For many foreigners, a trip to any Muslim country is not complete without wandering around the chaotic bazaars while tasting local street food. However, be prepared if you are travelling to a Muslim-majority area during Islam’s holiest month, Ramadan, as you might find that roads and bazaars are almost abandoned, with no refreshments whatsoever available on the street.
Ramadan (also spelled Ramadhan and Ramzan), a month-long festival, falls in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is the time when Muslims all around the world fast during daylight hours every day. The month definitely brings a lot of joy for Muslims, but for many non-Muslims, travelling or living in a Muslim-majority country during this time may come with some inconveniences and restraints. On the bright side, however, it offers a chance to see a different side of life in Muslim countries. It’s an incredibly important, sacred and religious time for Muslims, and while many tourists do keep visiting Muslim countries throughout the year including Ramadan, some basic knowledge about this special tradition will help to make your experience a fascinating one.
Ramadan is the 9th and holiest month in the Islamic calendar and lasts 29–30 days. Muslims fast every day for its duration and most restaurants will be closed until the fast breaks at dusk. Nothing (including water and cigarettes) is supposed to pass through the lips from dawn to sunset. Non-Muslims are exempt from this, but should still refrain from eating or drinking in public as this is considered very impolite. Working hours are decreased as well in the corporate world. Exact dates of Ramadan depend on local astronomical observations and may vary somewhat from country to country. Ramadan concludes with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which may last several days, usually three in most countries.
24 April – 23 May 2020 (1441 AH)
13 April – 12 May 2021 (1442 AH)
2 April – 1 May 2022 (1443 AH)
23 March – 20 April 2023 (1444 AH)
The first and last dates of Ramadan are determined by the lunar Islamic calendar.
Hilāl (the crescent) typically occurs a day (or more) after the astronomical new moon. Since the new moon marks the beginning of the new month, Muslims can usually safely estimate the beginning of Ramadan, although many recommend that visual confirmation be performed by region.
Night of Power
Laylat al-Qadr (“the night of power” or “the night of decree”), the night on which Muslims believe the first revelation of the Quran was sent down to Muhammad, is considered the holiest night of the year. It is generally believed to have occurred on an odd-numbered night during the last ten days of Ramadan; the Dawoodi Bohra believe that Laylat al-Qadr was the twenty-third night of Ramadan.
The holiday of Eid al-Fitr (Arabic:عيد الفطر), which marks the end of Ramadan and the beginning of Shawwal, the next lunar month, is declared after a crescent new moon has been sighted or after completion of thirty days of fasting if no visual sighting is possible due to weather conditions. It is a celebration of the return to a more natural disposition (fitra) of eating, drinking, and intimacy with spouses.
The history of Ramadan dates back to the pre-Islamic period, when Arabs used to fast from the rising to the setting of the moon. In the Quran, the central holy scripture of Islam which Muslims believe was revealed by Allah (God) to the Islamic prophet Muhammad, the fast rules were made more onerous by the period being changed to the rising of the sun to its going down. Ramadan, in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, was declared as the holy month of Islam, and fasting was made mandatory for every Muslim adult, with certain exceptions made for health and other extenuating circumstances.
Muslims worldwide observe the month of Ramadan as a month of fasting and, therefore, travelling during Ramadan into Muslim-majority countries can pose an added challenge. Along with fasting — no eating, drinking or smoking — from dawn until sunset, Muslims also refrain from engaging in sexual relations, and especially activities that are forbidden by Islam in any month.
Ramadan is a time when many Muslims focus on their faith and spend much of the day in religious observances, so in that sense it is related to days of penance, fasting and reflection in other religions, such as Yom Kippur in Judaism and Lent in Christianity. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, one of five basic acts which are mandatory for every Muslim.
During Ramadan, Muslims are expected to engage in extra prayers and worship of Allah, in order to learn willpower and self-control and for a kind of first hand experience of the sufferings of the poor, who rarely get to eat well. The ultimate goal is to inspire generosity and sympathy in Muslims around the globe. Muslims are expected to give generously to charity (zakat), which is another one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
While Ramadan is not the easiest and most favoured time to visit a Muslim country, since daily life changes dramatically in those countries during this special month, you may have a totally different cultural experience if you do. In addition to the change in meal schedules for Muslims, businesses’ opening hours often change as well, and people work only until afternoon in the majority of Muslim countries. School will take place on the usual schedule (with minor modifications for the benefit for those who observe fasting), so if you are teaching English or another subject and have Muslim students, whether in a Muslim-majority country or elsewhere, you’ll want to facilitate their observance of Iftar.
The common practice is to fast from dawn to sunset. The pre-dawn meal before the fast is called the suhur, while the meal at sunset that breaks the fast is the iftar.
Muslims also engage in increased prayer and charity during Ramadan. Ramadan is also a month where Muslims try to practice increased self-discipline. This is motivated by the Hadith, especially in Al-Bukhari that “When Ramadan arrives, the gates of Paradise are opened and the gates of hell are locked up and devils are put in chains.”
Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection, improvement and increased devotion and worship. Muslims are expected to put more effort into following the teachings of Islam. The fast (sawm) begins at dawn and ends at sunset. In addition to abstaining from eating and drinking during this time, Muslims also increase restraint, such as abstaining from sexual relations and generally sinful speech and behaviour. The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose being to cleanse the soul by freeing it from harmful impurities. Ramadan also teaches Muslims how to better practice self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice, and empathy for those who are less fortunate; thus encouraging actions of generosity and compulsory charity (zakat).
Exemptions to fasting are travel, menstruation, severe illness, pregnancy, and breastfeeding. However, many Muslims with medical conditions insist on fasting to satisfy their spiritual needs, although it is not recommended by the hadith. Professionals should closely monitor such individuals who decide to persist with fasting. Those who were unable to fast still must make up the days missed later.
Each day, before dawn, Muslims observe a pre-fast meal called the suhoor. After stopping a short time before dawn, Muslims begin the first prayer of the day, Fajr.
At sunset, families hasten for the fast-breaking meal known as iftar. Dates are usually the first food to break the fast; according to tradition, Muhammad broke fast with three dates. Following that, Muslims generally adjourn for the Maghrib prayer, the fourth of the five daily prayers, after which the main meal is served.
Social gatherings, many times in a buffet style, are frequent at iftar. Traditional dishes are often highlighted, including traditional desserts, and particularly those made only during Ramadan. Water is usually the beverage of choice, but juice and milk are also often available, as are soft drinks and caffeinated beverages.
In the Middle East, the iftar meal consists of water, juices, dates, salads and appetizers, one or more main dishes, and various kinds of desserts. Usually, the dessert is the most important part during iftar. Typical main dishes are lamb stewed with wheat berries, lamb kebabs with grilled vegetables, or roast chicken served with chickpea-studded rice pilaf. A rich dessert, such as luqaimat, baklava or kunafeh (a buttery, syrup-sweetened kadaifi noodle pastry filled with cheese), concludes the meal.
Over time, iftar has grown into banquet festivals. This is a time of fellowship with families, friends and surrounding communities, but may also occupy larger spaces at masjid or banquet halls for 100 or more diners. For example, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, the largest mosque in the UAE, feeds up to 30,000 people at the Grand Mosque location every night for iftar. The iftar is involving around 400 chefs and almost 500 service staff person. The iftar food pack includes dates and yoghurt drink (laban). Also, One of the biggest iftar meals in the world takes place in Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad city every year, with some 12 thousand people attending every night.
Charity is very important in Islam, and even more so during Ramadan. Zakāt, often translated as “the poor-rate”, is obligatory as one of the pillars of Islam; a fixed percentage of the person’s savings is required to be given to the poor. Sadaqah is voluntary charity in giving above and beyond what is required from the obligation of zakāt. In Islam, all good deeds are more handsomely rewarded during Ramadan than in any other month of the year. Consequently, many will choose this time to give a larger portion, if not all, of the zakāt that they are obligated to give. In addition, many will also use this time to give a larger portion of sadaqah in order to maximize the reward that will await them at the Last Judgment.
Tarawih (Arabic: تراويح) are extra nightly prayers performed during the month of Ramadan. Contrary to popular belief, they are not compulsory.
Recitation of the Quran
In addition to fasting, Muslims are encouraged to read the entire Quran, which comprises thirty juz’ (sections). Some Muslims incorporate a recitation of one juz’ into each of the thirty tarawih sessions observed during Ramadan.
In some Islamic countries, lights are strung up in public squares and across city streets, a tradition believed to have originated during the Fatimid Caliphate, where the rule of Caliph al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah was acclaimed by people holding lanterns.
On the island of Java, many believers bathe in holy springs to prepare for fasting, a ritual known as Padusan. The city of Semarang marks the beginning of Ramadan with the Dugderan carnival, which involves parading the Warak ngendog, a horse-dragon hybrid creature allegedly inspired by the Buraq. In the Chinese-influenced capital city of Jakarta, firecrackers are widely used to celebrate Ramadan, although they are officially illegal. Towards the end of Ramadan, most employees receive a one-month bonus known as Tunjangan Hari Raya. Certain kinds of food are especially popular during Ramadan, such as large beef or buffalo in Aceh and snails in Central Java. The iftar meal is announced every evening by striking the bedug, a giant drum, in the mosque.
Common greetings during Ramadan include Ramadan mubarak and Ramadan kareem.
During Ramadan in the Middle East, a mesaharati beats a drum across a neighbourhood to wake people up to eat the suhoor meal. Similarly in Southeast Asia, the kentongan slit drum is used for the same purpose.
Travelling during Ramadan
Suhoor and Iftar
The primary practice in Ramadan is fasting from dawn to sunset (not always the local dawn and sunset, as this would be unreasonable in summer at very high latitudes), and there are two meals at either end of that period. The pre-dawn meal before the fast is called the Suhoor, or Sehri in some countries. It is consumed early in the morning before the dawn (Fajr) prayer.
Iftar is the meal that breaks the fast after the sunset (Maghrib) prayer. While Suhoor is often taken in private, Iftar is a much more social meal. Family and friends gather in homes to rejoice, and a wide variety of sweet and savory dishes and delicious desserts are prepared according to local traditions and preferences. Restaurants are busy as well and often have special dishes. Iftar parties and social gatherings are frequently arranged where people and communities gather to break fast together, and special arrangements are made daily in mosques as well, where free meals are offered to diners for them to break the fast. If you are invited for Iftar celebrations, it is good custom to bring a small gift (e.g. food) for your hosts.
Dishes for Iftar vary from one region to another, but one item that is commonly consumed around the world is dates — especially dates from Saudi Arabia, which are fantastic and well worth buying if you have a chance to do so during this month or any other.
There’s a saying: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”; the same goes for Muslim countries. Non-Muslims are not expected to fast or follow Islamic practices but they should be aware of the local laws and customs and should respect them. Even Muslims are not religiously bound to fast if they’re travelling during Ramadan, though most do anyway.
The most difficult thing may be to abstain from eating, drinking or smoking tobacco in public areas during the daytime, usually dawn until dusk. In many Muslim-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia, it’s illegal to eat or drink in a public area during daylight during Ramadan, and this is considered a crime and prosecuted as such. Police usually patrol the streets and offenders, both Muslim and non-Muslim, can get fined. There have been incidents in Gulf countries where foreigners were even expelled from the country while Muslims were jailed. So even where it is legal you should refrain, both to avoid calling unwelcome attention to yourself and as a gesture of respect for those who are fasting.
Consider stocking your hotel room with drinks and snacks that you can consume in private. If you are in an area where food is served for travellers even during Ramadan and where tipping is considered appropriate, tip heavily at this time. The poor staff are working — and seeing and smelling your food — even though they are fasting; they may deserve a little extra.
Avoid public physical intimacy with a person of the opposite sex, even if you are married to each other. Public displays of affection are considered rude and even forbidden by law in certain Muslim countries, and this is especially true during Ramadan. As for same-sex displays of affection, homosexuality is taboo or illegal in many Muslim areas; see LGBT travel for details. Even in more liberal areas, restraint may be a good idea at any time, and especially during Ramadan.
Everyone will be expected to dress more conservatively than normally, so ensure you dress modestly in public — always a good idea in Islamic areas, but particularly during the holy month of Ramadan. Uncovered arms, legs, shoulders or hair may offend others.
Try to not play loud music in public areas (including in a car) or dance during Ramadan, as it is seen as bad form.
Mosques such as those which are usually open to visitors for sightseeing and even to non Muslims in other times of the year remain closed during Ramadan in some countries whereas in some countries, special tours are usually organised during Ramadan.
Avoid chewing gum or smoking in public as well since these are also forbidden by the rules of the fast.
Think twice about travelling for business, as many businesses in Muslim countries close early and operate with a skeleton staff for the entire month of Ramadan. Furthermore, even when hours are not affected, work performance is affected by fasting. If you nevertheless need to make a business trip to a Muslim country during Ramadan, try to make your appointments as early as possible in the morning, when your counterpart is more fresh and likely to be in a good mood. During the afternoon, energy level and working performance tend to decrease, people start to get lazy and sleepy, and everyone wants to leave for home as early as possible. Keep in mind that hunger and tiredness can cause irritability, and try to be forgiving when you find people a bit cranky.
In certain countries that see lots of tourism, such as Morocco and Turkey, many facilities remain open to some extent to serve non-Muslim travellers, and in general the change in the normal routine isn’t too striking. However, the scenario is very different elsewhere — mainly in countries further off the beaten path such as Iran, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, but also some heavily touristed countries like the United Arab Emirates. Here, Ramadan is very strictly observed and few facilities are open. The majority of restaurants are closed during daylight in most Islamic countries, though a limited number may open to cater to non-Muslims, especially in touristy places in countries such as Turkey and Morocco and in Dubai. This is especially true in areas of some Muslim-majority countries that have large non-Muslim populations, including most Malaysian cities. The dining area is usually screened or behind curtains, and at some places, you may be asked to confirm that you’re not a Muslim. Locating an open restaurant can be very tricky in small cities and non-touristy places — in which case your hotel may be able to serve you food in your room — but in larger cities, one can find a good restaurant if you ask at hotel reception. While in some countries it’s also possible to grab takeaway food from fast food chains attached to fuel stations, this varies from place to place. For instance, in the United Arab Emirates, you can get food from fuel station franchises in Dubai, but franchises in the neighbouring and more traditional city of Sharjah are closed during the daytime. In addition, alcohol is banned from sale or not available at all during Ramadan in many Muslim countries. You may also find that most attractions are closed during the day throughout Ramadan, as the level of activity during daytime is decreased. In some areas of Turkey, most probably touristed areas, you may not notice a significant change in Ramadan and you may even see people eating and drinking as usual. However, caution should be exercised everywhere to avoid offending the local culture and respect should be given to Islamic traditions.
Your best course is probably to emulate the locals: take it easy during the afternoon, get out of the heat, and have a nap so you will be ready for the festive evening. If you are not Muslim, have a drink and a snack as well. People usually become “night owls” during Ramadan. Festivities begin right after Iftar — shopping areas and bazaars start getting busy and remain open past midnight hours. Streets remain vibrant until Sehoor in bigger cities, and people stay awake until Suhoor time to enjoy the feast.
Even if you don’t have a friend in a Muslim country you are visiting, you can still dine with Muslims when they break their fast. Around the Muslim world, tents and tables are set out on streets and in bazaars with free food served for fasting people. Non-Muslims are always welcome too. In many areas, especially in traditional bazaars, restaurants open after the sunset prayers and do a roaring trade until well after midnight.
If you’re a Muslim, even in non-Muslim countries a mosque is the best place to be for Iftar. Special arrangements are made in mosques throughout the world, let alone Muslim countries, where people are served with free meals and drinks. This gives a good opportunity to mingle with locals and taste the local food at no cost. If you’re travelling into a non-Muslim country, you may also be able to find restaurants near the mosques that serve Halal food. People are usually very welcoming and friendly in evenings during the joyous time of Iftar and are happy to share free food with everyone. Many restaurants offer special Iftar buffet meal deals at lower prices and some may even provide free drinks for guests.
Packing food and carrying bottles of water are strongly recommended, because food stalls are closed during fasting and open about 2 to 3 hours before Iftar, though starred hotels and minimarts often sell foods and beverages during the day, though this varies between countries and regions. Bazaars are also open 2 to 3 hours before fasting break and many kind of foods and drinks can be found, but mainly with (extra) sweet tastes. Avoid eating or drinking during the day in public areas. You also should not eat or drink in public transport, as fellow passengers are fasting. Even airlines in Muslim countries do not usually serve food to travellers (even non-Muslims), and even if they do, it’s always best to not ask for a meal as your fellow passengers may be fasting and may not be able to control their appetite after seeing a delicious meal being eaten. Children, who are not expected to fast during Ramadan, should be freely served food and drinks as usual.
Try to avoid being on the road during Iftar time, as traffic increases while everyone rushes home to feast with family members, and the chance of accidents therefore increases. Before Iftar, streets start to become empty, and right at Iftar, huge cities can become ghost towns, as public transport in many countries comes to a brief stop for up to half an hour. 3 days before and after Eid al-Fitr is not a convenient time to be on the road, because there are many traffic jams and public transport is also extremely crowded, while rental cars are very difficult to find, and if you do find one, rates will be much higher than usual. For about a week after the end of fasting month, domestic tourists flock to tourist resorts and hotels prices increase there, but in large cities, the hotels are empty.
In some cities, drummers roam the streets well before morning, waking locals in time to prepare and have Suhoor. If you don’t want to follow the Ramadan schedule yourself, make sure to pack some earplugs.
The feast to celebrate the end of Ramadan is one of the most joyous holidays of the year for Muslims.
While Ramadan can be a challenging time to be in a Muslim country, Eid, which is usually celebrated for three days and goes by various names around the world, is a great time to be there, especially if you have friends who invite you to celebrate with them and share some of the wonderful food that is made especially for the holiday. Each country and region in the Muslim world has its own distinctive savory and sweet foods for Eid.
Many countries have their own greetings in the local language used during Eid, but one used everywhere is the Arabic “Eid Mubarak”, which translates as Blessed Eid or Happy Eid. If you’re in a Muslim country, try to widely exchange the Eid greeting during the three days of Eid. Gifts are commonly given at Eid to children, friends and relatives. Most people choose to celebrate the first day of Eid at home with family and by visiting relatives and friends, but by evening, restaurants start to get crowded. Most bazaars and markets remain closed during the three days of Eid, while most other businesses are closed for longer periods.
Even in non-Muslim countries, it is often possible to enjoy some aspects of this festival. Almost any restaurant which specialises in food from some Muslim region, or in halal food (food Muslims are permitted to eat under Islamic law), can be expected to do something special for Eid and, since they are doing it largely for their own community and in a spirit of celebration, both quality and pricing tend to be very good.
Ramadan fasting is safe for healthy people, but those with medical conditions should seek medical advice if they encounter health problems before or during fasting. The fasting period is usually associated with modest weight loss, but weight can return afterwards.
The education departments of Berlin and the United Kingdom have tried to discourage students from fasting during Ramadan, as they claim that not eating or drinking can lead to concentration problems and bad grades.
A review of the literature by an Iranian group suggested fasting during Ramadan might produce renal injury in patients with moderate (GFR <60 ml/min) or severe kidney disease but was not injurious to renal transplant patients with good function or most stone-forming patients.