Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Islam uses a lunar calendar—that is, each month begins with the sighting of the new moon. Because the lunar calendar is about 11 days shorter than the solar calendar used elsewhere, Islamic holidays “move” each year. In 2015, Ramadan begins at sundown on June 18th.
For more than a billion Muslims around the world—including some 8 million in North America—Ramadan is a “month of blessing” marked by prayer, fasting, and charity. Ramadan focuses on self-sacrifice and devotion to Allah (God).
Why this Month?
Muslims believe that during the month of Ramadan, Allah revealed the first verses of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. Around 610 A.D., a caravan trader named Muhammad took to wandering the desert near Mecca (in today’s Saudi Arabia) while thinking about his faith. One night a voice called to him from the night sky. It was the angel Gabriel, who told Muhammad he had been chosen to receive the word of Allah. In the days that followed, Muhammad found himself speaking the verses that would be transcribed as the Qur’an.
At many mosques during Ramadan, about one thirtieth of the Qur’an is recited each night in prayers known as tarawih. In this way, by the end of the month the complete scripture will have been recited.
During the blessed month of Ramadan, Muslims all over the world abstain from food, drink, and other physical needs during the daylight hours. As a time to purify the soul, refocus attention on God, and practice self-sacrifice, Ramadan is much more than just not eating and drinking.
Muslims are called upon to use this month to re-evaluate their lives in light of Islamic guidance. We are to make peace with those who have wronged us, strengthen ties with family and friends, do away with bad habits — essentially to clean up our lives, our thoughts, and our feelings. The Arabic word for “fasting” (sawm) literally means “to refrain” – and it means not only refraining from food and drink, but from evil actions, thoughts, and words.
During Ramadan, every part of the body must be restrained. The tongue must be restrained from backbiting and gossip. The eyes must restrain themselves from looking at unlawful things. The hand must not touch or take anything that does not belong to it. The ears must refrain from listening to idle talk or obscene words. The feet must refrain from going to sinful places. In such a way, every part of the body observes the fast.
Therefore, fasting is not merely physical, but is rather the total commitment of the person’s body and soul to the spirit of the fast. Ramadan is a time to practice self-restraint; a time to cleanse the body and soul from impurities and re-focus one’s self on the worship of God.
During Ramadan in the Muslim world, most restaurants are closed during the daylight hours. Families get up early for suhoor, a meal eaten before the sun rises. After the sun sets, the fast is broken with a meal known as iftar. Iftar usually begins with dates and sweet drinks that provide a quick energy boost.
Fasting serves many purposes. While they are hungry and thirsty, Muslims are reminded of the suffering of the poor. Fasting is also an opportunity to practice self-control and to cleanse the body and mind. And in this most sacred month, fasting helps Muslims feel the peace that comes from spiritual devotion as well as kinship with fellow believers.
Exceptions to the fast
Several different groups are excused from fasting during Ramadan: pregnant women, people who are mentally or physically ill, and sometimes women who are breastfeeding. Children are not obligated to fast until they hit puberty, although many choose to observe the fast at least part of the month in preparation for later years.
Ramadan ends with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which in 2015 occurs on July 17. Literally the “Festival of Breaking the Fast,” Eid al-Fitr is one of the two most important Islamic celebrations (the other occurs after the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca). At Eid al-Fitr people dress in their finest clothes, adorn their homes with lights and decorations, give treats to children, and enjoy visits with friends and family. Eid ul Fitr is also considered a time of reverance. Muslims praise Allah (God) for helping them get through the month, and ask for forgiveness for the sins they’ve committed.
A sense of generosity and gratitude colors these festivities. Although charity and good deeds are always important in Islam, they have special significance at the end of Ramadan. As the month draws to a close, Muslims are obligated to share their blessings by feeding the poor and making contributions to mosques.
The Five Pillars of Islam
Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, the practices that all Muslims must follow. They are as follows:
Shahada: This is a profession of belief in the one true God. The declaration usually goes as follows: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet and servant.”
Salat: Praying five time daily facing the direction of Mecca. Muslims must practice ablution before the prayers.
Zakat: The giving of charity to the poor and needy.
Sawm: Fasting during the month of Ramadan.
Hajj: The pilgrimage to Mecca that each Muslim must make at least once in his or her lifetime.