Muscat: Fasting during Ramadan is an obligation for Muslims, but for non-Muslims, it's a way to feel closer to the society around them and understand the meaning of the Islamic holy month.
Not many non-Muslims join the fast, but those who do find it a rewarding experience, both personally and socially, when their Omani friends and neighbours invite them to join their iftar gatherings.
"As I am fasting, I feel happy to sit and celebrate with them and share their culture. You close the cultural gap," says Heiderose Moossen, a German woman who has lived in the Gulf since 1993 and in Oman since 2008.
Fasting has allowed her to adapt to the local time frame and understand more deeply the importance that Ramadan holds for those around her, it being an occasion to reinforce their faith and dedicate more time to being with the family. She says western Christian society would have been similar a century ago, but has since changed in a way that has relaxed social and religious traditions.
Purushothaman Kunnummal, an Indian national, has lived in Oman for more than 20 years. Although he is a Hindu, for the past 13 years he has been observing the Ramadan fast.
"I wanted to be an integral part of the circle of my Muslim friends and colleagues. I respect the piety and religious fervour with which Ramadan fast is adhered to," he says.
Purushothaman also finds there is a sacred side to his fast, even though he doesn't share the same belief system as the Muslims fasting around him.
"I also wanted to feel and attain the spiritual sense of being close to God," he explains.
Erin, an Irish woman in her mid-20s, is fasting for the first time this Ramadan. Fasting was traditionally part of her Catholic faith, but nowadays very few Catholics in Ireland fast, she says.
Curiosity was a big motivation for her to fast, as she wanted to see if she could actually do it and understand what it feels like not to eat or drink from sunrise to sunset, or even longer as many people don't eat suhoor, the pre-dawn meal.
Many people outside the Muslim world assume Ramadan must be a difficult month, but since moving to Oman, Erin noticed that people here look forward to the holy month.
"A lot of people are excited about Ramadan, kind of like with Christmas and the festive spirit. That I found very interesting. I wanted to try and experience a bit what it's like," Erin explained.
Though she doesn't relate to the spiritual aspect of the Ramadan fast, Erin says she understands why people enjoy it because of the time spent with the family. She has been invited to have iftar with an Omani family, an occasion she is really looking forward to.
The Muslims around Heiderose, Purushothaman and Erin are very receptive and happy to hear that they are fasting. Erin says her friends and coworkers were surprised and in a bit of disbelief at first, but they are also very encouraging.
"They are happy. They congratulate me and they are very welcoming," agrees Heiderose.
Fasting isn't without its challenges. Erin says she doesn't mind not eating, but not being able to drink water is difficult. The hunger pangs eventually pass, but thirst becomes acute through the day. Heiderose says she suffered headaches due to low blood sugar during the first couple of days, but her body soon adapted.
Non-Muslims who fast also discover the health benefits often touted by Muslims.
Heiderose says the fast has made her feel rejuvenated and more aware of her body.
"I think if you do this for weeks and your body is shut down for 16 hours, it has ample time to look at itself and decide what it must do," she adds.
Fasting is also a way to empathise with Muslims all over the world, especially those in conflict situations, Heiderose says. She says that this ritual, which is practiced in very much the same way by all Muslims, makes her think of the struggle faced by those trying to fast even as bombs or rockets fall around them, or as they cope with life as refugees.
"You think of the women in Palestine and Syria and the way they fast must be torture. When you sit in front of your TV on a full stomach, you hear the bad news but you don't really think about it," she explains.
Heiderose, Purushothaman and Erin also found a sense of personal achievement from fasting. Erin describes it as a good test for herself and a way to be more disciplined.
"I have made it a point not to miss fasting during Ramadan. It gives me a sense of fulfillment," Purushothaman notes.
Though fasting can be challenging for those who aren't used to it, especially when it lasts for a month, all three agree that it's something they would recommend other non-Muslims to try.
"Definitely, it is good for health and a peaceful mind," says Purushothaman.
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