Ramadan etiquette: Is it okay to eat in front of Muslims during Ramadan?

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Are you a non-Muslim who wants to be respectful of the religious practices of your Muslim friends and colleagues during Ramadan? Living in a multicultural country such as Canada, it’s not surprising that you would have this concern. It is estimated that there are more than a million Muslims in the country. If you’re wondering how best to support your friend, co-worker or neighbour, here is a guide for you.

What is Ramadan and when is it observed?

Ramadan is the holiest period for Muslims. It is a month-long celebration where the faithful observe practices that make them closer to Allah. It is held on the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar when the new crescent moon is first seen. It doesn’t fall on the exact same time every year; the date is confirmed by a committee made up of government officials and religious scholars. This year (2020), Ramadan started on the evening of Thursday, April 23rd and will end on May 23rd.

How do Muslims observe Ramadan?

During this time, many observe fasting which is one of the pillars of Islam. They fast from dawn to dusk for 29-30 days, depending on the moon cycle. The practice does not mean abstaining only from food and drink (even water), but from worldly pleasures. They refrain from smoking, sexual activity, or even pastimes, like watching TV or listening to music. This is done to remind themselves of human frailty and their obedience to holy teachings. It also helps them focus on their spiritual life minus the distractions of the world.

Aside from these, Muslims recite verses from the Quran and attend prayer sessions. They also do their best to avoid entertaining negative thoughts and actions. Muslims regard Ramadan as a “time of joy and for spending time with one’s family, and giving to charity and those in need” (Kamakshi Ayyar, Your Complete Guide to Ramadan, Including the Proper Greeting and When It Starts, Time).

Do you wonder whether . . .

(Questions and answers adapted from A Ramadan etiquette guide for non-Muslims, Saeed Ahmed, CNN)

… it’s proper to eat in front of Muslims during Ramadan?
Muslims don’t think that just because they are fasting during Ramadan others must fast too. However, eating in front of someone fasting can be awkward. If you want to avoid this, or if you just want to be considerate, avoid eating at your desk where your Muslim co-workers can smell your food. Eat at the office break room. But if you have no choice but to eat in front of someone fasting, rest assured that they will not take it against you. Just don’t offer them food or drink, or insist that they eat with you.

… you should greet Muslims on this occasion and what do you say?
Greeting and wishing someone well are always welcome. You can say Happy Ramadan, but to be more precise, you can use “Ramadan Kareem” (“Have a generous Ramadan”) or “Ramadan Mubarak” (Happy Ramadan”). On the last day of Ramadan (Eid-al-fitr), you can say “Eid Mubarak.”

… it’s proper to invite a Muslim for a lunch meeting?
Muslims are not supposed to avoid normal duties during the day just because they are fasting. They certainly do not expect others to do so on their account. So if you really, really need to hold a lunch meeting, you should. But don’t expect your Muslim co-workers to eat with you. If your concern is not urgent, then perhaps it would be more prudent to schedule a morning (or early afternoon) meeting. This way, everyone will be able to participate fully, and without the awkwardness. It’s a win-win situation.

… all Muslims fast?
All able-bodied Muslims should fast but there are exceptions. Young children, expecting and breast-feeding mothers, menstruating women, the elderly and those with health conditions are exempt from fasting during Ramadan.

… it’s ok for a non-Muslim to join Iftar?
Iftar is the breaking of the fast after sundown and it’s a big communal meal. If you are ever invited, you should definitely go. You can even ask to be invited! Muslims would consider it an honour. They believe that guests are a blessing. It would be a great opportunity for you to see how the Muslims celebrate Ramadan and how they nurture the community spirit. If you want to prepare for your first Iftar, read: Here’s what you should know before attending your first Iftar (Yvonne Maffei, kitchn) to make the best of the event.

Have more questions?

If you are curious about Ramadan and you have more questions, visit your local mosque. They will be more than happy to welcome you and answer your questions there. And kudos to you for wanting to learn more about a different religion and being respectful. It’s people like you who make the world a better, more inclusive place.
Article updated April 27, 2020.

Sources: A Ramadan etiquette guide for non-Muslims, Saeed Ahmed, CNN; Your complete guide to Ramadan, including the proper greeting and when it starts, Kamakshi Ayyar, Time; Ramadan 2019: 9 questions about the Muslim holy month you were too embarrassed to ask, Jennifer Williams, Vox; and How to talk to Muslims during Ramadan, Sarah Hagi, Vice. Retrieved May 7, 2019.

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