Article in brief: The author looks at the local laws imposed on eating and drinking during fasting hours in Ramadan and ponders as to whether such drastic measures are really necessary.
We’re in Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic year, and this is the time when we can reignite our faith and strengthen our bond with Allah. In Muslim countries, work and school hours are reduced, giving us a lot more time to spend with our families and to reflect. In the UAE and across the Gulf, restaurants and coffee shops shut down until sunset. Eating or drinking in public is not allowed, even for non-Muslims or the non-fasting, and if caught doing so, fines can be imposed.
While fasting from sunrise to sunset can be challenging, and the sight and smell of food may make it more difficult for some, I do not agree with the country-wide restriction. The UAE has a large number of non-Muslims who are not obliged to fast, so why do we impose these restrictions on them? Even if we choose to ignore this with the notion that we are a Muslim country, what about the countless number of Muslims who are exempted from fasting, be it due to pregnancy, breastfeeding, menstruation or simply for being sick, too young or too old?
Why do all these groups of people have to also be restricted? Is it fair to restrict a diabetic from having something to eat in public if their blood sugar drops? People are free to do as they please in their homes, but many of them might be working and outside their houses throughout the day, so why do we impose these restrictions on them too? Why do they have to eat and drink in secrecy?
Ramadan is also about understanding the hardships of the poor and needy. A great part of their struggles is not having enough to feed their families, as they sit by and watch other people enjoy their lavish feasts and luxuries. This is a reality for many people all year long and we Muslims can’t manage to do it for one month out of the entire year. Is this just another luxury that is being bestowed upon us?
I studied in Canada for four years and fasted among many non-observers and would go to my classes as I would on any other day. I would meet fellow students for team projects and watch as they sipped on their lattes. Evening classes sometimes coincided with the time of Iftar, so I would have to excuse myself for 5-10 minutes to break my fast. Yet, I still very much felt the spirit of Ramadan within me. In fact, I feel it made the experience even more enriching. I felt a special bond with Allah, and cherished this time as I strengthened my faith, while everyone around me was going about their own business. Ramadan is about exercising self-control, so why should the whole country shut down for it? Are we so weak that a whiff of coffee would make us give into temptation?
There are Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, that don’t fully shut down as they cater to their visitors and non-observing residents. So shouldn’t a country, such as the UAE, also be more lenient? I believe it should be a choice in which a restaurant with mainly Muslim servers can choose to close for their employees, while there could be others that can manage to continue operating.
The spirit of Ramadan can be felt in so many ways, and I don’t think imposing fines for public-eating or shutting down restaurants is the way to go. Muslims all over the world fast and feel the spirit of this beautiful month, even with food and drinks being consumed all around them.
Some might argue that we would lose the sense of Ramadan if restaurants and malls operated as normal, but I believe we can find other ways to feel and share the spirit. We can invite our non-Muslim friends for Iftar so they can observe how we break our fast, or share some of the Ramadan delicacies with our neighbors and/or the less fortunate. We can spread the sense of generosity and reach out to the needy with food, water, money, or even simply, some love. We must focus on giving, which is the true essence of Ramadan, rather than taking away.