Rama’daan is a very special time for Muslims worldwide, and this is also what a group of non-Muslim American students in Oman realized, who are here for a study-abroad semester as part of the School of International Training program.
I spoke with seven of these students as they personally experience Rama’daan for the first time in an Arab Muslim country and with their Omani homestay families. Jessica Hanlin, Kristen Nordin, Brandon Huffman, Daniel Pickens-Jones, Jillian Keenan, Monica Camacho, and Mickey Hubbard shared with us their experience and understanding of Rama’daan.
What did you know about Rama’daan before coming to Oman?
Jessica: I knew very little. I just knew that Rama’daan was a holiday in the Islaamic faith and a month of fasting. But the extent to what that meant I didn’t know.
Kristen: I knew it was a time of fasting, but the fist time I ever encountered Rama’daan was in a novel that I read. It mentioned a character in the desert breaking his fast with grapes. I remember wondering what could possess someone to go a day without food and water in the desert.
Brandon: I knew people fasted for a month, and that was pretty much it.
Daniel: I knew it was a month of fasting and increased devotion and one of the pillars of Islaam. I was also aware that different people practiced it differently because not all of the Muslims I knew in the States fasted at all.
Jillian: I had travelled a little bit in the Middle East before but not in the Gulf region, so I knew about the fasting in Rama’daan. I visited Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, and Jordan, but never during the holy month. I also had Muslim friends in the USA who fasted during Rama’daan. Actually, my first experience with Rama’daan was when I was in fifth grade, when a Muslim friend of mine named Mu’hammad was fasting. For Christmas that year we had a gift exchange in school called Secret Santa where we would give a gift to a student. Mu’hammad was joking about how much he wanted a hamburger because he was fasting, so I got him a plastic hamburger as a gift. I was ten years old and Mu’hammad found it funny, but now I know that it would be offending for me to do that to a fasting Muslim. Also, part of the reason I chose to come to Oman in this time of year was to participate in Rama’daan.
Monica: I knew it was the Muslim lunar holy month. Muslims fast during the day and get together to break the fast. People also become more conservative.
Mickey: I knew that Rama’daan is an important holy month and that there was fasting involved with an increase of religious activity.
What did you learn about Rama’daan after coming to Oman?
Jessica: I got a general understanding of Rama’daan that it’s more than just a time of fasting from food and water. It’s different for each person, but it seems very much a time for thinking, appreciating, praying, being with friends and family, and thanking God for everything He has given. In the United States, I had very little exposure to Rama’daan. I had a few friends who fasted, but it’s a huge accommodation to function on normal American schedule and fast. In Oman everyone respects Rama’daan. Business hours are shorter, it’s quite during the day and active at night and everyone is doing it as a community. Rama’daan seemed like a good time to make excuses too; to take a nap, go out at night, visit lots of friends and families, and eat lots of food. I also noticed how my host family would get up earlier to read the ’Qur~an and spend more time in prayer
Kristen: Now that I’m here and it’s Rama’daan I began to appreciate its spiritual aspect. It’s the first time that I experience it first hand. My host mother said it’s time to appreciate what you have and think of those who go hungry during the day. It’s also a time of reflection and prayer, and it has been such an insight into so many things here in Oman.
Brandon: I learned that the experience is more than just fasting. People reverse their lifestyle and it’s kind of like a month long holiday. They don’t work as much and people get more conservative and go to the mosque more often. I also didn’t know that fasting included things like not swearing.
Daniel: Everything that I knew about it was fairly accurate. Some conceptions I had weren’t reflected in what I saw because I thought people would be more quite and spend time praying but when I came I found out it was like a big party. I understand it better. I was a bit surprised that everyone did fast because I thought it was something that more devout people did.
Jillian: I was surprised to learn that during Rama’daan there is a huge emphasis on food, while I thought that a fast would not be about food. My host family spends a huge amount of time planning, preparing and eating their meals during Rama’daan and this gave me the opportunity to try new kinds of Omani food. I learned about traditional food, but what I would like to learn is the history of Rama’daan and if there is a story about it. I understand that people become more devout -during Rama’daan- and those who don’t practice Islaam on a daily basis revert to their faith. It’s a very happy time here.
Monica: I didn’t realize there was such a mental component to Rama’daan. For example, you can break your fast by having angry thoughts. Fasting is more about internal changes, such as trying to be more loving, to discipline yourself so you stay away from angry material thoughts and have more spiritual ones and to be considerate of the ones around you.
Mickey: I didn’t realize how much it interrupted daily life as far as work goes. People also go more to the mosque during Rama’daan and become more conservative. It was obvious that it was a big deal. I remember everyone was watching TV the two nights before Rama’daan to find out when it will start, they then prepared for fasting the next day. Many family gatherings take place in this month. I also learned the specifics of it, such as the actual timings of when it starts and ends.
Did you try to fast?
Jessica: Yes, and I’m still fasting. I’ve been fasting since the beginning and I plan to fast the whole month. When I first fasted I thought it’ll simply be like skipping lunch, but it’s more of looking forward to the If’taar meal. It’s not just because I get to eat food then, but also because I get to sit with my host family. The first day of fasting was not very hard, but the second day was and some days are worse than others. Overall, it’s not a huge sacrifice, but sometimes I would sit in class while fasting and think about the food I’ll be eating in back home. Here in Oman it just seems like a way of life.
Kristen: I’ve been fasting since the beginning. The first three days were the most difficult, but then I started getting used to it. You have to tailor your lifestyle around it and you find ways to make it work for you. Some people sleep during the day and are a lot less active. One of the enjoyable parts of the experience is the family gatherings.
Brandon: I fasted for a week and a half and then I got sick so I couldn’t continue. But usually I fast the days when I get back home early because no one eats in the house. Fasting wasn’t hard and I think I could fast for a whole year if it involved sleeping during the day. What’s interesting is that a few Muslims didn’t fast.
Daniel: I was fasting for the first week and a half, but I had a throat infection so I stopped and I plan to fast again. My experience in fasting was fine. Unlike others, I didn’t find the first days hard but later it was. The biggest challenge is not just thinking about food, but trying to get things done in the day. It can be more difficult to get enjoyment out of that when I have little energy. We have a massive If’taar with my family. I was interested in people’s reactions who seemed upset that I tried to fast. They felt that I didn’t get it and that I was free to do what I want. I would try to explain that I’m doing it for the experience and to realize the satisfaction of eating.
Jillian: I fasted for four days. The first day was the hardest and after that it was much easier. I then developed a throat infection like some of the other students but it wasn’t from fasting. But at that point I just gave up on the fasting although it was interesting to experience it. In the first day I couldn’t stop thinking about Samboosa and tea. I didn’t wake up for Su’hoor after the first day because my family didn’t make a big deal of it. I ate Su’hoor alone and then slept, but then I decided that sleep was more important than food. I was also concerned that if I fast I would gain weight from the extensive eating in If’taar.
Monica: I didn’t fast for certain reasons. I knew I’ll be under a lot of stress and I figured I needed my energy. I didn’t want to add extra stress. I also had some unhealthy habits before that involved going for substantial periods without food and I would break the fast with unhealthy food. I didn’t want to bring back bad memories because I was doing that fast for the wrong reasons. I didn’t want to fast Rama’daan also for the wrong reasons, or to be forced to do it. As a Buddhist, I simply participated in my side by praying more in my religion. Some Muslims also get very confused when non-Muslims fast. I heard that some Muslims offered non-Muslims food and the non-Muslims were trying to respect the holy month and explained their fasting. It might be strange to participate in a religion that’s not your own, so it’s hard for them to explain it.
Mickey: Yes, I fasted from the beginning and I’d like to finish the month. I first started fasting because I didn’t know how others would feel if I didn’t. When I realized that it’s ok if I don’t fast and that it’ll be accepted, I decided to just continue fasting to gain a little bit of cultural empathy and to see what it’s like. It’s pretty interesting. I like the purity and cleansing aspect of it. I don’t think it works for me because I’m not a Muslim and I don’t have the same views towards it. It’s difficult without food but I don’t think it’s that tough. Fasting has also helped me bond with the family because I’m not an exception to the house. When Muslims hear that I’m fasting, they usually explain to me a little bit about Rama’daan, while some laugh and others smile; it’s interesting.
The experiences of Jessica, Kristen, Brandon, Daniel, Jillian, Monica and Mickey are indeed interesting. Their first Rama’daan experience in a Muslim country gives us an insight into how Rama’daan is viewed from a non-Muslim perspective. Some Muslims might be surprised when non-Muslims fast because they don’t want them to feel obliged to do so while they voluntarily want to. However, it might be challenging for non-Muslims to truly understand Rama’daan if not all Muslims practice it as it should be.
Spirituality is also a vital part of Rama’daan and more of its blessings can be attained by reflecting on the significance of this month and setting goals to come out of it as better individuals. This part could be hard for non-Muslims to realize because it’s not their religion, but the students from the School of International Training in Oman have attained a general understanding of this blessed month and their effort in doing so is a positive example of mutual respect between people with different cultures and religions.
Meet The Studetns!
20 years old, Communications major, University of North Carolina
19 years old, International Affairs major, University of Colorado at Boulder
20 years old, Journalism major, University of North Carolina
19 years old, Music and International Studies double major, McAlester College
20 years old, English Literature major, Stanford University.
20 years old, International Relations major, Tufts University.
20 years old, Political Science major, Davidson College.
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