Ramadan is upon us. For most Irish ex-pats in the Middle East, we are reminded of how soon the holy month has arrived and are relieved with the thought of more relaxed working hours. As we come to know more about this time of year, we see 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 the past five years, I have come to view the holy month with humility, focus and gratitude. Moreover, the longer I remain in the Middle East, the cultural links between Ramadan and the Irish community become increasingly apparent.

One aspect of Ramadan that both Muslims and the Irish look forward to is the decreased focus on work and the renewed emphasis on well-being. Sarah, an Irish teacher in Dubai, comments that “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.” 

For those Irish ex-pats experiencing Ramadan for the first time, it may bear a strong resemblance to the Christian Lent. Both are periods of fasting, self-reflection, and spiritual growth. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset for a month, abstaining from food and drink during the daylight hours. Similarly, Lent is a 40-day period of fasting and self-denial that culminates in Easter for Christians. The intended outcome for both religions is to revitalize the spirit and renew our existence.

During Lent, the Irish are encouraged to engage in acts of charity, an act which seems to be pre-configured in our DNA. Many of us grew up giving whatever pennies - or later - cents into the Trócaire box in our homes. The annual Trócaire Lenten campaign takes place on an individual, local or national level and tackles a different cause every year. For 2023, contributions to the protracted drought in Somalia can be made at Trocaire.org. Placing the country in an international context, the 2016 report Gross Domestic Philanthropy by the Charities Aid Foundation puts us 12th on the list of countries by charitable donations. We are the little country that could - and routinely - does.

Likewise, in Ramadan, Muslims will pay Zakat - or charity - to those in need. Here in the UAE, it is possible to donate on the UAE Government Portal where it will be allocated to its projects and activities. As of 2021, there are 21 projects and 43 payment channels, with more to come. Just this month, H.H. Mohammed Bin Rashid launched the “1 Billion Meals Endowment” campaign, with the objective of implementing effective, sustainable programs to fight hunger and suffering in countries struggling with food production and distribution.

Hira Imran, a representative of the Islamic Society of the University of Galway in Ireland, notes the generous parallel between both cultures during this time. She recalls 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.” Hira further adds that, in true Irish spirit, “so many goods were donated – that contributors were told that the Irish embassy could not accept any more.” 

Whether it is known as Zakat in Islam, or charity in Ireland – it is clear that our cultures are connected by a profound sense of giving to those who need it.

Ireland is known as “the island of a hundred thousand welcomes” – a label inspired by the Irish greeting “céad mile fáilte” which translates as such. Visitors to the Emerald Isle are quick to declare that one of the defining aspects of their Irish experience is how friendly and welcoming the people are. This welcome can be instantaneous as Aisha, a resident of Saudi Arabia, described her interaction with staff at Dublin Airport; “the immigration officer was very welcoming, friendly and joked with me. From the second I step foot in Ireland, it felt like home.” 

Such welcomes are also hallmarks of Muslim and Islamic homes. Having traveled extensively in the Middle East, I too have always encountered warm receptions on my travels, with locals rolling out the red carpet and treating me like family.

Anthony Neville, a representative of the Association of Catholics in Ireland observes the similarities in hospitality between both communities. He describes his interactions with a local Muslim family who has recently relocated to Ireland: “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 or the ‘best’ biscuits being brought out.” 

Hospitality is a key aspect of Ramadan and is perfectly exemplified during Iftar. For Muslims, it is a time to break their fast after a day of fasting, and it is a moment of relief and gratitude for the blessings in their lives. It also provides Muslims with an opportunity to share their traditions and hospitality with others, regardless of their faith. Saorlaith, an Irish assistant head-teacher in Abu Dhabi notes that "I have had the pleasure of attending several iftars hosted 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 time to connect with others, share traditions and experiences, and promote greater understanding and respect. As we have seen from the perspectives of both Irish and Muslims alike, there are many connections between our cultures, and there is much that we can learn from each other. Perhaps this can be a focus for Ramadan and beyond.

*  Cormac O' Donnell is an Irish educator of Media in the UAE.  He enjoys exploring cultural representations of Ireland and the Middle East.