WORK WEEK IN THE ISLAMIC WORLD
Many places in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia — and to a lesser degree in other parts of the Arab-Muslim world — observe a Muslim Saturday-through-Wednesday work week. Friday is the Muslim equivalent of Sunday. Since the Muslim Sabbath is on Friday, in some Muslim countries, the work week starts on Saturday and the weekend is Thursday and Friday, but this is not the case in secular Turkey and many other places in the Muslim world. On Fridays, the Muslim day of prayer, mosques are often filled with people. Businesses and shops are often closed on Friday. Some open on Thursday afternoon.
Life revolves around the five daily prayer. Employers allow workers to take the time to visit a local mosque or at least break for five or ten minutes at the work place to allow for prayers.. Saudis are required by law to pray during the five daily prayer times: 1) dawn (4:30-5:00am); 2) noon; 3) afternoon (between 2:00amd and 4:00pm); 4) sunset; and 5) one hour after sunset. Prayers time vary according to the time of the year and geographical location. Everything stops during prayer time. Vehicles—whether be buses, service taxis or private cars—often pull to the side of the road during prayer time so people can pray.
Shops are closed during noontime and afternoon prayer times, which last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. Many are closed from the beginning of noon prayer time to the end of the afternoon prayer time, which is the equivalent of taking a siesta-style break around lunchtime and reopen in the afternoon. In the summer when it is really hot many businesses open and close early or take a longer afternoon break.
Arabs: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Who Is an Arab? africa.upenn.edu ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Arab Cultural Awareness fas.org/irp/agency/army ; Arab Cultural Center arabculturalcenter.org ; 'Face' Among the Arabs, CIA cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence ; Arab American Institute aaiusa.org/arts-and-culture ;
Websites and Resources: Islam Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Patheos Library – Islam patheos.com/Library/Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs web.archive.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline ; Discover Islam dislam.org
Islamic Calendar and Muslim Year and Months
Many places in the Middle East use the Muslim lunar calendar, which is quite different from one used in Europe and the United States, at least side by side with Western Gregorian calendar. Muslim holidays are set in accordance with the Muslim lunar calendar and are 11 days earlier every year. During Ramadan, the Muslim month-long fast, many places open and close before sunrise and reopen after sunset.
The Muslim year has only 354 or 355 days, which means that all Muslim holidays are 10 or 11 days earlier each year. The Muslim lunar calendar consists of 12 lunar months, alternating between 29 and 30 days. To keep the months in sync with the phases of the moon the length of the twelfth month varies: during a thirty year cycle, 19 of the final months have 29 days and 11 of them have 30 days. In the 30 year cycle, the 2nd, 5th, 7th, 19th, 13th, 16th, 18th, 21st, 24th, 26th, and 29th years are leap years
The Islamic lunar months are: 1) Muharram, 2) Safar, 3) Rabi al-Awwal, 4) Rabi al-Thani, 5) Jumadi al-Awwal, 6) Jumadi al-Thani, 7) Rajab, 8) Sha'ban, 9) Ramadan (the fasting month), 10) Shawwal, 11) Dhul Oi'dah and 12) Dhul Hijjah.
Greetings in the Muslim-Arab World
When Muslims greet each other, instead of saying, “good morning” or “hello” they say “As-salaam alaykum,” which means “May peace be upon you and may God's blessings be with you.” This greeting makes a Muslim aware that he has to spread love and peace wherever he goes. [Source: Imam Shamshad A. Nasir cyborlink.com]
People—men and men, women and women, and women and men—often shake hands when they meet. Close friends of the same sex often embrace Arab-style and kiss each other on both cheeks. Knowing some Arabic is always helpful. Arabs. The reply to As-salaam alaykum ("Peace be with you") is Wa alaykum as-salaam wa rahmat Allah wa barakatu ("on your peace: and the mercy of Allah and His blessings.") [Source: Middle East and North African Customs and Manners by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy Braganti (St.Martin’s Press)]
The greeting of Assala mualaikum (“Peace be with you”) used by non-Muslims is sometime greeted with an uneasy silence by Muslims when it is directed towards them. Some Muslims feel the greeting should only used with other Muslims. For Non-Muslim, they often say, “good morning” or “good afternoon” is best.
Women often don't shake hands with strangers. If you are unsure what to do when you meet an Arab or Muslim woman let her make the first move. In some places, good male friends often greet each other by reaching out and shaking hands with both hands, with the right hand placed on top. Sometimes they gently massage each other’s hand, or follow the handshake by placing one hand’s near one’s heart. The duration of handshake tends to be longer than in the West.
Kisses are often given by people who haven’t seen each other for a long time. Greetings are followed by enquiries about ones’ health and family members. Getting straight to the point and getting down to business are regarded as abrupt.
When saying goodbye older people often give each other a kind of salute in which they raise their right hand to their forehead and then place in on their heart. In some Muslim countries, it is customary for people leaving for a long time to kiss the Qur’an held by a family member and pass under it three times. The Final good-bye is preceded by lots of preliminaries. Hosts should always walk their guests to the door.
Names, Titles and Introductions in the Muslim-Arab World
Arabs are generally warm and friendly people. Most people address each other on a first name basis, sometimes with a Mr., Mrs., or Miss in front of it or the Arabic equivalent. Professors and doctors are usually referred to by their title with the first name. Haj (masculine) are Haja (feminine) the titles given to people who have completed the pilgrimage to Mecca. Westerners should not use this title. [Source: Middle East and North African Customs and Manners by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy Braganti (St. Martin’s Press)]
When a person is introduced to group for the first time, he or she is introduced to everybody in the group individually. Greetings are often long and elaborate and followed by questions about ones health and family.
When a woman enters a room, men are supposed to stand up. When new guests arrive at a party, every one should stand and greet them. It is customary for guest who just arrived to walk around the room and shake hands with every one. Some people offer their wrists. This dates back to a time when this gesture was used show to that one was unarmed.
Some important titles used in the Muslim and Arab world include: 1) Haj (an honorific that indicates that a person has participated in the Hajj 2) Sayyid (the title given to someone believed to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad); 3) Ma’ ali (a government minister); 4) Sa’ada (a senior government official); Shaykh for men and shaykah for women (a member of royal family); and 5) duktour for men and duktoura for women (for a Ph.D. or M.D.)
Public Customs in the Muslim-Arab World
Never point your shoes or the soles of your feet at someone or touch someone with your shoe. Feet are regarded as the lowest part of the body. To point your foot at someone’s is a great insult. When the Americans captured Baghdad, many Arabs expressed their loathing of the Saddam regime by bashing statues of Saddam Hussein with their shoes. [Source: Middle East and North African Customs and Manners by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy Braganti (St. Martin’s Press)]
Don't blow your nose. When someone sneezes Arabs clasp their hands and bow. This custom back to a time when people believed a sneeze was sign of imminent danger and an indication of the expulsion of a person' vital force.
Inside a mosque don't walk in front of someone who is praying, don't touch the Qur’an, never sit or stand on a prayer rug and never place a Qur’an on the floor or put anything on top of it. Also, don't cross your legs in front of an older person and don't step over someone who is sitting down. Show respect, remain quiet and stay out of the way. Taking photographs is frowned upon.
Eat with your right hand. Also try not accept or give the plates or anything for that matter with your left hand. The right hand is for eating, left for cleaning one's butt. The tradition has its roots in Bedouin customs in an environment without much water. The Qur’an states the right hand is more honorable. Muhammad said: "the best of alms is that which the right hand giveth, and the left hand knoweth not of." Left handers have to learn to use their right hands. Some people keep their left hand behind their back when they eat.
Long lines often form at banks and shops. People sometimes butt in line.
Mosques and shrines are often not open to non-Muslims. Those that do welcome them expect them to be appropriately dressed: no shorts, short skirts, revealing halter tops or exposed shoulders. Mosques that allow women often require them to at least wear a head scarf. Some require them to cover their entire bodies, except the face, hands and feet, and not wear trousers. Sometimes mosque provide women who don't have one with a head scarf. Sometimes they have robes for men wearing shorts.
The Muslim faithful are expected to remove their shoes and wash their feet in a sacred basin before they enter the mosque. If no water is available Muslims are supposed to wash themselves with sand. Foreigner visitors's can usually get away with just removing their shoes and are not required to wash their feet. In any case, make sure you feet or socks are clean. Dirty feet in a mosques are regarded as an insult to Islam. In large mosques you remove your shoes and place them on a shelf with a number.
Inside a mosque don't walk in front of someone who is praying, don't touch the Qur’an, never sit or stand on a prayer rug and never place a Qur’an on the floor or put anything on top of it. Also, don't cross your legs in front of an older people and don't step over someone who is sitting down Show respect, remain quiet and stay out of the way. Taking photographs is frowned upon.
It is not unusual for Muslims to be late because the give put getting in their daily prayers priority over getting to an appointment on time. It is also not common for buses, taxis and minbuses to pull off the side of the road during prayer time
Men and Women Customs in the Arab-Muslim World
The Arab world remains male dominated. If a man and a woman are together questions are usually addressed to the man. Males often shake hands and ignore the woman. In the cities, men and women walk together on the streets and mix freely. In some conservative areas this kind of behavior may be frowned upon. In any case, men and women, even husbands and wives, should refrain from public displays of affection—kissing, hugging, holding hands—wherever they are in the Arab and Muslim world.
Men should never touch women, stare at them or even look them directly in the eye. Women are not supposed to look or smile at men who are not their husbands. Men and men, and women and women, hold hand and walk arm and arm. It is frowned upon for women to smoke in public. Some women smoke in their homes.
The customs involving women are often based on local traditions rather than the tenets of Islam. In social situations, in the presence of men, women are expected to behave demurely and not speak unless they are spoken to. Sometimes a woman will stand behind her husband. If the husband is talking with another man, they will completely ignore her. Many social events are men-only affairs
Rules for Women In Conservative Muslim Areas
Women are expected to respect Islamic and local customs and traditions. Any law or rule that applies to local women should be treated as also applying to foreign women. Western women are treated differently than local women and are cut more slack when it comes to abiding by Islamic customs, but not much.
In Saudi Arabia, women are not supposed to leave home without a male escort, although many do. They can't drive or ride bicycles; they can’t fly without permission from their husbands; and they can not eat in the company of men even in hotel restaurants frequented by foreigners. Some restaurants, shops and fast-food joints won’t even let unaccompanied women in the door.
Women can not travel alone on long distance buses or trains, nor can they check into a hotel by themselves. Foreign women need to travel with a tour group, a man or Saudi friends. Women on their own may be harassed by men, conservative Saudis or the religion police. When asked about marriage, women should say they married even if they not, and have an excuse to explain why their husband isn’t with them. Boyfriends should be treated like husbands. It is also a good idea to wear a “wedding ring” and bring pictures of “your children” (some nephews).
Single woman travelers can sometimes get around with the help of a taxi and driver arranged through a hotel. A good driver can be a real asset for a woman on her own by acting as her escort and helping her do things she is not allowed to do on her own. In public areas, women should avoid having eye contact with men; ignore rude remarks and gestures; and avoid places like crowded markets where men can touch them. Sanitary napkins are widely available. Tampons can be found at supermarkets, pharmacies and hotel shops. Bring along whatever birth control you use.
In Saudi Arabia, women are segregated from men in offices, schools and restaurants. Even McDonald's has separate dining rooms for men and women. Beaches have separate men’s areas and women’s areas. In universities, women watch their male professors on television because they are not allowed to be in the same room together.
Men and women sit separately on buses. There are separate entrance for men and women on buses. Men enter from the front and pay the driver. Women enter from the rear and leave their money. At the airports there used to be separate entrances for men and women. However men and women sit next to one another on the planes. Men and women also crowd together on packed elevators.
Rules for Non-Muslims in Muslim Countries
Foreigners and local people must abide by Islamic dress codes, abstain from alcohol and pork and observe prohibitions on music and smoking and social customs (do not expose the soles of your feet at people and take things offered to you with your right, not you left, hand). See Prayer Times. Inside their homes Saudis are much more free. They often do things that are supposedly forbidden from doing: watching videos, listening to music, even drinking alcohol.
Saudi Arabia is one of the strictest and most closed societies in the world. Foreigner are expected to follow Islamic customs just as local people do. Things like praying, which are treated lightly in many other Muslim countries, are taken very seriously in Saudi Arabia.
The public profession of all faiths other than Islam is banned. Music, crucifixes, Bibles, books by Jewish authors and other non-Muslim religious texts are also banned. Even thing like nutmeg and vanilla flavoring are banned. The former because it reportedly has hallucinogenic properties and the latter because it contains alcohol. During Ramadan non-Muslims are obligated to follow all of the restrictions and prohibitions that Muslims follow. Non-Muslims who break the rules are routinely sent to prison until the fast is over.
Social Customs in the Muslim-Arab World
Arabs like to talk and use flowery language, elaborate expressions and hyperbole. Conservation is a popular pass time. Men like to sit around together at tea houses and cafes, talking. Women often sit around chatting with their children and with friends at their homes. Discussions can get heated and last for hours. What may sound like shouting and arguing is simply people talking in a normal tone of voice. [Source: Middle East and North African Customs and Manners by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy Braganti (St. Martin’s Press)]
Arab men are often very close together when they talk and look each other directly in the eye and frequently touch one another. This makes some foreigners feel uncomfortable. Even so, foreigners should try not to back away if away they can help. If they do they might be perceived as rude. Foreign men should not look Arab women directly in the eye.
Socializing among men often revolves around smoking and drinking tea. Cigarettes are offered as a sign of hospitality and friendship. If you have cigarettes you are expected to offer them to others. It is considered somewhat impolite to refuse a cigarette but these days most Arabs realize that smoking is frowned upon in the West and accept a refusal by foreigners.
Arabs have a different sense of privacy that Westerners. People are expected to not want to be alone. Many social events are men-only affairs When you arrive at a party shakes hands with everyone who is there. If another guest arrives make sure you are standing to greet them.
Never point your finger or feet at someone. It is sometimes regarded as rude to cross your legs in front of someone.
Conversations in the Muslim-Arab World
Common conversation topics with foreigners include sports, food, television shows, movies, places in Arab world, areas abroad that your friends have visited, history, and families. A favorite topic among women is their sons. They also enjoy clothes, fashions. Although Arabs often talk among themselves about Islam, women, politics, their governments, Israel, the Palestinian issue, and wars involving Arab world, foreigners should avoid talking about these topics with Arabs. [Source: Middle East and North African Customs and Manners by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy Braganti (St. Martin’s Press)]
In many parts of the Muslim world it is difficult to have a conversation with someone without frequent references to God and Islam. Inshallah (“it is God's will”) and “Praise Allah” are responses to almost everything and appear repetitively in satements. Don’t say anything bad about God and Islam. Don’t admit you are an atheist or agnostic if you are one.
People often ask personal questions first thing, like “are you married?” “How much do you make?” This is often done to size you up, not so much to pass judgement but rather to know how to address you properly and use the correct titles, terms of respect and language. Don’t do the same in return. Don’t ask personal questions when you first meet somebody; don’t refer to a man’s wife unless you know him well.
Arabs often adjust their voices to the situation, speaking softly in one-on-one meetings and shouting to be heard when there are lots of people around. Some have the habit of repeating themselves often and sometimes regard people who don’t repeat themselves as insincere. Arabs are also big on making long speeches and interrupting others.
Don’t say anything that might be perceived as an insult—even teasing or sarcasm—it may cause a loss of face of a loss of honor. Don’t say anything negative about the leaders or royalty in the country you are visiting. Don’t mention sex or make any sexual jokes. Don’t take personally attacks on the United States, the U.S. government or U.S. policy.
A person who hold up his right hand and twists it back and forth is saying "I don't understand," or “What does that mean?” In some places, shaking the head from side to side (which means no in the West) can mean the same thing or “What, I didn’t hear you” or “What’s the matter?”.
No can be expressed several ways: 1) by raising the eyebrows, moving the head back slightly and going "tsk, tsk"; 2) moving the head back and jerking the chin upwards; and 3) moving the head back and clicking the tongue. If someone holds up their right forefinger and moves it from left to right it is an emphatic “no” or means “never, never.”
If a person holds up his hand with his thumb and fingers together it means “Wait a minute.” If he holds his right hand with the palm facing up and opens and closes his hand it means “come here.” To beckon someone, move all the fingers of your hand towards. Don’t do the same thing with your forefinger. That is the way to summon an animal. If a person holds his down and flicks the fingers forward it means “go away.” The gesture with palm up and all five fingertips touching each other means “be patient” in much of the Middle East.
If a person stretches out a hand and flicks the wrist it means "what do you want" or "what's up." If he hold out his right hand with the palm up and moves it up and down slowly, it means “be quiet.” The Islamic sign of victory is a right fist with a raised forefinger, the Western No. 1 sign.
When a person raises their right hand to their forehead and then places in on their heart it can mean good-bye or no thank you. When offered something, a right hand over the heart means "no thanks." When offered more tea, a right hand over the cup means "no thanks." .
Never point your finger or feet at someone. It is sometimes regarded as rude to cross your legs in front of someone. Some say the thumbs up sign is obscene. It generally isn’t. It means the same thing as does in the West—“very good.” If a policeman or official makes a line across your palm with his index he is asking you for your passport or other documents.
Home Customs in the Muslim-Arab World
In the Middle East and Arab and Muslim world, homes are regarded as a kind of private sanctuary. It is considered an honor to be invited to someone’s house. People are not supposed drop by or to look in the homes of other people unless they are invited. But friends and relatives often drop by unannounced. This often done in the late afternoon or evening. Don’t visit between 2:00pm and 4:00pm. People are often taking a nap around that time. [Source: Middle East and North African Customs and Manners by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy Braganti (St. Martin’s Press)]
People often sit on the floor, on carpets, surrounded by pillows. Men often sit cross legged or with their legs to the side. Women are often expected to kneel Japanese-style with their legs under them, or their legs to the side or in another position, making sure that a long skirt or another covering covers their legs and feet. Make sure you don’t point the soles of your feet at anyone.
Always enter a home a with your right foot first. People in some Arab countries remove their shoes before entering a home. Sometimes they remove them before entering an office. Muslims are expected to carefully wash before and after every meal. Men often wear their headgear inside.
If you are invited to someone's house of to a meal, bring a gift. Fruit, flowers, a desert, candy for children, house plants, books, games, something small from your home country is fine. Don't bring alcohol. Remember to give or receive a gift with two hands. Gifts are often accepted and opened later in private.
Hospitality in the Muslim World
Muslims have a "powerful hospitality instinct." They consider hospitality to be their sacred duty and guests are honored and held in the highest regard. Any traveler or stranger, even a non-Muslim or an enemy, is considered to be "the guest of Allah," and should treated accordingly. A man who has eaten his host's bread and eaten his salt may claim sanctuary for three days.
Hospitality is expressed with warm welcomes and giving guests the place of honor at the table. Hosts are expected to be totally selfless and offer everything they have. Sometimes foreigners are welcomed into homes of even the poorest families and treated to a feast with the head of the household while other members of the family just look and watch. Sometimes a family will stretch their resources and slaughter a sheep. The British traveler and diplomat Freya Stark wrote that “Years of Arab courtesy spoil us for the rough and tumble of the Western World.”
The tradition of hospitality originated with Bedouins in the desert. Visitors were rare and they are always welcomed and offered food and drink. Travelers in the desert depended on others for food and protection. The reasoning went that if someone helped them they should help someone else. In villages there are special guest houses for visitors. In the cities, displays of hospitality are often a sign of status.
The Qur’an says: "Whoever believeth in God and the Hereafter (i.e Muslim) must respect his guest: and whoever believeth in God and the Hereafter not incommode his neighbors; and a Muslim must speak only good words otherwise remain silent." To get hospitality you can say Ana dheef Allah ("I am a guest of God"). To refuse an offer is regarded as an insult. If you do it try to seek hospitality somehow do it as diplomatically as possible and provide your potential hosts with away to save face.
Hospitality obligations often have priority over time concerns. This means that an Arab man may spend hours drinking tea and coffee and eating food with a stranger and show up late or miss and appointment with friends.
Sunnah on Hospitality
The Sunnahs are the practices and examples drawn from the Prophet Muhammad's life. Along with the Hadiths they are the most important texts in Islam after the Qur’an. They must adhere to a strict chain of narration that ensures their authenticity, taking into account factors such as the character of people in the chain and continuity in narration. Reports that fail to meet such criteria are disregarded.
The Sunnah reads: “When a man cometh into his house and remembereth God and repeats his name at eating his meals, the devil saith, to his followers, "Here is no place for you to stay in tonight, nor is there any supper for you." And when a man cometh into his house without remembering God's name, the devil saith to his followers, "You have got a place to spend the night in." [Source: Charles F. Horne, ed., The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 11-32]
“Whosoever believeth in God and the day of resurrection must respect his guest, and the time of being kind to him is one day and one night, and the period of entertaining him is three days, and after that, if he does it longer, he benefits him more. It is not right for a guest to stay in the house of the host so long as to inconvenience him.
“I heard this, that God is pure, and loveth purity; and God is liberal, and loveth liberality; God is munificent, and loveth munificence: then keep the courts of your house clean, and do not be like Jews who do not clean the courts of their houses.
Bedouins (Middle Eastern desert nomads) have traditionally lived in the arid steppe regions along the margins of rain-fed cultivation. They often occupy areas that receive less than 5 centimeters of rain a year, sometimes relying on pastures nourished by morning dew rather than rain to provide water for their animals.
Bedouins are expected boil their last rice and kill their last sheep for feed a stranger. Whenever an animal is slaughtered for a guest it is ritually sacrificed in accordance with Islamic law. It is customary in some Bedouin tribes for a host to smear blood from a slaughtered animal onto of the mounth of his guest in a show of hospitality.
Hospitality is regarded as an honor and a scared duty. Visitors who happen by are usually invited to sit and share a cup of thick, gritty coffee. Guest are ritually absorbed into the household by the host. If a conflict occurs the host is expected to defend the guest as if he were a member of his family. One Bedouin told National Geographic, "Even if my enemy appears at this tent, I am bound to feast him and protect him with my life."
Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons except McDonald's Mvslim
Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018