As an Irish teacher working in the United Arab Emirates, I have had the opportunity to experience Ramadan from a western perspective.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, during which Muslims across the world fast from dawn until sunset. This year it began in Ireland on Wednesday, March 22nd.
Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam; during this month Muslims focus on spiritual reflection, prayer and charitable acts. Westerners are not required to fast during Ramadan, but I have found it important to respect and understand the customs of the country I am living in. This includes being mindful of how I behave around my Muslim colleagues and students during this time.
You may think that this creates a level of division, but it’s the complete opposite. Ramadan helps to foster respect for everyone’s lifestyle.
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My students – I teach media studies and English here – will eagerly ask me if I am fasting, as they love when westerners take steps toward their culture. Even if they know people aren’t fasting, they are thrilled to hear a Ramadan Kareem greeting or hear about an Iftar you have attended (an Iftar is the meal taken after sunset to break the fast of the day during Ramadan).
For many Irish people new to the UAE, a logical entry point to the concept of Ramadan is the Christian Lent. Ramadan and Lent are two important religious observances that involve fasting and spiritual reflection.
One of the most important things I have learned is to be respectful of those who are fasting. This means being aware of how I eat, drink and behave in their presence. It is important to avoid eating or drinking during the day in front of those who are fasting.
I try to be mindful of my actions in general. This extends to my behaviour in the classroom, where I try to be sensitive to the needs of my Muslim students who have not eaten during the day. Learning is always a challenging process and it is even more so when depleted of energy or sleep – a fact I consider when planning my lessons.
In terms of eating during Ramadan, there are certain customs and etiquette that should be followed. You usually begin Iftar with dates and water, or juice. After this, there is a main meal, which can include a variety of dishes. It is important to eat in moderation and avoid wastage of food during this period.
Besides the self-control of fasting, another significant aspect of Ramadan is the increased focus on charity and helping others. Muslims are encouraged to give to those in need and there are many charitable organisations that operate during this time. I have been humbled by the generosity and kindness shown by the Muslim community during Ramadan. It has been a privilege to be a part of this spirit of giving and to witness the impact it has on those in need.
Irish people in the UAE may not be observing Ramadan, but they will use the time to challenge themselves, to try to exercise more or to give up a habit, in the same way, they would do during Lent. The principles emphasised during Ramadan are not difficult or new for an Irish person; they merely reaffirm aspects of our culture that we already practise and value.
From a personal perspective, observing Ramadan has been a valuable learning experience. It has taught me the importance of empathy and understanding towards those from different cultures and religions. It has also highlighted the importance of self-discipline and sacrifice, in addition to the mental and physical benefits that can come from fasting.
Ramadan has also given me a greater appreciation for the importance of community and togetherness. Muslims often break their fast together with family and friends and there is a strong sense of camaraderie during this time. It has been inspiring to see how people come together to support each other and celebrate this important month.
Observing Ramadan from an Irish perspective has allowed me to appreciate the customs and beliefs of the Muslim community and to develop a greater understanding of my colleagues and students. It has also given me opportunities to compare our values and reflect on the similarities between our cultures.
Cormac O’Donnell is from Co Donegal. He did his undergraduate degree at Maynooth University and then took an MA in film studies at NUI Galway. He is now married to a “wonderful, beautiful Saudi-American woman”.
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