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Ramadan trend: Iftar emerges as high-profile social event

In the Muslim world, breaking the daily fast at sunset was once a family event. Now it's upscale and political.

By Yigal SchleiferCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 23, 2008

FINE RAMADAN DINING: At the five-star Sonargaon Hotel in Dhakar, Bangladesh, orphaned girls are treated to what's becoming an Islamic-world trend: breaking the daily fast in style.

Pavel Rahman/AP

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Istanbul, Turkey

The Ciragan Sarayi, an opulent 19th-century Ottoman palace turned into a luxury hotel, usually hosts high-society weddings. This month, however, it is booked solid by corporate clients celebrating iftar, the traditional meal after sundown that breaks the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

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On a recent night, some 700 guests of a discount supermarket chain were seated at candlelit tables as a five-piece band played traditional Turkish music and a swarm of waiters in crimson-colored tuxedo jackets brought them plates of roast lamb.

"For a company to have iftar here is a kind of statement," says Ulku Karadaglilar, an executive at the Ciragan. "It's like 'Where did you have your wedding or your gala event?' They only have one chance to do it all year, so they want the best."

Increasingly, iftar in Turkey – and in other parts of the Muslim world – has moved from being a family affair to an important economic and social statement. Businesses and other organizations now host lavish iftar dinners, using them as a kind of public relations tool and as a way, some critics charge, of showing off. Observers in Turkey say the rise of the corporate iftar dinner is another example of the rising visibility of religion in public life and of an increasingly bourgeois Islamic elite.

"The religiously conservative and newly urbanized middle classes and upper middle classes have given increased importance to the iftar dinner, and have influenced the established middle classes," says Nilufer Narli, a sociologist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University.

"Now these dinners are becoming more and more public and chic. It's becoming something that's kind of fashionable – almost every company or organization now gives one. It's the new thing."

New enough, apparently, that there are few critics. Ramadan marks the month when the Koran was revealed to the prophet Muhammad. During daylight hours, it's a month of fasting (no food or water), purification, and reflection. But after sunset the fast is broken – and that's becoming a major focus of the holiday.

Ozlem Sandikci, an assistant professor of marketing at Ankara's Bilkent University who studies consumerism, says that in certain respects, Ramadan is starting to look a lot like Christmas.

"Across the Muslim world, there are numerous signs that Ramadan, a time of fasting, prayer, and reflection, is transforming from a religious month to a cultural and commercial holiday," she says.

"The resistance to this change is not very obvious," she adds. "People seem to be embracing it."

With an emphasis on family celebrations, Ramadan was once a slow period for Istanbul's hotels. That is no longer the case.

"It's become a busier period. It brings business," says Baris Atik, banquet manager at the Conrad Istanbul, another five-star hotel, which – like most of its competitors – offers discounted rates during Ramadan.

"Companies are now doing their annual gala dinners during Ramadan," he adds.

"Companies don't come here because of religion – they see iftar as a good time to bring their employees together, cheaply." (Relatively cheaply, despite the lowered rates, an iftar for 700 could still cost more than $70,000.)

The change is not limited to Turkey. Throughout the Muslim world, iftar is becoming big business, experts say.

In Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for example, an increasing number of luxury hotels now erect iftar tents, where guests can break their fast (at least those who are actually fasting) with food from huge buffet tables.