This article was written to provide information on how Muslims observe Ramadan in different parts of the world under normal circumstances. We encourage everyone to please follow the government’s safety measures on COVID-19.
Most of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims fast during Ramadan, which is a holy month of fasting, praying, charity and reflection. However, to think that all Muslims observe Islam the same way would be a mistake. Although there are certain unified Ramadan practices and obligations, some traditions differ depending on the nationality and religious sect of fasting Muslims.
The holy month of Ramadan, or Ramazan as some Muslim countries in Asia call it, is when Muslims across the world fast completely during the daylight hours of each day until the maghrib (sunset) prayer, refraining from food and drink as well as intimate contact and smoking.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The holy Quran was first revealed to Prophet Muhammad during the holy month of Ramadan on a night known as Laylat Al Qadr (The Night of Destiny or Power). In addition, fasting in Ramadan is the fourth of the five pillars of Islam, meaning it’s an obligation for Muslims.
The fasting period during Ramadan is called sawm, which literally means ‘to refrain’. As a time to purify the soul, refocus attention on God, and practice self-sacrifice, Ramadan is much more than just not eating and drinking. Muslims are to refrain from evil actions as well, including thoughts and words. Muslims are called upon to use this month to re-evaluate their lives in light of Islamic guidance. They are to make peace with those who have wronged them, strengthen ties with family and friends, do away with bad habits – essentially cleansing their lives, thoughts and feelings.
Qatar is home to a melting pot of various nationalities and cultures. The country hosts thousands of Muslims from the Gulf, Africa, Asia, Europe and more, all observing Ramadan in their own way.
In Qatar, the working hours are shortened during the holy month. Civil employees work five hours a day, three hours shorter than the usual eight-hour working day. Other employees also have shorter working hours that are approximately six hours a day.
The law obligates restaurants and any form of eatery to close during fasting hours and reopen from iftar to suhoor. The buying and selling of alcohol is also prohibited anywhere during Ramadan. As a result, Qatar Distribution Company (QDC), the only licensed retail distributor of wines and spirits in Qatar, night clubs, bars and other nightlife destinations completely close during the month.
Like in many other Muslim countries in the region, in Qatar, a cannon is fired every day to mark iftar time. Many people attend, bringing water, dates and other snacks to immediately break their fast, following the firing of the cannonball, then return home to have their iftar meals.
Qataris break their fast with dates. They begin their iftar with soup or harees or harissa, a popular porridge-like dish of boiled, cracked, or coarsely-ground wheat, mixed with meat, or mathrooba, another porridge-like Qatari dish made with fish or chicken in a creamy, buttery porridge. Main dishes include machboos, a stew of richly spiced rice with seafood or meat served with yogurt; thereed, a bread-based dish of vegetables cooked with chicken or lamb, mixed with tomato sauce and spices.
This centrepiece of the meal is generally accompanied by a variety of side dishes, including chicken, fish and vegetables and salad. Desserts such as fresh fruit, halwa, Umm Ali and luqaimat round off a typical Qatari meal.
In Qatar, like many other countries in the Arab region, many families eat separately. Men congregate at the majlis, a reception room for male guests attached to the family home. The women of the house prepare a huge amount of food for the family, friends and neighbours. Breaking the fast is like a nightly celebration – daily. The second most important meal after iftar is suhoor, which is a pre-dawn meal consumed early morning before fajr prayer – before sunrise – which is when Muslims begin the fasting or sawm during Ramadan. Suhoor allows the person fasting to avoid weakness during the fast.
Many hotels and restaurants offer lavish iftars and suhoors as well as special Ramadan tents with shisha, music and other entertainment. Between iftar and suhoor, Qataris have a meal called ghabga, which is often around 8 pm to 10 pm.
On the 15th day of Ramadan in Qatar and the Gulf, children celebrate a traditional festival called Garangao. It’s a celebration that Qatari children look forward to all year round. They go from door to door in groups, dressed in traditional costumes with large bags chanting, ‘Give us something and Allah will give you. The house of Mecca, he will take you.’ Stock up on nuts, dried fruit and sweets to fill their bags and send them away happy. Some people adorn their homes with lights for Garangao, Eid Al Fitr, and Ramadan.
Egypt is known to be one of the most festive countries during Ramadan with colourful lanterns or fanoos hung up on the streets, shops and homes. Part of Ahmad Maher Street, where the tinsmiths and marble cutters have their shops, is transformed into the Street of Lanterns during the month. Other popular Ramadan destinations are Midan Al Hussein and El Moez Street.
Historic sites may close earlier and restaurants outside of tourist resorts may be closed until the evening. Alcohol is restricted; however, major hotel chains and resorts will continue to serve alcohol. Public transport schedules may also be disrupted.
Each morning during Ramadan, an hour or two before dawn, drummers (mesharati) tour the streets, beating their drums repetitively and singing a rhyming couplet to wake people up for suhoor. This tradition dates back to the Ottoman era when people didn’t have alarm clocks to wake them for suhoor. Instead, drummers would walk through the streets beating their drums. At the end of Ramadan, the drummers go to houses in their street to ask for money for the wake-up call they’ve provided during the holy month.
For iftar, Egyptians usually break their fast with soup followed by vegetable stews such as mulukhiyah, which is made of the leaves of Corchorus olitorius, and sometimes with either chicken, meat or rabbit, or bamya (okra), served with rice. Another Ramadan favourite is khushaf, a medley of dried fruits such as prunes, raisins and apricot in syrup. Popular Ramadan desserts are baklava, basboosa, kunafa, qatayif and more. Ramadan drinks include karkade (hibiscus), erq sous (licorice), kamar el din (apricot), kharoub (carob) and tamr hindi (tamarind) as well as tea and coffee.
For suhoor, a popular dish is foul, a bean dish seasoned with olive oil and garnished with tomatoes and onions, as well as cheese and eggs.
Every evening as iftar is set to take place, huge tables full of traditional Egyptian food stalls, funded by donations from the wealthy or organisations, are erected in the street to feed the poor.
As the night comes alive after iftar, many head to the mosque for tarawih.
Although Palestinian Muslims face unique challenges performing their Ramadan duties under Israeli occupation, the holy month remains significant in Palestine. Like many other countries in the region, workdays are shorter.
Some decorate their homes with crescents, star and lanterns, and streets with colourful lights. Children will light colourful lanterns and receive toys and gifts from their parents to celebrate Ramadan.
In some cities, men called mesharati will walk around with a drum to remind people to wake up for suhoor.
At iftar, the feast starts with a communal family meal and celebration with dates to break the fast, then a bowl of soup like lentil soup (shorbet adas) or cracked wheat soup (shorbet freekeh), followed by a main dish, which usually consists of rice and meat. The most popular dessert in Ramadan is atayef or qatayif, which can be described as folded pancakes or sweet dumplings stuffed with nuts and cinnamon and served with white cheese or cream with sugary syrup on top. Atayef is only made and served during Ramadan.
Many restaurants, shops and stores remain closed during the day. But at night, Palestine comes alive. In the evening, after iftar, streets are thronging with shops open until after midnight.
Most restaurants are closed during the fasting hours from dawn to dusk. Only hotels will serve food. Mosques are overflowing with worshippers coming to pray tarawih, and Qiyam Al Layl on the last days of Ramadan. On Fridays, many people make trips to Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
Near iftar time, you can find pop-up markets on the roads, selling food and drinks at affordable prices – some of which can only be found during Ramadan. Some bazaars are organised by various civic, charitable and neighbourhood organisations to sell goods and clothing at discounted prices to help the poor.
Indonesians break their fast or buka puasa after hearing the beat of the traditional bedug drums at maghrib on the television or radio, or the call to prayer from the neighbourhood mosque. Starting on the evening of the last day of Ramadan and continuing throughout the night and into the following day, the bedug are also beaten in the Takbiran or Takbeer Keliling celebrations either in stationary locations, or in parades through the streets. Takbiran is a prayer and celebration heralding Eid Al Fitr, which Indonesians refer to as Idul Fitri or Lebaran. Loud and boisterous parades and celebrations are held throughout the entire nation, which includes drum beating accompanied by amplified prayer, lively Islamic music and fireworks. Cars, carts, motorcycles, and even bicycles are decorated with giant Eid Al Fitr trinkets, and people will chant the takbeer (calling ‘Allahu Akbar’ or ‘God is great’) joyfully.
The breaking of the fast is normally a very social occasion in Indonesia for which special food is prepared for gatherings with family or friends. Upon hearing the sound of the bedug drum, they usually break their fast with sweet drinks and sweet snacks to allow the tummy to supply energy and slowly get adjusted to food again. After this first light meal, maghrib prayers are made before a full meal is served. Only after prayers will there be the proper evening meal, which may consist of kolak, a popular opening sweet dish with a brew of coconut milk, mixed with palm sugar, vanilla, pandanus leaves, and filled with slices of banana, sweet potatoes and optional pumpkins; Es Pisang Ijo, green bananas made from banana wrapped in flour dough, served with coconut milk, cocopandan syrup and shaved ice; Kicak, a typical sweet dish made from mashed sticky rice mixed with grated coconut and sliced jackfruit bulb wrapped in banana leaf; Pakat, grilled rattan, served with fried grated coconut and traditional chili sauce; Sotong Pangkong, which is made from dried cuttlefish that is grilled over a charcoal fire, pounded or beaten, and served with two kinds of sauces: shrimp sauce and peanut sauce; and Sate Susu, which is made from cow udders seasoned with traditional spices then grilled over charcoal.
After ishaa or evening prayers, people will pray tarawih together at mosques, and some people will continue to recite the Quran until midnight. At dawn, verses from the Quran can be heard being recited or a mini sermon being delivered through loud speakers from nearby mosques. Young kids will also usually wake people up for suhoor with drums and chants.
Alcohol is forbidden anywhere during the holy month of Ramadan in Indonesia. As a result, night clubs, bars and other nightlife destinations close during the month except in international hotel chains and some non-Muslim regions of the country, which operate after tarawih prayers until the time before suhoor.
After sunset, with the fourth call to prayer, the imam will give the go-ahead to break the fast. Green lights also appear on the minarets.
Iftar begins with a light meal, consisting of freshly-baked flat bread, pickled vegetables, olives and other easily-prepared edibles. More elaborate dinners are normally held later in the evening or night for suhoor.
During the day, restaurants and cafés are open for tourists but are less busy. Also, some establishments that normally serve alcoholic beverages may refrain from doing so during Ramadan. Many offices, workplaces and small shops will be shut but restaurants and bars will still stay open.
Local municipalities across Turkey organise mass public iftar meals free – meals consisting of soup, stew, pudding and juice – while street performances, such as clown and shadow puppet shows are put on for locals.
Iftar is a full, multi-course meal that begins with light fare and soup similar to breakfast. It then continues with several main courses and vegetable selections, desserts, Turkish coffee and fresh fruit.
The fast is usually broken first with a sip of water, followed by light fare like black and green olives, a selection of Turkish cheeses, dates, and slivers of warm, flatbread called pide that is only baked during Ramadan.
Commonly, Turkish iftar begins with soup, usually lentil soup followed by appetisers and salads such as igkofte, Babagannus, red cabbage with yogurt Shepherd’s Salad (Çoban Salatası). Main dishes include aubergine kebab in the oven (Patlıcan Kebabı), beef stew with green peas and fried vegetables (Etli Bezelye), Turkish rice pilaf (Pirinç Pilavı), crunchy borek filled with potato and mushroom (Çıtır Börek), and green beans in olive oil (Zeytinya lı Taze Fasulye). Of course, dessert cannot be missed with a variety of baklavas along with Turkish tea.
After sunset, Istanbul gets back into full swing with a carnival-like atmosphere. Festive coloured lights are switched on, and mosques are illuminated. Restaurants will be packed with locals to break the fast. Most restaurants offer special Ramadan menus or banquets.
Mosques may become crowded again after the last prayer because of Tarawih. The historic Blue Mosque and the Eyüp Sultan Mosque are two of the most symbolic spaces for prayers.
Drummers go from street to street in the middle of the night, banging their big drums to wake up sleepers so they can prepare suhoor.
Common Ramadan practices
It’s sunnah (Islamic tradition) for Muslims to break their fast with dates. Some Muslims break their fast with dates and laban (yogurt), to ease themselves into eating again and prepare their stomachs. After this, they pray the maghrib prayer either before or after having iftar, which is the evening meal in which Muslims break their fast. When there was little access to clocks, a cannon was fired every day during Ramadan to mark the end of the fasting period.
In addition to fasting, Muslims attempt to read the whole Quran, which comprises 114 chapters. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims all over the world follow the example of Prophet Muhammad, staying awake and standing in long prayers, striving to get closer to Allah. Besides the obligatory five prayers Muslims perform on a daily basis, during Ramadan, Muslims are encouraged to perform non-obligatory, additional night prayers. The most important of these is tarawih, which is an evening prayer performed daily at the mosque. The second most important prayer in Ramadan is Qiyam Al Layl, which is an expression derived from the Quran for what is also known as Tahajjud prayer. Tahajjud is preferably offered after midnight, but before fajr. Like Tarawih, Qiyam Al Layl is a night prayer performed through the last 10 days of Ramadan.
The exceptions (the non-fasting)
Every able Muslim is required to fast with the exception of the elderly, the sick (cancer, diabetes, transplant recipient) and infirm, pregnant and nursing mothers, and travellers. If they can, they are expected to make up the days missed before the next Ramadan. In addition, children are not obligated to fast during Ramadan until they reach puberty. However, children gradually begin practicing fasting around the age of seven.
Then comes Eid Al Fitr
The last few days of Ramadan are very busy for Muslims as they prepare for Eid Al Fitr. Houses are cleaned from top to bottom, the whole family gets a complete set of new clothes and even more sweets and chocolates are bought to welcome Eid visitors.
Eid Al Fitr, the Festival of Fast-Breaking, is a three-day celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. It’s customary to wish people ‘Eid Mubarak’ which means ‘Blessed Eid’. It’s a celebration of the efforts made during Ramadan and the atmosphere is remarkably relaxed and vibrant as Eid Al Fitr is a national holiday. Many people take this opportunity to travel, taking advantage of all the airlines’ Eid deals. Qatar is rather quiet during this time, as the remaining population enjoys their time leisurely, visiting family members and eating out.
Author: Ola Diab
This article is from Marhaba Information Guide’s Issue No 77 Spring / Summer 2020.
Copyright © Marhaba Information Guide. Reproduction of material from Marhaba Information Guide’s book or website without written permission is strictly prohibited. Using Marhaba Information Guide’s material without authorisation constitutes as plagiarism as well as copyright infringement.