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Living in the UAE
From Sharia to Gurdwara: Religion in the UAE
Islam has played an important role in the region for hundreds of years and is the official religion of the UAE; so make sure you know your ṣalāh from your zakat! It is, however, not the only faith you will encounter, as religious freedom and tolerance are advocated — with some restrictions, that is.
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- Since Sunni Islam is the official religion of the UAE, Islamic values and Sharia law play a big part in shaping daily life; not just for Muslims.
- Non-Muslims also need to be aware of Islam-based customs and laws, such as the prohibition of public eating or drinking during Ramadan.
- Expats are free to practice other faiths, as freedom of religion is laid down in the UAE’s constitution.
Islam, technically speaking Sunni Islam, is the official religion of the United Arab Emirates, with around three-fourths of the Emirates’ population being Muslims (according to 2005 numbers). As such, Islam is a huge influence on the local culture, customs, and daily life, from public holidays to the prohibition of alcohol.
Sunni vs. Shia Islam in the UAE
Making up over 80% of the worldwide Muslim population, it is no wonder that Sunni Muslims are also in the majority in the UAE, while Shi’ites constitute around 10–15%. The latter are mostly found in Dubai and Sharjah, as well as in Abu Dhabi. Sunni Islam is taught in Emirati public schools, and while the majority of Sunni mosques are state-funded, Shi’ite ones are considered private property. Cases of Shia Islam family law can, however, be settled in the Shi’ites’ own Jaafari Waqf Charity Council.
Sunni and Shia Muslims co-exist peacefully in the UAE, however, some discrimination against Shi’ites has been reported when it comes to employment in the public sector, particularly in the field of security. What is more, the deportation of a number of Lebanese Shi’ite expats made the news in early 2015, quoting alleged connections to or sympathies for the Lebanese Hezbollah, but also raising concerns about Shia discrimination.
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Arkān al-Islām: The Five Pillars of Islam
The following five acts are considered to be the basic values of Islam and the foundation of a pious life. As such, these concepts play an important role in all denominations of the religion, even if the following categorization and names are taken from Sunni Islam. In Twelver Shia Islam, for instance, the fundamental believes are instead summarized as the five Usul al-Din and an additional ten practices, the Furu al-Din.
The declaration of faith (aš-šahādah) in Allah as the one god and Muhammad as the messenger is not only part of the formal conversion to Islam, but also in one form or another included in each of the five daily prayers (ṣalāh). The latter are held at specific times during the day (dawn, noon, afternoon, evening, night); you’ll be able to hear the Adhan, the ritualistic call to prayer from the minarets of the mosques.
The practice of alms-giving (zakāt) is expected of all Muslims who are not in dire need themselves. Based on the belief that everything belongs to Allah and in order to contribute to a balanced community, one is expected to share a portion of one’s wealth or otherwise contribute with good deeds or behavior. Alms-giving is typically also done during Ramadan, the month of ritual fasting (sawm). Lastly, every Muslim is obliged to make the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) at least once in their life during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah.
Sharia: The Islamic Law and Its Role in the UAE
Traditionally, if not necessarily historically, based on the revelations to Muhammad, the practices grouped together under the term Sharia are meant to not only regulate the relationship to Allah (ibādāt), but also to positively influence the Muslim society as a whole (maṣlaḥa). Acts are regarded as either crimes/sins (ḥarām), despised (makrūh), neutral (mubāh), recommended (mandūb), or mandatory (farḍ or wājib), with the latter three (sometimes four) cases grouped together under the term ḥalāl. Since not following a recommendation or doing something despised is — while frowned upon — not regarded as a sin, Sharia courts are typically only concerned with the other three.
In the UAE, Sharia law is the basis of national law, but not it’s only source. As such, Sharia law is applied in the absence of any otherwise existing legalization covering the same issue. A blend of Islamic and civil code law as well as the ongoing process of (re-)interpreting the former thus make up the UAE’s legal framework, with civil and Sharia courts co-existing.
Sharia law on its own is often divided into criminal and family law, with the latter governing matters of personal status (e.g. marriage), family, as well as inheritance. Regardless of the category, repercussions for breaking Sharia law in the UAE can be quite sever and theoretically also include corporal (e.g. flogging) as well as capital punishment (e.g. stoning) — even if fines, jail time, and deportation are nowadays much more common. Note that this can also be the case for acts that many non-Muslim expats would not perceive as criminal, including, but not limited to, swearing (also online!), drinking alcohol in public, pregnancies outside of marriage, or adultery.
Things to Keep in Mind during the Holy Month of Ramadan
During Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims fast in commemoration of the revelation of the Quran to Muhammad. As such, eating, drinking, and even smoking during the daylight hours is forbidden and even punishable by law in the UAE. The sick (e.g. diabetics, but also people suffering more temporary ailments), mothers to be, breastfeeding mothers, elderly, as well as pre-teenagers are typically exempt from fasting so as not to endanger their health. Furthermore, menstruating women are not permitted to fast. However, discretion should still be exercised by such parties when breaking the fast during the day.
This is also true for non-Muslims, who may eat and drink in private. Some restaurants, typically those found in hotels, are open during the day and provide screened off sections for guests to eat unobserved. Since Ramadan is considered a holy month, it is particularly important to adhere to the local customs during this time and e.g. wear modest clothing, not play any music in public, etc.
Towards each evening, you can expect things to pick up, as people rush home in order to break their day’s fast together with family or friends; this is called Iftar. Similarly, Eid al-Fitr or just Eid — the three-day celebrations at the conclusion of Ramadan starting on the first day of the following month — can get quite busy.
Freedom of Religion — Other Faiths in the UAE
Article 32 of the constitution of the UAE guarantees the freedom of religion, provided it is “in accordance with established customs” and “does not conflict with public or violate public morals”. As such, displaying crosses on the façade of churches, for example, is often not permitted, nor is the marriage of non-Muslim men to Muslim women; you can learn more about the latter topic in our article on marriage in the UAE.
With or without crosses on church exteriors, Christianity is the second most practiced faith, and includes various Christian denominations, from Roman Catholics to the Anglican Communion. According to a 2005 estimate, Christians make up less than ten percent of the total population, however, followed by Hindus and Buddhists. The followers of Judaism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, the Bahá’í faith, and other religions make up less than five percent combined. Due to the rising number of expatriates, more recent, unofficial estimates often quote higher percentages, though.
At the time of writing in late 2015, the Shiva and Krishna Mandir temple complex in Dubai was the only official place to go for Hindus. Some (not yet concrete) plans to build a further temple in Abu Dhabi were announced during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit in 2015, though. Similarly, there is only one Sikh gurdwara, the Guru Nanak Darbar, to be found in Dubai, where most of the UAE’s Sikh population is located.
While any public, religious celebration or activity requires the express permission of the authorities first, you are free to practice your faith in private, should there be no house of worship available to you. Proselytizing, on the other hand, is strictly forbidden and cases of blasphemy are taken very seriously. Apostasy, i.e. converting to another religion from Islam, is prohibited by Sharia law and strictly speaking punishable by death, although there have been no known prosecutions of apostasy in the UAE.