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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Fasting in the desert

Note: You can see an update and expanded version of this post here: Ramadan in Qatar.

In Qatar, as in the rest of the world, we are entering the final stage of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month. Muslims don’t, of course, fast at night, but from dawn to dusk. The last ten days are the most important to Muslims and a time of prayer and meditation for many.

The most important night is Lailut-Ul-Qadr, the 27th night of Ramadan, or the night of power, when the first verse of the Koran was revealed to Mohammad. According to Mohammad, this night is more important than a thousand months. Some Muslims spend the entire night in prayer.

Every day will start before dawn with Suhur, the pre-fast meal. During the day the devout will abstain not just from food, but also from drink, sex and other pleasures. Many Muslim friends have told me that the thing they find hardest is not smoking.

During the day Muslims hope that the fasting will not only draw them closer to God, but also lead to greater empathy with the poor and hungry. All capable Muslims must give Zakat, a proportion of their wealth which is donated to the poor and needy. Throughout Ramadan, food and drink is distributed for free in Ramadan tents.

In Qatar, Ramadan also means major changes in lifestyle. Working hours are often dramatically reduced, and nearly everything in the city is closed from midday, re-opening after eight o' clock in the evening. Many people sleep in the afternoon, and sometimes it seems that day has been moved to night. One Sudanese friend compared fasting in Qatar to Sudan:

“The people here are just playing at fasting. They should try it in the Sudan, living in a hut with no fan, let alone AC, and working hard in the sun all day. That’s fasting!”

Fasting may not be as easy as he suggests, but the changes in lifestyle probably means it is easier for many indoor workers to observe Ramadan than it is in many Western countries. In addition Muslims outdoor workers, (rarely Qatari), often work night shifts, with colleagues of other religions replacing them in the day.

At the end of the day it's traditional for Muslims to break the fast with water and dates. They then pray, before eating the main meal of the day. (Some people have a second, lighter, meal later in the evening). This is a lovely time to drive on Qatar’s normally busy streets! The busiest place is the Corniche, with many families choosing to break their fast under the palm trees at the sea front.

All this fasting doesn't mean that there is no fun to be had. Feasts are laid out at night, and music and entertainment is laid on. Indeed, sometimes it seems more eating takes place during Ramadan than at normal times, and certainly some people put on weight during Ramadan! Expatriates and visitors of other religions are welcome to join in this feasting.

Non-Muslims are not required to participate in the fasting, although it's advisable to show respect in public places. Food and drink during the day can be obtained at hotels and some clubs, although the sale (not the consumption) of alcohol is banned for the duration of the month. These restrictions on eating and drinking do not, of course, apply to children, the sick, the pregnant or the frail.


Do say:
Ramadan Mubarrak / Ramadan Kareem
(Roughly equivalent to Happy Ramadan).

Don’t say:
“I’m starving. Pass the biscuit tin, will you?”


Ramadan in Qatar: Fasting and Health

The Five Pillars of Islam

Adhan: The Muslim Prayer Call

Festivals in Qatar

Qatar, Ramadan and Expats

Ramadan on Wikipedia

An idiots guide to Ramadan (BBC website)