The Middle East is a region that roughly encompasses a majority of Western Asia and Egypt. It includes what is often known as “The Holy Land”, formed of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Galilee and the Dead Sea. These places are traditionally associated with several major religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam. They all have their origins and their holy books, vividly describing events in the hot, arid climate, including the birth of Jesus and the prophet Muhammad. Of course, there are many historic mosques and churches, dating back thousands of years, with preserved mosaics and relics to be fascinated, enthralled and deeply moved by.
Apart from Israel, most of the countries in the Middle Eastern region are predominantly Muslim. Last weekend marked the beginning of a holy month in the Islamic calendar known as Ramadan. This religious period, that over 1.6 billion Muslims world-wide take part in, is a period of fasting and intense self-sacrifice. With colourful house decorations and communal gatherings after dusk, it is an interesting and special time to travel and enjoy the culture and people of Muslim countries.
Each year, Ramadan retains its spiritual meaning through many practices. Between dawn and dusk, Muslims refrain from food and drink, even smoking – based on the belief that fasting cleanses the body. However they believe more that it inspires a concentration on spirituality, generosity, positive virtues and an empathy with those poverty-stricken. The fasting and self-sacrifice is a catalyst for focusing the mind on how to be closer to their spiritual being.
Ramadan is strictly observed in countries with high Muslim populations. Middle Eastern countries in particular are hubs of centuries-old mosques and sacred buildings, each historically and architecturally unique. As well as being the heart of prayer services, mosques also host special communal gatherings when dusk falls. The Grand Mosque of Mecca in Saudi Arabia is one of the oldest and largest mosques in the world, with the oldest parts dating back to the 16th century. Yet amongst this history lies modern resources, where for example, the Quran (the Holy text of Islam), along with commentary and translation, is now available for download in most of the world’s major languages.
For Non-Muslims, travelling or working in Islamic countries during Ramadan may be a new experience. Although they can be redundant from the same self-sacrifice as their Islamic counterparts, many of the restaurants and coffee-shops are closed throughout the day and eating and drinking should be done respectfully, discreetly and with sensitivity to their fasting hosts. In fact, many hotels are cheaper and quieter, and room-service is always available.
The special Ramadan lights and decorations, along with the general spirituality and openness can offer an even friendlier and welcoming experience. The buffet meals, called “itfar”, take place in the evenings after the sun has gone down. At this time, restaurants have a family-orientated celebratory atmosphere and remain open late into the night. Some decide to have meals in their homes, inviting friends and family round to help with the feast. Through participation in various roles- preparing the food, leading the prayers and keeping spirits alive- Muslims develop feelings of generosity and good-will. Bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood are therefore strengthened in their own communities and throughout the world.
As a traveller, this month is a time to observe Ramadan in the true spirit of Islam. The Middle East particularly, where they have such large Islamic populations, are remarkable places, where brotherhood and equality triumph. Muslim or Non-Muslim, a lot can be learnt from the underlying morals, practices and the refreshing spirituality.
What can you learn from the Ramadan practice?