Muslims in Germany Sugar Feast in the Occident
Is it possible to live in a Christian country like Germany and keep up Islamic traditions? And how do Muslims in Germany celebrate Ramadan?
By Nadine Berghausen (text) and Stefanie Loos (photos)
Germany is home to over four million Muslims, many of whom emigrated here from Islamic countries in recent decades. As their numbers have grown, the holy month of Ramadan has also found its way into everyday German life. Most believers continue to practice the traditions from their country of origin. The customs around Ramadan and the foods prepared during the holy month are as varied as the Muslims who have made Germany home. Celebrating Ramadan in Germany does present some shared experiences as well, both enjoyable encounters and some cultural and practical hurdles.
Why Ramadan is important to German Muslims
For many Muslims, the fasting month of Ramadan is a very social time associated with a feeling of community and solidarity in a shared faith. For Amines Taşdan, a Muslim with Turkish roots who works in the Regional Office for Education, Integration and Democracy (RAA) in Berlin, this sense of community is particularly important. Fasting, she says, is a natural part of life in Muslim countries, but not in Germany. In majority Muslim countries, many of the faithful report a sense of euphoria brought on by fasting. “The feeling of fasting together and breaking your fast together as an entire community is more enjoyable than fasting as part of a minority in a predominantly Christian country. In Turkey, special cultural events are held during Ramadan and the mosques are extremely crowded for evening prayer. Here the mosques are often not even within walking distance.” Many Muslim institutions try to foster a sense of community in Germany in different ways, like inviting non-Muslim citizens to join in the celebration.
delicacies after sunset
Muslims in Germany want to pass the tradition of breaking fast with friends and relatives, of enjoying a shared meal and exchanging ideas, on to the next generation. This isn’t a problem as far as food goes, as many Turkish, Arabic and Asian supermarkets, especially in the major German cities, offer shoppers typical local delicacies, like sweet Turkish baklava. Plenty of shops also sell foods that are “halal”, which translates roughly as “pure” or “permitted” in the Islamic faith. Halal meat has to be imported though, since Germany prohibits religious slaughter where the animals are not stunned. If Muslim cooks cannot find the exact ingredient they need at the supermarket, they may simply switch to German foods and dishes, so a Muslim family’s menu might feature German pumpkin or broccoli soup, for example.
Berlin is home to a large and vibrant Muslim community, and practically every neighbourhood has shops that sell “typical Muslim” foods. We asked shopkeepers and residents of the Kreuzberg and Neukölln boroughs what made Ramadan special and how it changed their daily business.
HAS Bakery, Şafak Yetim: We bake our special Ramadan bread during Ramadan. It is almost twice the size of our normal loaves and we add cumin to the usual sesame seeds. A long queue usually forms a few hours before sunset, just like in Turkey. We then sell bread for four hours straight.
Şafak Yetim: The nicest thing about Ramadan is that you dine with a different family every day. Everyone sits together at one big table and the family serves their best dishes. Dinner usually starts with dates and a soup. In the morning we like to eat su böreği, a puff pastry stuffed with feta.
Kugu Nut Roasters, Gül Tazegül: We usually sell more during Ramadan and dates and unsalted nuts are very popular. Eating salted nuts makes you really thirsty the next day, and of course you can’t drink any water during the day.
Gül Tazegül: In our home, we cook more elaborate and filling meals during Ramadan. And we enjoy a lot of variety in what we eat.
Umkalthum Pastry Shop, Mahmoud: During Ramadan we offer more variety. We sell richer pastries with dulce de leche or topped with baked cheese. Kunafe is very popular, which is a semolina pastry stuffed with Arab cheese and drizzled with syrup.
Mahmoud: We don’t really cook anything special at home, but we do make more dishes than usual. We eat a lot of soups and salads, like tabbouleh (bulger salad with mint). We really enjoy drinks made with date syrup like jallab. What I like most about Ramadan is that people come together to eat and there is more variety in the foods. But the best part is that everyone is together.
Azzam Grocery, Hassan, Mohammed and Mohannad: We carry more dates and liquorice during Ramadan. They are used to flavour drinks. People buy a lot of apricots for their morning drink, which keeps you from being as thirsty during the day. People make more soups and salads as well.
Hassan, Mohammed and Mohannad: The best thing about Ramadan is all the visiting you do and that whole family comes together to eat and drink. So the atmosphere is really special and festive.
Dilan Flatbreads, Kamaran Shari: Not much changes for us during Ramadan. People just come in later, and there is a real rush for an hour or two. Some of our customers don’t fast or are not Muslims.
Short nights, long workdays
Fasting can be especially taxing for many Muslims at work. Working hours are curtailed in many Muslim countries during Ramadan, where people clock out at 2 p.m. In Germany though, employees are usually expected to work regular hours. And the sun sets very late during the German summer, so if Ramadan falls in May or June, worshipers may have to wait until 9 in the evening to break their fast.
In Berlin, Swedish furniture company Ikea has taken a step towards reconciling Ramadan and working life. The company's diversity concept sets aside time for Muslim employees to break their fast together, and asks their non-Muslim colleagues to schedule their breaks accordingly. If the canteen is closed after sunset, Muslim employees can dine in the public restaurant. This open approach towards the needs of Muslim workers is still more the exception than the rule, according to Taşdan Amine. “There is little consideration given to Ramadan at my workplace, and Muslim acquaintances report the same. One possible concession would be allowing us to work more slowly, for example.”
The questions non-Muslims ask about Ramadan
As present as Ramadan may be in everyday life in Germany, many non-Muslims still have a lot of unanswered questions. They rarely ask about Muslim customs though, and often seem more concerned about why Muslims would voluntarily refrain from eating and drinking. The Muslim Juma project, whose name is an acronym of the German words for young, active, and Muslim, was founded to give young Muslims in Germany a voice. It asked users to post the questions non-Muslims pose about Ramadan from the funny to the downright strange on its website under the hashtag #nochnichtmalwasser (“no, not even water”).
Ugur from Mannheim does his best to answer critical questions – such as whether fasting might pose medical risks - with a positive attitude. He says with a sense of pride: “I smile practically every time I hear things like ‘how can you stand it?’ and ‘that sounds impossible!’ It makes me feel like we Muslims must be very strong and patient people.”
Humera tries to take the questions people around her ask in good fun: “During training, I was the only person there who wore a headscarf. Another trainee asked me if it was true that I couldn’t shower during the entire month of Ramadan. She was completely serious. I took the time to explain to her how fasting worked in detail.”
Ramadan – an integral part of Germany
Ramadan has even moved into German politics. Not only do Muslim communities send out Ramadan greetings, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke about the good relationship between Muslim and non-Muslim citizens in a 2017 address: “It is nice to see that Ramadan has now become a natural part of life and the community in Germany. This festival shows that we can rejoice together, live together and treat each other with respect and care. These are values I believe in, and I will support them whenever and wherever I can.”
The data is based on the 2017 Bertelsmann study “Religionsmonitor” (Religion Monitor), which examines language competence, education, participation in working life and inter-religious contacts of Muslims in Western Europe. From Germany, 1000 Muslims with roots in Turkey, Southeast Europe, Iran, Southeast Asia, North Africa and the Middle East participated. In the other countries, some 500 Muslims from each of the most important countries of origin participated. Muslims in the sense of the study are persons who define themselves as belonging to Islam on the basis of their self-attribution. People who immigrated through the asylum system after 2010 were not interviewed.