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 your Muslim friends and colleagues during Ramadan? Do you wonder if it’s rude to eat while they fast?

It’s not surprising that you would have this concern. After all, it is estimated that there are more than a million Muslims living in Canada. 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?

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. However, it doesn’t fall on the same time every year. It is based on the visual sightings of the crescent moon and is confirmed by a committee of government officials and religious scholars. This year (2021), Ramadan starts on the evening of April 13 and will end on May 12.

How do Muslims observe Ramadan?

Fasting is one of the pillars of Islam. Muslims fast from dawn to dusk for 29-30 days, depending on the moon cycle. This does not mean abstaining only from food and drink but from all worldly pleasures. They refrain from smoking, sexual activity, or even pastimes like watching TV or listening to music. This is 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.

More than anything, they 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). A part of this is avoiding negative thoughts and actions. They also recite verses from the Quran and attend prayer sessions.

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 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?
Wishing someone well is 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 because they are fasting. They certainly do not expect others to do so on their account. So if it’s necessary 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’re ever invited, you should definitely go. You can even ask to be invited! Muslims would consider it an honour because they believe that guests are a blessing. It will be a wonderful opportunity for you to see how Ramadan is celebrated and how Muslims nurture community spirit. 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 out 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 March 11, 2021.

 
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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