For those of us who are Irish expatriates in the Middle East, we might be surprised by how soon the holy month of Ramadan has come around again and relieved at the thought of more relaxed working hours for a few weeks.
As we come to learn more about this time of year, we realize that it is one of the most important and meaningful periods for Muslims all over the world.
As an Irish person who has been living in the UAE for five years, I have come to view the holy month with humility, focus and gratitude. Moreover, the longer I spend in the Middle East, the more apparent the cultural links between Ramadan and the Irish community become.
One aspect of Ramadan that both Muslims and the Irish look forward to is the reduced focus on work and the renewed emphasis on well-being.
Sarah, a teacher from Ireland working in Dubai, said: “During Ramadan, my schedule as a teacher changes significantly. I start work later in the day and finish earlier. I look forward to this season as it gives me a chance to breathe. Teachers work incredibly hard and are used to such a fast pace, so it’s a relief to take things at a slower pace.”
To those Irish expats who are experiencing Ramadan for the first time, the holy month might seem to strongly resemble the Christian observance of Lent: Both are periods of fasting that offer an opportunity for self-reflection and spiritual growth.
During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise until sunset for a month, abstaining from all food and drink during daylight hours. Lent is a 40-day period in the run-up to Easter that traditionally involves Christians choosing to participate in more moderate types of fasting or other forms of self-denial. The intended outcome in both cases is the revitalization of the spirit and a renewal of our existence.
During Lent, the Irish are also encouraged to engage in acts of charity, an impulse that seems to be pre-configured in our DNA. Many of us grew up placing whatever few pennies — and later, after the adoption of the euro, cents — we could spare into the Trocaire box in our homes. Trocaire is the overseas development agency of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Its annual Lenten campaign takes place at the individual, local and national levels, and benefits different causes each year.
The 2016 Gross Domestic Philanthropy report by the Charities Aid Foundation ranked Ireland 12th on the list of countries based on charitable donations. We are the little country that could — and routinely does.
Similarly, during Ramadan Muslims contribute Zakat, or charitable donations, to those in need as a religious obligation. This month for example, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, launched the “1 Billion Meals Endowment” campaign with the aim of implementing effective, sustainable programs to fight hunger and suffering in countries that struggle with food production and distribution.
Hira Imran, a representative of the Islamic Society of the University of Galway in Ireland, noted the parallels in the generosity of both cultures during their religious seasons. She recalled a recent fundraising appeal in which “money and resources were collected among the Irish community and donated directly to people whose family or friends had been affected by the earthquake” in Turkey and Syria.
Imran added that, in the true Irish spirit of giving, “so many goods were donated that contributors were told the Irish embassy could not accept any more.”
Whether it is called Zakat, in Islam, or charity, in Ireland, it is clear that our cultures are connected by a profound sense of the value of giving to those who need assistance.
Ireland is known as “the island of a hundred thousand welcomes,” a label inspired by the Irish Gaelic form of the greeting, “cead mile failte.” Visitors to the Emerald Isle are famously quick to declare that one of the defining aspects of their Irish experience was how friendly and welcoming the people were.
For example, Aisha, a resident of Saudi Arabia, said that this was evident as soon she arrived at Dublin Airport, where “the immigration officer was very welcoming, friendly and joked with me. From the second I step foot in Ireland, it felt like home.”
This type of warm welcome is also a hallmark of Arab and Islamic culture. Having traveled extensively in the Middle East, I too have always encountered a warm reception wherever I go, with locals rolling out the red carpet and treating me like family.
Anthony Neville, a representative of the Association of Catholics in Ireland, has also noticed the similarities in the cultures of hospitality in both Irish and Muslim communities.
Describing his interactions with a Muslim family that recently moved to Ireland, he said: “When you visit the house, tea or coffee is immediately offered, with delicious homemade biscuits. (It) reminds me of my mother, who insisted on visitors having a cup of tea with homemade brack (a type of bread that contains raisins or sultanas) or the ‘best’ biscuits being brought out.”
Hospitality is a key aspect of Ramadan and this is perfectly illustrated during iftar. For Muslims, this is the time in the evening when they break their fast after a long day without food, and also a moment to reflect with relief and gratitude for the blessings in their lives. It also offers them an opportunity to share their traditions and hospitality with others, regardless of faith.
Saorlaith, an assistant head teacher from Ireland who lives in Abu Dhabi, said: “I have had the pleasure of attending several iftars over the years, and each one has been a unique and memorable experience.
“It is a beautiful reminder of the importance of hospitality and generosity, and it brings people from all walks of life together.”
Ramadan is a time for reflection, self-improvement and spiritual growth. It is also a chance to connect with others, share traditions and experiences, and promote greater understanding and respect between peoples.
As we have seen, from the perspectives of Irish and Muslim alike, there are many connections and parallels between our cultures and much we can learn from each other. Perhaps this can be a focus for us this Ramadan and beyond.
Cormac O' Donnell is a teacher, writer and journalist. He enjoys contributing to cultural discussions in Ireland and the Middle East Twitter: cmacod_.