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Hani Abukishk, Area Support Group Qatar Public Affairs Office
08.19.2009U.S service members in the Islamic Gulf countries, regardless of their religious beliefs, must remain aware of the importance and traditions of Ramadan, the ninth and holiest month of the Islamic (lunar) calendar. This year, the religious observance is expected to begin Aug. 22, but the actual start date is dependent on the rise of the new moon. After an official declaration, a widespread fast for Muslims begins at the next sunrise. The holy month continues until the sighting of a subsequent new moon. This is an important time to learn more about Islamic culture and religion, to avoid unintentionally offending a Muslim population.
The Koran was first revealed to the prophet Mohammed bin Abdullah during Ramadan in the early 7th century. In respect of the sacred revelation of their holy book, Muslims around the world have brought concentrated religious focus to their lives during Ramadan for over 14 centuries. The holy month presents a period of religious commitment and reflection. "Ramadan mubarak" is an Arabic phrase used to express religious blessings and encouragement.
Ramadan includes a phase of obligatory fasting for all adult Muslims; excluding those experiencing poor health, age-related illness, long travel, pregnancy (or otherwise nursing), or a menstrual cycle. "Salat El Fajr," an Arabic phrase referring to the first prayer of the day, begins daily fasting the moment the first sliver of light breaks the darkness on the morning horizon. During the fast Muslims abstain from food, drink, sexual activities, foul language (profanity, slander, backstabbing, lying), smoking, anger or carrying grudges or ill-will towards others. Abstinence is applied to any avoidable activities that distract a Muslim from worshiping God. "Salat El Maghrib" is an Arabic word for the prayer observed at sunset which terminates daily fasting periods during Ramadan.
Guests in Islamic countries, homes and businesses should dress conservatively. It is important to avoid wearing or displaying anything remotely offensive. Many Muslim men do not shake hands with women during their fast to avoid anything that might lead to impure thoughts. It's best to always avoid physical contact between men and women, especially during daytime fasting. If a Muslim is reluctant, or refuses to shake hands – even if he or she had done so in the past – don't be offended.
Fasting is required as one of the five pillars of Islam – it is obligatory, not optional. A person does not sin if they don't purposely break the fast, but they must immediately resume fasting once they realize the mistake. For each oversight, a Muslim must make up an entire day of fasting after Eid al Fitr, the three-day festivities that mark the end of Ramadan. Charity events can help make up for a lapse during fasting or missed prayers. Ramadan's special blessings can be abandoned or forfeited if someone deliberately, without an allowed exception, breaks their fast.
All blessings are multiplied during the month of Ramadan. Moreover, Muslims receive extra blessings when they pray in congregation – some confine themselves to a mosque, especially during the last 10 days, to make the most of the sacred opportunity. Muslims often bring guest into their homes, since sharing a meal is another source of blessings. Wealthy often seek opportunities to feed the poor; at times, preparing food for others inside a mosque. All acts of goodness and kindness are rewarded with blessings and forgiveness of sin.
Special foods and celebrations are prepared exclusively for breaking daily fasts during the month of Ramadan. These events vary between countries, tribes and even families. In the middle of the month, all Muslims celebrate the passing of the first half of Ramadan; not as a religious ritual but rather a cultural practice. Arab-Muslim children in the Gulf countries commonly call this a Garangaou festival. For the most part, Garangaou activities are arranged to provide entertainment and social events for kids and family. Groups of children travel from house-to-house singing, dancing and collecting presents consisting of sweets, nuts and money. Shopping areas also hand out sweets to children on this day. The gifts are usually put in small cloth bags so the children can carry them.
Muslim families often extend invitations to co-workers and friends to join them during "iftar," an Arabic word for the first meal immediately following a daily fast. If you find yourself invited to iftar, be polite and respectful if you have other obligations. If you feel inclined, it should prove to be an excellent opportunity to experience traditional Islamic Arab culture.
Generous invitations to a Muslim's home occur throughout Ramadan and acceptance is considered an honor during the religious period. Traditionally, it is not necessary to bring a gift and Islam's conservative values insist men refrain from bringing gifts for woman. Depending on the traditions and practices of your host, do not be surprised if men and women are separated during the meal or into the evening.
The luxurious five-star hotels in the Gulf countries are well-known for holding nightly events and celebrations during Ramadan, which are frequently open to non-Muslim patronage. Ramadan Tents open several hours after iftar with the announcement of buffet-style dinners. Since local traffic can become horribly congested during this time, most patrons plan to arrive early. While attending, it's important to be respectful, open minded and patient. The community celebrations often include music and dancing, throughout the night.
ing Ramadan, remember the holy month's meaningful intentions in Islam: renewing faith and commitment to God; understanding the feeling of pain and hunger that impoverished people suffer year-round; avoiding desires and temptations for a higher purpose; increasing involvement in Islamic activities; and receiving greater blessings from God through good deeds and prayers. Overall, Ramadan is a time for Muslims to obtain a closer relationship with God and the Islamic community.