How to Talk to Muslims During Ramadan
What to say and what not to say to your Muslim colleagues and friends during the most important month of their year.
Bild via AFP/Arif Ali
This Friday, the month of Ramadan begins for Muslims worldwide. If you've never met a Muslim (which would be pretty wild, because there are literally over a billion of us), Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The month is regarded as the period of time in which the Qur'an was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammed and where Muslims partake in a month of fasting and charity. From before sunrise to sunset, Muslims abstain from food and drink, sexual relations, and pretty much all worldly desires, instead focusing on spirituality and self-betterment.
It's also a month where most of the non-Muslim people I interact with on a daily basis tiptoe around how to treat me. Only when Ramadan rolls around do I realize how many of my social interactions involve consuming food or beverages. Meeting friends for lunch or dinner is almost impossible, and going on a coffee break at work won't happen for a while.
While, yes, abstaining from food and drink is largely considered the most important aspect (it's one of the five pillars of Islam), many don't understand that we're not just abstaining from food itself. Ramadan can be seen as a bit of a reset, almost a way to become a better person for the rest of your year. We increase our charitable efforts, spend more time with family and our communities, and try our best to not speak poorly of others or lie. It's a time of deep personal reflection as well—for me, I see it as a way to create self-improvement habits for the rest of my year.
If in my years of fasting I've learned anything, it's that non-Muslims (or rather, people who've never been around Muslims on a deeper level) have no idea how to act toward me during Ramadan. They know it's happening, but are usually unsure about the details beyond "no food," leaving room for a lot of confusion and repeated conversations. It's not really difficult togGoogle "Ramadan" or even read the relatively accurate and extensive Wikipedia entry. Luckily, I have created this handy guide to what you should and shouldn't say or do to Muslims during Ramadan.
Don't ask why someone's not fasting
There are so many reasons why observant Muslims can't or don't fast. Illness, pregnancy, old age, menstruation—all very personal things to talk about depending on the person. But most important, it's none of your business whether or not someone is fasting. One of the most beautiful things about the act of fasting is that there's no way to really prove anyone is doing it, leaving the act itself to be a deeply personal one. Also, asking why someone isn't disregarding other important aspects of being observant during Ramadan, like self-reflection and prayer. Just because someone isn't fasting doesn't mean they're not participating.
Don't be weird about eating
It makes total sense to not want to flaunt a meal in front of your friend who won't be eating for 15 hours, but no need to be overly apologetic about it (that just makes it worse and is very annoying.) Here's the thing—we know exactly what we're getting into when we fast. We're aware of what it will do to us. That's why before we begin fasting, most of us wake up an hour or so early and eat as much as we can for the rest of the day. A huge part of fasting is knowing the world doesn't stop for you, nobody is expecting special treatment (though being mindful is nice,) we still go to work and go about our daily lives. Ramadan isn't supposed to be easy, that's the whole point. If you're unsure as to how to accommodate a Muslim guest while fasting there are plenty of ways to make someone feel welcome without offering food. One summer, my best friend put a cold towel in her freezer for me to cool off rather than offering me a glass of water. It was one of the most kind and thoughtful things anyone has ever done for me.
Be thoughtful about your questions
Every Ramadan, usually around the beginning, non-Muslims will ask me (or rather, exclaim) "Not even water?!" The question itself is so widespread, it's become a sort of in-joke with Muslims. Don't do that! It might sound discouraging like I'm saying don't ask questions during Ramadan, but that's not really the point. Don't ask questions that require the tiniest bit of research to figure out. Imagine what it's like for us, going about our days surrounded by people not fasting and hearing the same question dozens of times and having to explain over and over again, "No, not even water." If you want to have a meaningful conversation about Ramadan and our beliefs, some base knowledge makes sense, doesn't it?
Ramadan is a great opportunity to learn about a misunderstood group of people, take advantage of that
I can't speak for all Muslims, but for myself, I love talking about Ramadan with people. I love giving people the opportunity to learn more about something that's deeply important to me—especially considering how Islam can be presented to so many. Many community centers or groups also love getting non-Muslims involved in Ramadan festivities. If you're a student, your local Muslim student association likely has information nights or communal dinners in the evening. While fasting is clearly faith-based, fasting is a great exercise in the art of self-control, which is why I always encourage non-Muslims to join me—even for a day in experiencing what it's like to fast.
Don't explain Ramadan to Muslims, regardless of what you know
Very often, people try and use what they know about Muslims and Islam to explain Ramadan to me. One example is of a former coworker of mine saying, "No, I'm pretty sure it's from sunrise to sunset you can't eat." (No, it's not—because our morning prayer takes place before the sun rises and we eat before that.) There are better ways to show you took an Eastern Religions course freshman year than telling someone about their own religion and customs. Take our damn word for it.
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