Why more non-Muslims are taking part in Ramadan

Muslims break their daily fast during Ramadan at a mosque complex in Baghdad

Ramadan's observance is widespread in the Middle East, often involving non-Muslims in the region's celebrations. In Christian-majority countries, participation has been less common, but this trend is starting to shift

By Cathrin Schaer & Mohammed Farhan

It might seem a strange thing for a practicing Muslim to say, but Kholoud Khardoum, a 53-year-old living in Iraq, is clear. "Not all of Ramadan is necessarily about religion," the Baghdad-based writer said. "It's also about the atmosphere and the tradition of people coming together."

Iraq is a Muslim-majority country, but in areas where different religious communities live together, you'll often find non-Muslims participating in celebrations around the month-long Muslim holiday of Ramadan, she explained. In particular,  "iftar", the sunset meal where friends and family come together to break the daily fast, can be a community occasion.

"Sometimes Christian people will make dessert and send it to their Muslim neighbours," Khardoum said. "Sometimes Muslims send food. Or they all fast together. It's nice to share these things," she said.

There are similar stories elsewhere in the Middle East. "One of my oldest and closest friends is a Muslim, so we share some customs," Egyptian woman Um Amir, a 50-year-old Christian living in Assiut, a city south of Cairo, said. "For example, I'll fast during the day in Ramadan, then break my fast with her family."

"I'm Christian, but since I was young, I've had so many Muslim friends, and I've never put a big emphasis on different religions," said Lebanese woman Rita, 34, who is also fasting in Beirut

Shop seling sweets and pastries on the first day of Ramadan in Beirut, Lebanon
During Ramadan, restaurants in the Middle East frequently only open shortly before sunset to continue serving food until the early morning (image: Bilal Jawich/Xinhua News Agency/picture alliance)

More Ramadan in the West?

Given that all three women live in Muslim-majority countries, their experiences won't come as a surprise to those based there. After all, it's just as hard for non-Muslims to ignore Ramadan as it is for Muslims to avoid Christmas in Europe or North America.

However, Ramadan is also gradually becoming a more high-profile holiday in Christian-majority countries. Last year, London became the first large European city to decorate a significant thoroughfare with Ramadan lights. 

Frankfurt am Main followed London's example this year, becoming the first big German city to set up Ramadan lighting.

This week, more than 1,000 people came together for an "open iftar" in the Austrian state of Carinthia, where all community members are invited to break the Ramadan fast and eat together – even if they're not Muslim and haven't fasted. 

Organisers say the event attracts more people every year. As one attendee told the regional newspaper Kleine Zeitung, "I didn't necessarily expect to see so many non-Muslims here."

"There's definitely been an increase in iftars organised by state institutions, charities and churches to celebrate diversity," Esther-Miriam Wagner, director of Cambridge University's Woolf Institute, which studies relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims, confirmed.

Ramadan's higher profile is "also very much about increasing political recognition and equality for Muslims in the public space," argued Farid Hafez, a senior researcher at the Bridge Initiative, a project investigating Islamophobia based at Washington's Georgetown University.

As an example, Hafez recounts that, back in the 1990s, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright started holding "iftars" in her diplomatic department. "The U.S. embassies were basically inviting Muslims to have a kind of structural dialogue [during the event]," he explained. "Then U.S. embassies brought it to European countries. That then translated into European states also starting similar initiatives. So you had chancellors, prime ministers, ministers of integration, all getting involved." 

The commercial impact of Ramadan has also seen the Muslim holy month's profile grow. Muslims spend more during Ramadan on everything from gifts and clothes to food and even cars. In the Middle East alone, Ramadan 2023 spending was worth over €55 billion. Advertising campaigns for Ramadan have changed and grown and are also likely sending a message beyond the targeted communities.

The first ever Ramadan lights in the UK, switched on in Coventry Street, near Piccadilly Circus in London, UK
A Ramadan lighting display made up of 30,000 sustainable lights returned to London's Piccadilly Circus this year too (image: Can Nguyen/Captital Pictures/picture alliance)

Accused of cultural appropriation

Another of Woolf Institute director Wagner's theories on Ramadan's profile revolves around language and generational change. "As soon as people speak a language without an accent, there's this shift in understanding that now they actually belong," argued Wagner, who trained as a sociolinguist. "And in Britain, we are seeing native-English-speaking Muslim populations, now in their 40s and 50s, moving into positions of leadership and influence." 

In France, it is similar. There researchers noted that next-generation French Muslims feel they can practice religion more openly. "Through a more visible [religious] practice, young French individuals claim their status as fully fledged members of society," Jamel El Hamri, a researcher at the Institute of Research and Study on Arab and Islamic Worlds in France, told Le Monde last week. "They feel both French and Muslim." 

Of course, not everybody is pleased. Some Muslims are upset about the commercialisation of Ramadan. Conservative clerics have argued that non-Muslims shouldn't partake at all, while far-right Europeans believe the practice will lead to the end of civilization as they define it. And some social media personalities who fasted during Ramadan, treating it as a kind of online health challenge, have been called out for cultural appropriation. 

But neither Hafez nor Wagner believes opinions like this outweigh the benefits of people becoming more comfortable with others' belief systems. For Muslims who grow up in a Christian-majority culture, it can be about belonging. "Incorporating the festival in the public space is, in a way, the recognition that it [Ramadan] is part and parcel of society," Hafez argued.

And for non-Muslims, it can be about celebrating and managing diversity, Wagner added. "Because when we have diverse societies, we see that diversity actually supports a thriving and vibrant, and usually more just, society," she concluded.

Cathrin Schaer, Mohamed Farhan & Abbas al-Khashali

© Deutsche Welle 2024