In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful! Qur’an first verse.
Ramadan is a holy month observed by Muslims which centers on the development of spiritual qualities through prayer, fasting, repentance of sins, and good works. Observance of the Ramadan fast is considered one of the “Five Pillars” of Islam by Sunni Muslims, and is celebrated by all major branches of the Islamic faith.
The Origins of Ramadan
The name “Ramadan” itself predates the foundation of Islam and refers to the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. Because the Islamic calendar is based on lunar cycles, this means that the precise date of Ramadan varies each year in relation to the Western solar calendar. Ramadan is considered an especially holy month to Muslims because, they believe, it is the month when the Prophet Muhammad received the revelation of God’s word in the Qur’an. In Islam, the Qur’an is considered the final, complete revelation of God to the human race and the foundation of the Muslim faith.
Practices of Ramadan
In most Muslim communities, Ramadan’s predominant aspect is fasting, which in Arabic is called Sawm. The performance of Sawm is not restricted only to Ramadan, but Ramadan is the period in which the fast is most widely observed. While practicing Sawm, Muslims do not eat or drink, nor do they take part in certain other activities such as sexual intercourse.
Observant Muslims always pray five times a day at certain specific times; during Ramadan, the fast occurs from the first prayer of the day (the Fajr, around dawn) to the fourth (the Maghrib, shortly after sunset). Between one evening’s Maghrib and the next morning’s Fajr, Muslims may eat and drink as much as they like. The meal taken directly before the beginning of the day’s fast is called the Suhoor, and the meal taken at sunset to break the fast is the Iftar. Some traditions are attached to these meals: for instance, it is customary to eat a date at the beginning of the Iftar, which is also preferably celebrated with others rather than alone.
In Muslim countries, Ramadan significantly changes some aspects of the cycle of day-to-day life. Businesses selling food, for example, stay open late. Many Islamic countries have laws of varying severity punishing citizens for failing to observe the fast.
However, a number of exceptions are made to the rules of fasting to accommodate special circumstances. Those who are traveling are not required to observe the fast; nor are children, the elderly, pregnant or nursing women, or the ill. Muslims exempted from the fast are expected to practice piety in another way, particularly in feeding the poor.
Reading the Qur’an is another important part of Ramadan. For the sake of Ramadan, Islam’s holy book has been divided into thirty equal parts known as juz’, which are read aloud at mosques each night.
In addition, Ramadan is meant to foster a general sense of kindness, generosity, and restraint from secular affairs. A number of special prayers are also offered during the celebration of Ramadan.
Sometime during the final ten nights of Ramadan, Muslims observe Laylat al-Qadr, which celebrates the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. This date is extremely important to the Islamic faith, and is often observed through extra prayers or multi-day spiritual retreats.
The end of Ramadan is celebrated during the Eid ul-Fitr, a holiday at the beginning of the following month (Shawwal) that lasts for three days or more. These days, often referred to simply as Eid, come with their own set of customs that mark the end of the fast through prayer and good works.