Fasting in the Desert
As I write this, in Qatar, as in the rest of the world, we are entering Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month. Ramadan is the month when Muslims remember the time when the Prophet received his first divine revelation from the Angel Gabriel, and they do this through prayer and fasting.
Muslims don’t, of course, fast at night (with no water, a month of non-stop fasting would be a death penalty) but from dawn to dusk. During Ramadan, every day will start before dawn with Suhur, the pre-fast meal.
During daylight hours, the devout will abstain not just from food, but also from drinking, sex and other pleasures. Indeed, many Muslims find the hardest thing about the fasting month is going without cigarettes during daylight hours.
Ramadan is also the time of prayer, with the entire Quran being recited in mosques around the world. This culminates in the night of power, when devout Muslims spend the whole night in prayer.
Why Muslims Fast?
There are numerous references to fasting in the Quran, with Mohammed expounding the virtues of fasting.
“O you who believe! fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may guard (against evil).” (The Cow: 2.183)
Muslims believe that fasting brings them great benefits – including the forgiveness of past sins:
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: Whoever fasts during Ramadan with faith and seeking his reward from Allah will have his past sins forgiven. Whoever prays during the nights in Ramadan with faith and seeking his reward from Allah will have his past sins forgiven. And he who passes Lailat al-Qadr in prayer with faith and seeking his reward from Allah will have his past sins forgiven. (Bukhari, Muslim)
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.
What Fasting Involves
Fasting for Muslims means means more than going without food and water from dawn to dusk. It is a time when Muslims should strive to be better people, to avoid doing evil, and to be more obedient to God. Of course, Muslims should do this anyway, but Ramadan calls for a special effort. Muslims are also urged to read through the entire Quran during this month.
Restrictions on eating and drinking do not, of course, apply to young children (who may, however, complete a half day), the sick, the pregnant or the frail. Women are not allowed to fast during their menstrual period, although they can make up missed days outside Ramadan.
Changes in Day-Day Life
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.
In these modern days of air-conditioning, for most people in Qatar fasting is not the same as it was in days of old. 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. To help them cope with the desert heat and sun, Muslims outdoor workers, (rarely Qatari), often work night shifts, with colleagues of other religions replacing them in the day.
Breaking the Fast
At the end of the day it’s traditional for Muslims to break the fast with water and dates. It’s a sensible way to break the fast – dates are high in minerals and glucose which help alleviate dehydration and contain tanin, which helps with stomach problems arising from fasting.
After breaking the fast, Muslims 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!
Ramadan tents are also opened at the major hotels, and whirling dervishes are a popular feature at these tents. Expatriates and visitors of other religions are welcome to join in this feasting.
The Night of Power
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.
Non-Muslims in Ramadan
Non-Muslims are not required to participate in the fasting, although it’s advisable to show respect in public places, and to eat in private. At private clubs expatriates are usually required to eat indoors, out of public view.
Food and drink during the day can be obtained at hotels (travelers are exempt for fasting) and some clubs, although the sale of alcohol is banned for the duration of the month. However, expatriates with alcohol permits can enjoy an increased alcohol allowance in the month prior to Ramadan. Avoid visiting the off-licence on the day before Ramadan – the queue can stretch round the shop, out the doors, round the car park and onto the road. The off-licence is not open on the first day of Eid – again, when it does open expect huge queues.