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Islam is the official religion of the U.A.E. and is integral to the local culture. The Arabic word "Islam" literally means "submission to God," and the core of the faith is the belief that there is only one God (Allah) who should be worshiped. And, in a line of prophets who included Adam, Abraham, Noah, Moses, John the Baptist, David, and Jesus, Mohammed was the last and most definitive. Muslims believe that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all essentially the same, but that the messages from the earlier prophets have been distorted and that Mohammed was chosen by God to revive, refine, and purify His message.

The main sources of Islam are the Koran (or Qur'an) - the revelations Mohammed received during his lifetime - and Mohammed's own actions, the Hadith.

Mohammed was born in Mecca (in present-day Saudi Arabia) in 570 and began to receive revelations from God, via the angel Gabriel, around 610. These continued until his death in nearby Medina in 632. The illiterate Mohammed would pass on each revelation to his scribes, who would then input them as a particular verse in the Koran. The Arabic word qur'an means "recitation," and Muslims regard the holy book's contents as the word of God. The Koran's 114 chapters were not revealed in the order presented, and in fact many were patched together from passages received by Mohammed at different times in his life. The year before he died, however, Mohammed finally recited in its entirety the order in which these original verses were to stay.

The Koran provided a basic framework for Islam, but it didn't go into specific detail: Of 6,616 verses, only 80 concerned issues of conduct. For more practical guidance, Muslims referred to Mohammed's actions and words while he was alive, even though he never claimed any infallibility beyond his intermediary status. The prophet's actions and words were remembered by those who knew him and passed down through Muslim communities.

The five pillars of Islam are drawn from the Koran and the Hadith, and are the basic religious duties and cornerstones of the faith.

  • Statement of Faith (shahadah) - "I testify that there is no god but God, and Mohammed is the Messenger of God." If you say this with absolute sincerity, then you have become, or are, a Muslim.
  • Prayer (salat) - Prayer must be performed five times a day, preferably within a mosque, though in the modern world many Muslims make this effort only for the midday prayer. Since the Islamic calendar is a lunar one, the day, and the first prayer, begins at sunset. Prayers follow in the evening, dawn, midday, and afternoon. The exact times for these are set in advance by the religious authorities and published in local newspapers. In the past, muezzins would climb to the top of the mosque's minaret and call the faithful to prayer, but today it is mostly prerecorded and played over electronic speakers. Prayer involves specific rituals, the most important being the act of purification. This is achieved by rinsing out the mouth, sniffing water into the nostrils, and washing the face, head, ears, neck, feet, and (lastly) hands and forearms. Even if there is no water available, one must go through the actions.
  • Alms (zakat) - It is believed that alms-giving purifies the heart of greed, while receiving charity purifies it of envy. The Islamic tolerance toward begging is drawn from this.
  • Fasting (sawm) - Fasting takes place during Ramadan , the ninth month of the lunar cycle.
  • Pilgrimage (hajj) - Every Muslim who has the means is bound by duty to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his/her lifetime. This usually takes place in the 12th month.

Ramadan

Ramadan - the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar - is when Mohammed received the first of his revelations from God. Muslims observe a strict fast during the entire month - originally modeled after similar Jewish and Christian practices - and use the time for worship and contemplation. During the day, all forms of consumption are forbidden including eating, smoking, drinking, and any form of sexual contact. However, this is only the outward show of what is intended as a deeper, spiritual cleansing and strengthening of faith. One Hadith says, "There are many who fast all day and pray all night, but they gain nothing but hunger and sleeplessness."

All Muslims who have reached puberty are expected to observe the fast. It is generally accepted that the elderly and the chronically ill are exempt, as are those who are sick or traveling, mothers who are nursing, and menstruating or pregnant women, all of whom are encouraged, for every day of fasting missed, to provide a meal for one poor person who is breaking his/her fast. Children are not required to fast, though some families encourage them to do so for part of a day or for a few days during the month.

At the end of the day the fast is broken with a light meal followed by the sunset prayer, which is then followed by an evening meal called the iftar. Muslims are encouraged to share the iftar with family, friends, and neighbors as well as the poor and non-Muslims. The fast is resumed the next morning, traditionally when "you can plainly distinguish a white thread from a black thread by the daylight."

The last 10 days of Ramadan are considered especially important, and many Muslims retreat to their mosque or other community centers for prayer and recitations of the Koran. Laylat al-Qadr (the Night of Power) is a special night of prayer commemorating Mohammed's first revelation. It is believed that this is when heaven is open to the faithful and God determines the course of the world for the following year.

When the crescent of the new moon of the 10th month rises, Ramadan ends with Eid al-Fitr (Feast of Fast Breaking). The feast lasts for 3 days and is a time of both religious significance and social festivities.

Practice What You Preach

Dubai is tolerant of other religions, and people are free to worship as they choose. There are a handful of Christian churches and a Hindu Temple in town. Religious tolerance does not extend to proselytizing, and trying to convert a Muslim to another faith is against the law. Those violating this law, even unknowingly, may be imprisoned or deported. Non-Muslims are not permitted entry to the mosques, except for the beautiful Jumeirah Mosque.

Non-Muslims should be aware of the daytime fast taking place and attempt not to eat, drink, or smoke in front of those who are fasting. Many Dubai hotels offer in-house daytime meals to accommodate their non-Muslim guests, but restaurants that open during the day are typically cordoned off with curtains. Business activity is slower during Ramadan, and local labor laws require companies to shorten the working day by 2 hours during this period. Everything changes at sundown, however, when the city comes to life. Muslims pack restaurants throughout town for the breaking of the fast. Make a reservation, as getting a table can be difficult. After dinner, Dubai continues to sparkle, with shopping centers, shisha cafes, and Ramadan "tents" filling up in celebration of the holy month.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.