Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Basics (part 1)

It’s a little after 4:30 AM on August 1st, 2011.  This date happens to coincide with Ramadan 1st, 1432.  Ramadan is the Islamic holy month of fasting and the name Ramadan is actually the name of a month on the Islamic calendar.  The official Islamic calendar is lunar (as opposed to the solar Gregorian calendar familiar in the West), and records years from the date that Muhammad made his emigration from Mecca to Medina.  Due to the differences between the calendars, the beginning of the month of Ramadan changes from year-to-year according to the Gregorian calendar.  It shifts about 11 days earlier each year.  This year Ramadan falls during the peak of the Middle Eastern summer.  Long hot days will surely make for a difficult fast.

This Ramadan, I will be blogging my knowledge, thoughts, and reflections on Ramadan.  This will obviously be from the perspective of an outsider as I am not Muslim.  However, I have been living in the Middle East for 3 years now and have visited a number of times before moving here.  So I think I have a unique perspective that many non-Muslims do not have.  Take my thoughts for what they are worth.  I welcome all questions and comments from both Muslims and non-Muslims.

The Basics

Amman, Jordan between dawn and sunrise, 1-Ramadan 2011/1432

The fajr call to prayer just sounded 15 or 20 minutes ago here in Amman, Jordan.  This is the call to prayer that officially marks the beginning of dawn each day.  This is the moment that light breaks over the horizon (not officially sunrise) and during Ramadan marks the beginning of the daily fast.  Practicing Muslims rise early (or possibly stay up all night) to eat a pre-fast meal (called suhoor in Arabic) before the fajr prayers.  The fast during Ramadan is during daylight hours from dawn to sundown.  The fasting includes abstaining from all food and drink during those hours.  It also includes no smoking, no sex, no chewing gum, and for the most devout no swallowing of spit.  (You will see a lot of spitting in public during Ramadan!)  It has been blazing hot of late here in Jordan, so refraining from water will be particularly difficult.

The fast is broken with an iftar meal at the sounding of the maghrib (sunset) call to prayer.  Interestingly the word iftar is derived from the same root as the word for breakfast (fatoor), so it’s breakfast for dinner for Muslims throughout the month of Ramadan.  The fast is traditionally broken by eating dates and drinking juice followed by sometimes lavish meals.  During the month of Ramadan you can see street vendors here in Amman selling plastic bags of juice concentrate throughout the day to be used later at iftar.

Who is expected to fast and special considerations

King Abdullah I Mosque after fajr prayers 1-Ramadan 2011/1432. Amman, Jordan.

Every  healthy adult Muslim is expected to observe the fast.  Exemptions are made for the ill, pregnant and nursing mothers, travelers and young children.  It’s not clear to me when children are expected to begin fasting.  I have heard everything from age 7 to age 12.  The younger ones in that range are generally not expected to practice the full fast, but to begin preparing themselves to partake more fully in later years.  Non-Muslims (here in Jordan) are not expected to fast, but are forbidden by law to eat, drink, or smoke in public during the month of Ramadan.  Of course, this means in the street – but also most other public venues.  Restaurants, cafes  and food courts at the mall are all closed during daytime hours.  Only a few restaurants and cafes with “touristic” licenses can be found open.  Public consumption of food and drink outside of these places or private homes can be punishable with tickets or even imprisonment.  I have never heard of either of these things actually happening, but have heard of non-muslim friends being warned by the police!

The schedule of life can seem a bit topsy-turvy to the outsider.  Businesses tend to hold non-standard working hours during Ramadan.  Some close during the heat of midday.  Many open late and close early. This is especially true when Ramadan falls in fall/winter months and people need to make it home to prepare for the iftar meal.  Driving in Amman in the pre-iftar hours can be more maddening than usual – and trying to find a taxi can be nearly impossible.  And then for an hour or two the city is like a ghost-town as nearly everyone is somewhere breaking the fast.  The half-hour before and hour after maghrib prayer-time is sctually the best time to drive anywhere in the city during Ramadan – you’ll have the streets nearly to yourself.

Ramadan isn’t just about fasting

And then after everyone has broken the fast the city comes alive.  People are out and about visiting, shopping, even working.  Businesses are often open late into the night.  Cafes and restaurants that would normally close stay open well past midnight – some until just before dawn.  People often stay up all night eating and drinking as they would normally during the day.  Some Muslim friends have complained that they gain more weight during the month of fasting than during regular months!

Generous Ramadan! The typical Ramadan greeting.

The atmosphere of Ramadan is festive.   It’s not only a time for fasting, but also for visiting extended family and celebrating.  People hang strands of lights, some shaped like stars and crescent moons, and other decorations much like people would for Christmas in the West.  The standard greeting during the month is “Ramadan Kareem”  or “Generous Ramadan.”  The response is “Allahu Akram” or “God is more generous!”  Indeed, the month is marked by generosity.  At the end of Ramadan parents give gifts to their children, uncles give money and toys to their nieces and nephews, and brothers do the same for their sisters, particularly the unmarried ones.  People give cash gifts to the garbage men who work on their street, and many people buy extra food for the needy.  Businesses and wealthy patrons sponsor iftar meals for the poor.  In general it is accepted that charitable giving during Ramadan accrues a double blessing and many people make their annual zakat (alms) giving during this time.

If you have a Muslim friend, neighbor, or co-worker be sure to greet them for Ramadan (Ramadan Kareem!) and take the time to visit them.  This is not advised during daylight hours, but it is more polite to drop-by after the iftar meal is completed.  It may seem very late for a visit to a non-Muslim, but for fasting Muslims … the night is yet young!  A gift of high-quality dates is always appreciated and a Ramadan greeting card is a nice touch.  Your visit will certainly be appreciated and who knows, perhaps you will be invited back to share an iftar meal later in the month!

Next up: Ramadan Origins

Other Ramadan Related Posts here at Pilgrim without a Shrine:

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Origins (part 2)

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Goals in Muslim Words (part 3)

Ramadan Breakfast at Hashem’s in Amman, Jordan

Haircut at Fawzi’s Saloon, a Ramadan Tradition 

Eid Mubarak!

Beginfast or Commensfast Anyone?

Ooops, I forgot Weekend Headlines from Jordan #4

Successful Ramadan Trip to the Saloon

Jordan Headlines #3

Looking for a Ramadan Special at the Local Saloon

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11 Responses

  1. Will it be polite if I (following Hindu religion) observe the fast with my Moslem friends and as you stated gift them with dates in the evening after iftaar. I am new to UAE.

    • Hello Tirtho,

      I can’t speak to Emirati culture directly as I am living in Jordan and have only visited the UAE a few times. Also, I am not a Muslim. However, my experience has been that here in Jordan my Muslim friends appreciate any attempt by foreigners and people of other religions to observe the fast. Also, if they invite you for an iftaar meal, a gift will always be appreciated. Hope you enjoy your time in the UAE.

  2. Is the ban on smoking, sex, and chewing gum lifted with the maghrib call to prayer as well? Or is do those continue day and night for all of Ramadan? In The Gambia the smoking depended on the person and their will power. The spitting wasn’t very commonly observed and chewing gum wasn’t popular so i actually didn’t know about that one. I never asked about abstaining from sex for the month. I never thought to ask.

  3. I loved reading this. Looking forward to the next post, too!

  4. Maybe I’m a bit harsh but it comes from living many years among Arabs who claim to be Muslim but are far from it. It is often said that having been to the USA or Europe, one is confronted with Islam in everyday life but by non-Muslims. While in all of the Middle East, one is confronted by so called Muslims but not Islam. My late uncle used to say, “True Islam is in the books and true Muslims are in their graves.” Happy and Peaceful Ramadan to you too.

    • Interesting observation on the diff btw living in the west and living here in the Middle East. What your late Uncle said could also probably be said of Christianity and some so-called Christians today.

      Thanks for reading (and commenting)!

  5. I would dispute most devout with the act of spitting. Praying five times a day requires performing ablutions, part of which requires rinsing of the inner mouth. No swallowing is involved but one is required to rinse the inner mouth. Spitting in public and in Ramadan is offensive and not Islamic. It is certain Arabs who have no faith, no manners, and no class.

    • Hi Blue Oyster, If I’ve offended you it was unintentional. My connection of devoutness was to not swallowing spit so as to avoid drinking any fluids.

      As far as spitting in public goes, again I am not trying to be offensive, but simply offering something that I have observed in the the 3 years of living in Jordan. As an outsider, it seems that there is a higher incidence of spitting in public during Ramadan. Other foreign friends have observed the same behavior. I am also not referring to those who rinse out their mouth during the wudu.

      As I mentioned before I wasn’t trying to classify devout Muslims as spitters. I simply have correlated the cultural observation of increased spitting in public during Ramadan with the attempt of some people not to swallow their spit. Perhaps I was wrong. My apologies.

      I do think your characterization of those who spit in public during Ramadan as having no faith is a bit strong. Perhaps we should let God judge them in the end.

      In any event I hope that you have a peaceful, generous, and beneficial Ramadan!

  6. As usual, an extremely well thought out and written article. Thanks much Brian, and Ramadan Kareem!

  7. Very well written! Thinking of you guys as you begin this month of Ramadan!

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