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Fasting During Ramadan is ‘Challenging’ in Non-Muslim Countries

So begins the holy month of Ramadan for more than 1.6 billion Muslims around the world

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FILE - Indian Muslims offer Eid al-Fitr prayers in the shade of a petrol filling station as they join others offering prayers in an open area in Hyderabad, India, June 16, 2018. VOA

For the next 30 days, Tarannum Mansouri will arise at 3 a.m. at her home in Vadodara, India, being careful not to awaken her toddler son. She will bathe and then join the other women in her family in the kitchen to prepare the morning meal.

A filling breakfast of homemade bread, vegetables, perhaps a chicken curry and fruit will be washed down with tea by 4:30 a.m., before the break of day. So begins the holy month of Ramadan for more than 1.6 billion Muslims around the world.

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, when Muslims believe the holy Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel in the seventh century. It is a month of fasting, prayer and reflection for Muslims. It is a time when practicing Muslims refrain from all food, drink, smoking and sex from sunrise to sunset.

“It is a holy month,” says Hibo Wardere of London. A month “that you are dedicating to God.” The last 10 days of Ramadan are considered the most holy. “That is when the seven steps to heaven are open,” Wardere adds. The most important is Laylat al-Qadr, or the “Night of Power,” believed to be the holiest night of the year.

“It is a night everybody stays awake” and prays, she says. “It means all your prayers will be heard, it means all your sins will be forgiven, it means you will get what you dreamed of.” Islam takes into account that not everyone is able or willing to fast during Ramadan. Children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are exempt from fasting.

Others who are old or ill can also forego fasting, but they must feed one poor person for each day of a missed fast. The practice is called fidya and how much it costs depends on where one lives.

In the U.S., “it comes out to $10 per day or $300 for the month,” says Minhaj Hassan of the nonprofit charity Islamic Relief USA. In Britain, Islamic Relief UK has set the daily rate of fidya at 5 pounds or 150 pounds for the month.

On the other hand, “kaffarah is paid by individuals who miss a fast for no good reason,” says Hassan. “The amount is $600 a day, or feeding 60 people in need (the Arabic term is miskeen).” In Britain, the price is 300 pounds per day. One can also atone for a missed or deliberately broken fast by fasting for 60 straight days.

Observance in non-Muslim countries

Fasting during Ramadan is “a million times more difficult” in a non-Muslim country “than back home,” says Wardere, who is from Somalia but has lived in London for most of her life.

In the U.S., an estimated 3.2 million Muslims will fast during Ramadan, a small number compared to the 327 million population. By contrast, a 2013 Pew Research Center study shows 94% of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa fast for the month.

​”The practice of fasting in Muslim nations is presumably much more common during Ramadan, since there are likely to be more practicing Muslims,” says Hassan. “And fasting is a part of the daily culture during this month. Thus, if people you know are fasting, you’re likely to do the same.”

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Palestinians check a shop selling Ramadan lights in the old city of Jerusalem, May 4, 2019, as Muslims around the world prepare for the announcement of the fasting month of Ramadan which is expected to start on May 5 or 6 depending on the crescent moon. VOA

Most Muslim countries also make it easier for people to fast. Across the Middle East, Ramadan must be observed in public. Which means, even non-Muslims must refrain from eating, drinking and smoking in public. In most of these countries, religious police patrol the streets and violators are usually punished. Most cafes, restaurants and clubs are closed during the day although some hotels serve food in screened-in areas or through room service.

Most public offices and schools are closed and private businesses are encouraged to cut back their hours to accommodate the fasters.

“Being part of an environment or community where fasting is encouraged and accommodated can increase the likelihood of people fasting successfully,” Hassan says. “In some Muslim countries, accommodations are provided for fasting, which may not always be the case in the West” or in other non-Muslim nations.

“Observing Ramadan as a minority has its challenges. But it is not significant enough to make it impossible to fast,” says Naeem Baig of the Islamic Circle of North America. He says it is made easier because “people from other faiths generally are respectful and supportive towards their Muslim colleagues or neighbors.”

Making accommodations

Mansouri, in India, will have to accommodate her fasting while spending weekdays at her job as a teacher in a Hindu school. She says she will try to keep herself busy so as not to think of food when teachers and children take their lunch break.

Similarly, Baig says, “We encourage Muslim parents to inform the schools their children attend and let the teachers know that their children will not be going for lunch break. In most public schools, Muslim children of fasting age can go to the library during lunch and are exempt from PE (physical education).”

Organizations such as the nonprofit Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding work with businesses to help them accommodate the needs of those observing Ramadan.

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FILE – A man offers Eid al-Fitr prayers marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan outside a railway station, in Mumbai, India, June 16, 2018. VOA

“Muslim employees observing Ramadan may be fasting during this period. Some may request scheduling accommodations and your company may find that more employees require space for prayer during this time,” writes the group’s deputy CEO, Mark Fowler, on its website.

He encourages his clients to avail themselves to the group’s fact sheet regarding scheduling, dietary restriction, and greetings during Ramadan.​

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Ramadan 2019

Muslims in the West, Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, and much of the Middle East, including Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, will begin observing Ramadan on Monday. But millions in India, Pakistan and Iran will likely be marking the start of the lunar month on Tuesday, based on moon sightings there.

Ramadan will end on June 3 or June 4, depending on when it started. After 30 days, Ramadan ends with a three-day celebration known as Eid al-Fitr, when families and friends get together, exchange gifts and feast. (VOA)

Next Story

Ramadan in Xinjiang: Diplomat Confirms Partial Restrictions

A Chinese diplomat in neighboring Pakistan said Beijing has put only partial restrictions on Ramadan activities

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FILE - Uighurs attend Friday prayers at a mosque in Urumqi, in western China's Xinjiang province, Aug 8, 2008. VOA

A Chinese official denies allegations by activists that China’s government is blocking Muslim religious practices in the restive Xinjiang region during the holy month of Ramadan.

A Chinese diplomat in neighboring Pakistan said Beijing has put only partial restrictions on Ramadan activities, not a total ban on fasting by the Uighur minority in Xinjiang.

“There’s no blanket ban. That’s Western propaganda,” Lijian Zhao, the deputy chief of mission at China’s embassy in Islamabad, told VOA.

Zhao said that Xinjiang residents were free to fast during Ramadan and that restrictions were limited to those with official responsibilities to ensure their religious practices did not interfere with their public duties.

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A map showing “East Turkistan,” the name Uighurs who oppose Chinese rule call their homeland, a region China refers to as Xinjiang is seen at a bookstore in Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu neighborhood, Dec. 14, 2017. VOA

“Restrictions are with the Communist Party members, who are atheists; government officials, who shall discharge their duties; and students who are with compulsory education and hard learning tasks,” he said.

The official’s comments come as human rights activists and Uighur advocacy groups have expressed concern about the Chinese government’s widening its repression of thousands of Uighurs as they joined millions of Muslims from around the world to fast during Ramadan, which began May 5 and continues for a month.

Dolkun Isa, the head of the Germany-based World Uighur Congress, told VOA that Uighurs who are working in the public sector and students are asked to appear daily at canteens during lunch or they will be accused of secretly fasting and hiding “extremist” tendencies.

Disputing Zhao’s assertion that the restrictions were limited, the exiled Uighur leader Isa said government workers were also forced to take home food and share with their family members. Other common Muslim practices, such as attending prayer and wearing a headscarf, are also banned for local residents.

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“In some cases, Uighur employees are forced to take home pork and ordered to share with their families,” said Isa. “The restrictions on Ramadan have been in place every year since 2016, but they are especially hard this year.”

Separatist movement

The vast region of deserts and mountains in the northwest is home to nearly 22 million people and has the greatest concentration of Muslims in China, estimated to be about 11 million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities.

Conflict in the region is not new. The Chinese government has for decades suppressed a separatist movement by Uighurs to establish an independent state called East Turkestan. Uighurs accuse the government of forcing demographic changes by settling millions of Han Chinese in the region.

The government in Beijing has in recent years faced growing international condemnation over the detention of more than a million minority Uighurs and other Muslims in so-called re-education camps.

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FILE – Barbed wire protects the walls around a cluster of schools on the outskirts of Kashgar, in western China’s Xinjiang region, Aug. 31, 2018. VOA

Detention camps

Earlier this month, Randall Schriver, who leads Asia policy at the U.S. Department of Defense, said that the estimated number of detainees could be “closer to 3 million citizens.”

“The Communist Party is using the security forces for mass imprisonment of Chinese Muslims in concentration camps,” Schriver said at a Pentagon briefing.

The term “concentration camps” is generally associated with the death camps operated by Nazi Germany in 1940s.

Chinese officials, however, say that their measures in Xinjiang are needed to combat the threat of terrorism and that the camps are nothing but vocational training centers. They are asking the U.S. to “stop interfering” in their domestic affairs.

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“We urge the relevant U.S. individual to respect the fact, abandon bias, exercise prudence in words and deeds, stop interfering in China’s domestic affairs, and earnestly contribute to mutual trust and cooperation between us,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang at a press briefing last week.

Shuang said their measures at “vocational and educational training institutions” operate according to law and they endorse all ethnic group members with “positive social effects.”

Anti-terror law

In December 2015, China passed its controversial anti-terror law, which according to Human Rights Watch gave government agencies “enormous discretionary powers.”

The government’s April 2017 regulations to “prevent extremism” drew international outcry, with critics saying they violated basic human rights and religious freedom.

According to the state-run newspaper China Daily, the regulations forbid people in the region from wearing full-face coverings and long beards. They also prohibit them from “choosing names in an abnormal way” or “rejecting or refusing state products and services that include radio and television programming.” (VOA)