The Closet Eater – On Ramadan Rules for Non-Muslims

I once heard the story of an Imam who was invited for lunch by a Non-Muslim. The Imam accepted the offer and gorged on the feast which included a stream of savoury & confectionary delights. While he was washing down the cake with water, it struck him – he had forgotten that it was the month of Ramadan and he was fasting. Had the feast invalidated the fast? The resounding opinion is a “no.”

This story is often used to explain that fasting is not about merely abstaining from food and drink. In a state of forgetfulness, your spiritual commitment to fast takes precedence over even large quantities of food consumed. In Islamic countries populated with an expatriate mix, the central message of Ramadan – i.e. the spiritual and not gastronomical – should form the centre of all cultural education.

At times, our over-reliance on protectionist rules tends to nudge the discussion in the wrong direction. Some strict rules governing conduct in Ramadan – undoubtedly to protect sentiments and make fasting convenient – may lead many to believe that not eating & drinking is the be all and end all of the holy month. Rather than being a month of reflection for people of all faiths, we risk making the Non-Muslims anxious over their eating habits.

The 'other side' of Ramadan. It's common to find make-shift veil arrangements to separate eating areas during the holy month

The ‘other side’ of Ramadan – it is common to find make-shift veil arrangements to separate eating areas during the holy month

A less pampered Ramadan is important as people observing the fast become more mobile than ever – traveling on business trips or residing in a non-Islamic country for other, long-term purposes like education. We may not always have the luxury of people, encouraged by the law or without it, covering their sandwich for the fear of offending us. At some point in our lives, fasting may span more than 18 hours in a country where our friends & colleagues would be discussing where to have their 4th meal of the day.

Moreover, attempts at ‘avoiding offence’ sometimes offend our intellect. I spotted this at a local McDonald’s outlet, and I doubt if I would have really taken note of this little eatery had it not been for this clumsy barrier. I don’t know how it benefits my state of fasting, if anything, it makes me chuckle.

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You also hear of the odd instance when someone’s upset with the spirit of Ramadan not being observed, as this letter to the 7Days newspaper suggests. The letter shows that the conception of Ramadan is ill-understood by some and restricted to the physical manifestations of food and water. Threads that discuss the “Do’s & Dont’s in Ramadan” are usually lopsided towards the cautionary don’ts. Instead of people inquiring about the month and asking questions that can be retained a lifetime, people are busy making sure you’re taste-buds are not tempted before dusk…for 30 days.

And if it’s important to state it bluntly – nope, nobody in the state of fasting would keel over and die if he/she spotted someone eating or drinking. (Unless I saw you eating vanilla ice-cream, in which case It’ll be difficult to recover from the shock at your choice of flavour.)

This month for us is a battle against the fleeting temptations of our body. It’s a month to recognize that while others are being asked to abstain from eating in front of us, we binge-eat our hearts out without caring for the unfortunate who’s life is stuck in the darkness of dusk. (Sometimes, we eat our way to the hospital!) It’s a call to hear the grumbling of our stomach and feed the hungry of this world, and try to introduce at least a glimmer of dawn in their lives. It’s not a month of McDonald’s as much as McCare & McEmpathy.

What encouraged me to write this article is a recent conversation with a (Non-Muslim) friend. He told me that Ramadan sometimes taxed his mind & body more than the regular months, especially because he delayed refreshing himself with water till he reached home after the long commute in his car. When I offered my commiserations, he brushed it away saying that not eating in front of us was the least he could offer as a respect to the spirit of Ramadan. With such high morals, I’m sure this friend, even without the enforcement of rules, would display the best manners to respect our holy month.

However, I also understand the the role of some measured stern policies when required. Perhaps maybe, just maybe, a monetary penalty may rectify a deliberate & persistent behaviour that flouts the norms and harmony of a culture.

In my humble opinion, it’s time we fasting Muslims reclaimed the true spirit of Ramadan and diverted the attention of our beloved Non-Muslim friends towards that which increases their respect for the religion. It’s time we spoke less of staying away from waffles and instead explained the wisdom behind the waffle-less hours. Gentle reminders to uphold the spirit and abide by the unwritten rules of good manners can ensure that people follow the spirit of the law instead of fretting over its letter.

Dubai in particular and the United Arab Emirates as a whole boasts a splendid array of cultures and mindsets. The month of Ramadan provides the best opportunity to sensitize Non-Muslims about the religion. With the ‘us vs them’ narrative besetting the region, UAE harbours a sense of harmonious belonging to a home and people that exhibit a healthy diversity.

It could also be the country where a Non-Muslim’s depth of understanding Ramadan rivals his/her Muslim counterparts, provided the understanding comes through gradual interaction and not enforced laws.

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4 weird things that (apparently) invalidate the fast

Spending 3 important years of my life as a student in India gave me a new perspective on practicing my religion. There’s much that fills me with pride, and things that I believe are flash points for a burgeoning Muslim population in India.

While lies in the middle of the spectrum is humour. Many Muslims – and non-Muslims who have inquired about the traditions and rituals of Ramadan – gave away an innocent and naive understanding of the holy month. While I’m unaware of other societies harbouring similar beliefs, I rely on the consistency of my personal experience to cite India as a place where these things abound. It’s weird, but it’s hilarious!

Here are the top 4 (wrong) rulings that apparently invalidate your fast.

4 – pablo (2)

I know what you’re thinking. You’re trying to recollect all the moments you spent time with someone who was fasting, hoping he/she hadn’t followed this. I empathize with the intention here, but as long as you’re not deliberately trying to sneak in a few drops of water in, a cold shower is just that – refreshing!

3 –

pablo (3)

As a school kid, I saw a friend getting furious at other classmates spraying deodorant all over (yea, we got excited at the smallest things) citing that its fragrance would break his fast. This really infuriated me as it developed a wrong perception of Ramadan and ran this (mis)conception through a religious scholar. He confirmed that ‘smelling’ anything doesn’t affect the fast. I took a whiff of the ittar that the Imam was sporting[PS – Ramadan etiquette requires one to abstain from pronounced extravagance, like dousing oneself perfume and giving everyone a headache.]

2 –

pablo (5)

In an auto-rickshaw ride to the campus, my conversation with the driver drifted into Ramadan that had arrived the same week. The paraphernalia (spot for everything green and shiny) clearly suggested that he should ideally have been fasting. Explaining his reason of abstinence, he said, “Humare dhande mei gaali galoch bahut hoti hai. Toh Roza rakhne ka faayda nahi.” [In our line of business, using abusives and foul language is very common. Keeping the fast is of no use]

Quite funny, because fasting is about self-restraint and developing new habits. While using foul language is against the spirit of Ramadan, a religiously (punnn…) foul-mouthed person can use this month to overcome the hardness of his tongue.

1 – pablo (6)

This takes the cake (after Iftar). At first, I would be dumbstruck at the notion, after about 5 people asked me about this, I realised naivete related to Ramadan is viral. Saliva is a natural formation that lubricates the throat. And thanks to this, it actually allows us to complete our fast without invoking a Thar Desert feeling in our throat. I wonder if there’s anyone who reconciles fasting with this almost impossible requirement.

I’m sure these 4 things are but a mere snapshot of many more misconceptions. What only worries me is that these things can easily become excuses for ignoring the fast.

Have you come across other imaginative reasons that invalidate the fast in your culture? Share it with us in the comments below!

Ramadan Campaign Watch: #SplashHeartOfGold

The holy month of Ramadan will begin on the 17th or 18th of June in the United Arab Emirates this year. Celebrated as a time of religious reflection and spiritual rejuvenation, Muslims abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk.

While corporate activities do slow down owing to shorter work timings and the lethargy that kicks in after the initial hours, the only trend witnessed in commercial activity would be the increasing one. There’s a visible surge in shoppers who buy and stock up food and beverages that would otherwise not make it to the kart in months out of Ramadan. (Rooh Afza is my favourite example)

What would be wrong to assume, however, is that marketing and brand communications activities observe a fast too, avoiding any campaign that has the potential of staying relevant in the 4 special weeks. Brands that do not wish to merely see off Ramadan usually churn out that one big idea months in advance.

A notable example is Du’s #30DaysOfSharing campaign last Ramadan. Social Media users were encouraged to send in their precious moments which made Ramadan special.  Every post composed using the hashtag #30DaysofSharing had Du donate Dhs10 to its annual Iftar tables initiative, from which Iftar meals were distributed to the less fortunate. The results & reach of the campaign is shown in the short video below –

With enormous potential comes cultural and religious sensitivities attached to a campaign. There’s no margin for frivolity, and any attempt of merely trying to fit in with the spirit of a festival can lead to sharp criticism – both from passive observers and the religiously inclined. Finding the right space of creativity for a ritual guided by religious beliefs and practices poses an interesting challenge too. How does a brand go beyond the obvious leads of hunger and thirst, and place itself in an area respected & lauded by the people?

The ‘Heart of Gold’ Campaign by Splash

Splash – part of renowned Landmark Group based out of UAE – is one of the Middle East’s largest fashion retail outlets.  In just about a month from Ramadan, out of complete randomness, I chanced upon Splash’s sponsored tweet inviting people to participate in their Ramadan campaign.

The campaign uses the App medium for participation and aims to celebrate the human spirit of giving. Splash will be honouring 30 ‘unsung heroes’ throughout the month of Ramadan, which means a hero thanked and celebrated for a unique contribution each day of the holy month. In their own description in the App –

At Splash, the cause of humanity is one that’s always been close to our own heart. We believe there are numerous people out there, people from every walk of life, who espouse the cause of humanity in their own unique way without expecting anything in return. People whom you may have seen, known or heard of who strive to improve the lives of their fellow beings around them.

Splash ‘Heart of Gold’ has been instituted not only in the true spirit of giving during the holy month of Ramadan, but also as a tribute to these unsung heroes who devote their time, money and effort selflessly to the cause of humanity.

Points of Impression

As a retail outlet that decks up wardrobes with fashionable clothes and accessories, being relevant to Ramadan would certainly have been a challenge. The brand is not a consumable food item that can make it to the table during suhoor, nor is it a restaurant that people can flock to for iftar. They deal in products that are often displayed on lifeless mannequins,  and yet here they are hoping to acknowledge the goodness in selfless giving.

By indulging in this campaign,  in my humble opinion, Splash goes beyond the mundane obvious. It has identified a key element that is actively promoted in Ramadan – charitable behaviour towards society. By rewarding this act of righteousness, Splash will garner the respect of the public at large and those particularly involved in charity work.

The Clothes Connection

To talk purely of Splash’s main product offering, clothes come nowhere close to hunger and thirst – 2 things commonly (and sometimes narrowly) associated with the month. However, they’ve always been an important contraption in contributing to charity. Be it donating clothes to the poor or in areas afflicted with a calamity, the product association with the core of the campaign is not amiss.

In addition, people frequent clothes and accessories retail outlets to shop for Eid al-Fitr. This brings Splash another challenge of integrating their online efforts with their store customers, and to familiarize them with the campaign.

The #SplashHeartOfGold widget, Source: Splash Website

Democratizing the Nomination Choice

According the campaign, nominations will be sought from whosoever wishes to name their choice. Anyone can access the App, write the details of his/her nominee and justify the nomination in a 1000 words. The 30 winners will be chosen by a jury from the brand. The opportunity to nominate serves several benefits – the pool of nominees would be extensive and diverse (in nationality and sector of humanitarian work), and would encourage people to spot a potential nominee in someone who could be casually generous in expending social services.

[It would be nice though if Splash spelled out this jury and make this a more transparent affair. Knowing who selects the final winners would bring more credibility to the activity]

PR Potential

A campaign of this scale and philosophy can be expected to make its mark in media too. The print media in UAE has seldom held back from recognizing Good Samaritans in society, especially in highlighting stories that reflect honesty and nobility in their day-to-day dealings. The story behind each of the 30 nominees would certainly make for an interesting read.

Splash’s CSR in the past

This will not be the first time that Splash exhibits its relationship with societal responsibilities. Recently, the brand was recognized at the Princess Haya Awards for Special Education as an ‘Outstanding Institutional Supporter in Private Sector‘ for its work with students of Special Needs Future Development Center (SNF) in Dubai. I learnt from first hand account of a student & friend from SNF about his induction into the Splash workforce in one of the Splash stores, and being acknowledged by the management as ‘best employee of the month’. Such initiatives are a major boost for special education training centers as they search an inclusive environment for their students, especially adults of the working age,  to learn and thrive in.

Ms. Safia Bari, Director of SNF (left) with the CEO of Splash Fashions, Mr. Raza Beig ; [Source: SNF Facebook Page]

Ms. Safia Bari, Director of SNF (left) with the CEO of Splash Fashions, Mr. Raza Beig ; [Source: SNF Facebook Page]

It will be interesting to know how the #SplashHeartOfGold campaign pans out for the brand. If successful, Splash could well set an example for other brands to buck up and come out strong, or look on as the sun sets on their Ramadan activity.

Is there a Ramadan campaign that has caught your attention from this year or the past? Contribute by commenting below!

[To participate in the #SplashHeartOfGold campaign and nominate someone, click here.]