obvious ways. This to me manifested what Ramadan is about—supporting one another, embodying sincerity, having patience, and being grateful for every tiny blessing.
The long hours and fatigue seem like nothing when compared to the benefits of the month.
Asma Rafiq, 24
Ramadan in the UK is pretty special. Not only are the majority of non-Muslims accommodating of our fasting, but some get actively involved. In every workplace I have ever worked in, there are always a few who will attempt to fast on one of the days to “see what it’s like.” Then there are some who will eat the three meals but will avoid snacking in their diluted version of fasting. And then, of course, there are always the determined few who start the day fully intent on trying a Muslim fast, only to break it at breakfast, then again for their morning coffee, then again at lunch, and so on. But they do try!
Ramadan is so special because it is so completely inoffensive. Even those most suspicious of Islam find it hard to spot something sinister in abstaining from food and drink during sunlight hours. This makes it a great month to engage in dialogue because people are generally curious—they want to know why and how it works, what Ramadan means for us and, most importantly, what we eat in our pre-dawn and post-dusk meals! Often, those not fasting will avoid eating or drinking around you. They will begin to abstain from cursing around you because they know you are too. Some will even go as far as to avoid talking about food in front of you if they know you’re fasting.
In that, Ramadan becomes a wonderful collective experience for both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. And the UK establishes itself every year as being one of the best non-Muslim countries to be a Muslim in.
It is more difficult to fast in Canada, especially in the northern parts because the days are long in the summer. Within the community we live, we can meet Muslims only if we go to the mosque. We rarely go to the mosque, so we hardly notice changes in people’s practices.
Although I didn’t observe Ramadan back in the old country [Syria], I used to enjoy the spiritual atmosphere and peoples’ customs and activities during that holy month.
Awais Munawar, 25
The only thing unique about Ramadan in Scotland is the length of fast. It starts at 3:30 AM and finishes at 10:15 PM, which makes it tough. It is difficult to get in the spirit and beliefs. There isn’t any change in the community during this season as most people do not follow the same faith. The people are accommodating of this and in my previous work the manager always used to give me extra break time and easier work, which was nice to see.
Practicing Ramadan in Pakistan is totally different to practicing it here. Everyone follows the same faith, which makes it easier to feel a sense of belonging. The festive feel and importance of religion becomes apparent which is nice to be a part of.
Bilal Qureshi, 25
People suddenly become very religious at the advent of Ramadan and you will see long queues of cars parked outside mosques, which are deserted in other months except for Friday prayers. Prices of general commodities sky rocket, thus the general idea of Ramadan gets buried somewhere in the human lust for profits and the government fails each time to control even as basic of a commodity as flour.
No public restaurant is allowed to serve food in the day time which simply means if you are non-Muslim or even Muslim but not fasting then you either prepare your food at home or stay hungry, which is quite unfair. But between all this, I really enjoy some parts of our culture, as relatives and friends invite each other to their homes for iftar where we enjoy food together in the company of loved ones. Dinner is served later, mostly prepared by women of the household. We play cricket under temporary lights in the street until dawn. This is a normal Pakistani routine during Ramadan which I think is quite unique to Pakistan. All the youngsters enjoy it a lot and after the cricket match everyone goes for suhoor and then starts a new day of fasting.
Starzeus Hassan, 24
Ramadan in Morocco expresses its uniqueness during iftar. The compassion and generosity of my people is shown fluently: many restaurants, cafes, households and mosques offer free food to all. We all eat and pray together as a family—all nationalities, from the young to elderly.
In Morocco the majority of the population is Muslim. However, tourism is very high here and the locals love to teach and share our religion and culture with the travelers. The tourists are most accommodating to our differences, mainly because of the amazing food we share. My favorite Ramadan memory: when I was a child I lived in Mbera refugee camp in Mauritania. Based in the camp was a humanitarian hospital. One of the nurses, Khadija, came to our orphanage weekly to offer her assistance. For Eid she gave me my first toothbrush. I didn’t know how to use it or what the purpose of it was, so it became my new tool for scratching my mosquito bites.
Nabila Ishrat Jahan, 25
A month of religious festivity, mouth-watering traditional iftar bazaars on every corner of the streets, and hectic traffic due to shopping frenzies more or less summarizes Ramadan in Bangladesh. Ramadan rekindles Islamic virtues all around the country—mosques fill up, work hours are reduced, schools close down for a month, loud music is silenced, and so much more. The most amazing part of Ramadan in Bangladesh is how people rush home fighting terrible traffic to have iftar with their families, how special iftar platters are sent to neighbors and relatives, and how even non-Muslims join in this festivity with full respect; some would even wake up for suhoor and have iftar with Muslim friends. A new tradition has been growing in the new generation of hitting various eateries for suhoor, which I believe undermines the essence of Ramadan. All in all, Ramadan in Bangladesh brings people close, regardless of religion, race and rituals.
Ebrahim Deen, 28
When describing Ramadan in a country like South Africa, which has a Muslim minority (1-2 million out of a population of 50 million),it is difficult to ignore the solidarity that the month engenders: solidarity from political parties, fellow South Africans, and internal community solidarity. The daily iftar meals do much in promoting this, especially on weekends when mass iftars are usually held, and people are able to partake in the iftar at their local mosque.
Ramadan also engenders a sense of generosity amongst South African Muslims. Sadaqa (charity) is given in abundance and weekend soup kitchens are operated. This is important in a country like South Africa, where many people suffer from chronic shortages of basic amenities. Furthermore, it also rekindles the bond between rich and poor, and allows South African Muslims to truly be South African.
A challenge, however, is maintaining one’s productivity. Unlike in many Middle Eastern countries, and countries with a majority Muslim population, Ramadan does not lead to alterations in work and sleep patterns. This is challenging especially in the summer where temperatures reach the mid-thirties, humidity increases, and the fasting period can extend to 17 hours. However, this year the duration is around 12 hours, and temperatures are on the lower end as a result of July being a winter month. All in all, Ramadan engenders a different atmosphere amongst South African Muslims. The challenge ultimately is to continue carrying out the actions participated in during Ramadan throughout the year. In this way not only will the person and Muslim community benefit, but the country as a whole.
Hana Kamilia Basjir, 20
Ramadan’s atmosphere in Indonesia is very strong as 88 percent of Indonesia’s total population identifies as Muslim. A few things change during this holy month in my country: Mosques become very crowded because they have become the most frequent place to visit; most restaurants are closed during the day; all advertisements change their theme to Ramadan; and some food companies advertise their foods in a very delicious way so that people who are fasting crave the foods from their company.
People tend to go home faster from work than the usual time. They take this opportunity to break fast together with family or closest friends. Some families, like mine, do not usually have dinner together, and it is only during Ramadan that we can sit together in our home to have dinner together. I spent most of Ramadan in Russia last year and it was very different. In Indonesia, I fast for 13 hours, and in Russia I had to fast for 20 hours. Things are a bit more difficult since I am the only one who fasts there, and so many people asked me why I should fast.
Ussama Al-Khalil, 29
As a Muslim living in a non-Muslim society, I generally try to continue following my traditions and my religion, trying to feel comfortable and “at home.” At the same time, I want to adapt to my new environment for exactly the same reason. Soon after my arrival in Germany from Syria, sports became a major theme in my life. To be honest, it helped me to overcome a difficult transition phase, channeling great confusion and all sorts of unsettling emotions. By now, I am a semi-professional triathlete, training on a daily basis.
Each year during Ramadan that new lifestyle confronts me with a real challenge: the prolonged fasting time in Germany, where the sun sets quite late in summer (around 9:30 PM), adds to the hardship of regular training. Taking it the sportive way, I came to view Ramadan as a “match” for me and my will power. Last year, a new flat mate of mine could not believe I was cycling around 100km a day while fasting, declaring that 0to be absolutely impossible. The following day, he decided to fast with me and to accompany me on my bike trip. After we had iftar together, he felt proud and continued fasting with me for another week. “Out of solidarity,” he said.