DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The decorations are hanging, the cash registers are clanging, and the air of holiday cheer is everywhere.
For a holy month, Ramadan is not what it used to be.
Once an ascetic month of fasting, prayer and reflection on God, Ramadan has gradually taken on the commercial trappings of Christmas and Hanukkah, straight from the hanging lights that festoon windows to the Ramadan greeting cards and Ramadan sales and advertising campaigns that have become the backbone of commerce for the month.
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Marketers and businesses have caught on to the potential of 1.3 billion people at home fasting or breaking their daily fasts and getting back to normal life, a captive audience eager for entertainment and celebration, and more than willing to feast when the sun goes down.
Here in Dubai, the region’s uber-mall, commercialism has taken on a life of its own as almost everything has been dressed in the cloak of Ramadan, from consumer goods to cars.
Malls are open until the early morning, and the nights rock away at dinner parties in desert tents.
“Ramadan is changing from a religious month to a cultural or social event,” said Muhammad el-Kuwaiz, a Saudi management consultant based in Dubai. “You’re using faith to commercialize something else. It doesn’t feel right.”
Sheik Ahmed Abdelaziz Haddad, grand mufti of Dubai’s Islamic Affairs Department, puts it even more succinctly. “The problem isn’t that people are trading and doing business,” he said. “It’s that people have taken this month to be a month of shopping.”
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar, is considered the holiest month of the year, a time of fasting, family and reflection.
It is during this month, Muslims believe, that the Prophet Muhammad received his first revelations of the Koran from the Archangel Gabriel.
From then on, Muslims have been ordered to forgo food, water and other worldly pleasures during the day for the entire month as a pillar of their faith, a sacrifice to show they have not forgotten God and the less fortunate.
The fast begins at dawn and lasts until sundown, with special prayers held in the evenings in an air of heightened spirituality and meditation.
The Ramadan commercialism is more conspicuous in Dubai and in cities like Cairo than in, say, Saudi Arabia.
But walk through many Arab cities this month, and the spirit may also move you to buy, buy and buy some more.
In Egypt, hotels and restaurants advertise Ramadan feasts while an advertising sweepstakes calls on people to read all 30 days of advertising to win a prize. In Beirut, worshipers hang colored lights that say “Ramadan Kareem,” or blessed Ramadan.
A Mercedes ad in a Dubai newspaper plays on the theme of the crescent, a common Islamic symbol: “Welcome Ramadan with a visit to Gargash Enterprises and you’ll soon be feeling over the moon.”
Companies and political candidates campaigning for parliamentary elections next month in Egypt give away traditional Ramadan lanterns emblazoned with their names and company logos.
A Dubai shopping mall even features a Ramadan display with an uncanny resemblance to a Nativity scene, complete with moving camels, a village elder reading stories and a desert scene.
A program in Dubai offers a different twist, a 1 million dirham raffle – about $275,000 – with half the total going to local and international charities.
With those kinds of resources being brought to bear, it may be no wonder that many people are troubled by the creeping commercialism.
“It is supposed to be about spirituality, but it drives me crazy that it is all about food and banquets,” said Naglaa Abdel Fattah, 30, a secretary in Cairo. “I do not feel the spirit of Ramadan anymore.
“I call my friend and all she talks about is the 10 dishes her family is preparing for iftar” – the breaking of the fast after sundown. “This is extravagant,” Fattah said.
Haddad, of Dubai’s Islamic Affairs Department, says Muslims who take the month lightly are doing themselves an eternal disservice.
“A Muslim who is focused on the worldly trade will miss the benefits he could get in the hereafter,” he said. “What we see happening today in the commercialism of Ramadan is caused by Muslim ignorance of what is required of them to benefit their souls. God defined this month to save them and to protect their souls.”
But Haddad’s message seems increasingly unheeded in Dubai’s malls and shopping arcades.
Many malls are closed from 2 to 6 p.m., or are empty because people actually slumber then. But they come to life after sundown, after many people feast, and they stay open until 2 a.m.
“Why can’t religion and fun go hand in hand?” asked an Iraqi man who spoke on condition that his name not be used because of the sensitivity of religious matters. “You want to be part of it. The whole thing is one big celebration, and people enjoy it. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
But to Kuwaiz, the management consultant, and others, there is plenty wrong with it. “You’re supposed to exercise abstinence, and the opposite happens,” he complained. “Ramadan has become a month where people exercise gluttony.”
Nada el Sawy in Dubai and Abeer Allam in Cairo contributed reporting for this article.