It is almost sunset and Indian expat Vikram S Shetty, is sitting at the dining table, a few dates and a glass of lassi in front of him, awaiting the azan of Maghrib to end his fast for the day. Fasting during the month of Ramadan is a ritual this non-Muslim has been observing for the past 14 years ever since he arrived in the UAE.
Vikram is not the only non-Muslim who strictly fasts during Ramadan. For Janaki Radhakrishnan Nagela, 57, a Hindu and a teacher by profession, this is the ninth year that she has been fasting during the holy month. Manjusha Manoj, a 57-year-old entrepreneur, is on her 29th year of fasting during Ramadan.
For many non-Muslim expats, living in a culturally diverse and liberal country like the UAE, it has become a norm to accept Ramadan as part of their lives and many strive to observe the fasting, so important during this month. They share their experience.
Influenced by the spirit of Ramadan
Manjusha first understood the concept of Ramadan when she moved to Abu Dhabi from India in 1985 following her marriage.
She first began observing the fast in 1992 after the birth of her younger son Mannan. The infant had some major health issues at birth, which left Manjusha and her family extremely stressed. "A Muslim family friend of mine told me about the blessings of this holy month. So I decided to fast during this month," she says. "In a few years my son recovered completely and is now a healthy man holding a good job."
Manjusha does not have much trouble with fasting as she fasts every Monday and Friday all through the year.
Every evening, she ends her fast with two dates and water, after which she has her dinner and is off to bed. Before daybreak, Manjusha wakes up, has a glass of water and then starts the fast.
"Living in the UAE, one cannot miss the spirit of Ramadan and the sense of peace that this month brings. I’ve always guided my family not to waste food, which is also an underlying principle of Ramadan.
"I believe God is one. I have full faith in my religion too, but will continue the fasts during Ramadan, till my health permits."
For Vikram who grew up in Abu Dhabi, the concept of Ramadan became clear when he was six and his father explained why they should not be eating or drinking while outside during this month.
He also remembers his father giving him the religious books – the Bhagavat Gita, the Bible and the Quran (translated in English) – during the vacation after he completed his 10th grade. "We were not travelling to India during the holidays after the exam and my dad wanted to keep me engaged and to learn about the similarities between the religions," he says.
Being a bored teenager with no easy access to the internet in those days, Vikram read through all the books with his father answering any queries and doubts he had. "I realised that the common point in the three religions is to treat another living being the way you would like to be treated. My dad proudly acknowledged this and it became the foundation of my life," says Vikram.
When he started working, he noticed a few colleagues say how tired they were during Ramadan so he decided to try fasting during the month to experience for himself how difficult it would be. "The first year was tough," he admits, "and I found it hard to train my mind. It took me about four years to get better and keep trying every year to be more conscious, and I realised it was not that difficult." Now Ramadan is a time to detoxify body and mind, and keep his will power under control.
In the case of Filipino expat Jennie Liz Li, 38, the rituals and traditions associated with Ramadan was taught to her while she was in school. But it was only when she started working in Dubai in 2015, she was able to experience its true magnitude.
"Our company management used to organise iftar for all the employees and families every year before the pandemic. Out of respect to my colleagues who are fasting in the office, I decided to try fasting two years back. A Muslim friend and a cousin also told me about how it inculcates self-control, sacrifice, empathy to less fortunate and most of all I wanted to lose some weight." she says.
For Jennie it was hard the first year as "fasting in the summer heat is not a joke. All temptations were there. There were times that I felt like ending my fast. But I controlled and persevered".
Her family and roommates fully supported her by avoiding eating in front of her or tempting her with food.
Over the years, she has trained her mind and body and now, fasting is something she has begun to look forward to. She ends her fast with dates and water, and for iftar tucks into samosas, biryani or shawarma and some Filipino dishes. "For Suhoor she has dates, bread or rice, coffee and tea."
Janaki who grew up in the metropolitan city of Chennai, in India, had friends from all religions and celebrated all festivals with fun and fervour. But what made her take up fasting was her maternal instinct. "In 2012, my daughter Krithika fell in love with Hussain Tambawala, her colleague at Goldman Sachs. As they both are from different religions, it was decided to conduct a registered marriage, followed by traditional Hindu marriage and then a Nikah ceremony. The date fixed for the latter was December 25. So, a Hindu girl got married to a Muslim boy on Christmas day," she says.
The first Ramadan that she saw Hussain observe fasting was in July 2012 before the marriage.
"Since my daughter was busy with work, I travelled to India with Hussain to make arrangements for the wedding. When Ramadan started and he began to fast, I felt I should join him," she says. Since then, she has not stopped observing the fast during the holy month.
"I have celebrated Eid with my daughter and son-in-law’s family. There have been instances when my father, a traditional Hindu, made sure that I end my fast right at the iftar time. My extended family members, who are from all walks of life, have also always supported me," she says with pride. She takes fruits for iftar followed by a vegetarian meal they prepare at home for suhoor.
Last year during Ramadan, Janaki was in London where sunset extended up to 9.20pm. "It was a testing time, but I completed the fast with the blessing of Allah," she says.
"Though my daughter’s marriage was the turning point, fasting during Ramadan now has become a way of life for me."
Vikram, a self-confessed foodie, remembers it being a challenge to keep his mind occupied while experiencing pangs of hunger and thirst. "I would hear my stomach growl and wonder, should I? and my dad’s teachings would come to mind and I would steel myself. To be honest, although I had the urge many times to end my fast before the stipulated time in the first year, I never did," he says, not without pride.
His wife Joelyn who is also his childhood sweetheart, is a pillar of strength. She ensures that there are dates, lassi or laban ready during iftar time and waits on him while he ends his fast. During Ramadan he mostly has only one meal during the day. "Being an early riser, I prefer to have my dinner and head off to bed."
Sometimes his friends would try to talk him out of fasting on weekends but Vikram would refuse to succumb to it. "I felt I would be cheating on my own principles. Having done this for so long, now it is like normal," says Vikram who has also been observing Lent with equal diligence.
The couple have a three year old son, Sidharth. Would he encourage him to fast? "No," says Vikram, "I wouldn’t impose my beliefs on him. I would explain the significance of it and then allow him to make a decision."