This year, Ramadan begins in early May and will be observed by most of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims. But how much do you actually know about this Islamic month?
Ramadan has been observed for centuries. It become obligatory for Muslims in the second year of the Islamic calendar (the year 579 in the Gregorian calendar) during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, who was the last prophet in Islamic tradition.
The reason Muslims fast is simple:
Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, in other words the five core practices to be observed by each Muslim. They are: faith, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage to Mecca.
The Islamic months follow a lunar calendar, and each month begins and ends by sighting the new crescent moon. As lunar months are shorter than solar months, Ramadan is about 10 days earlier every year.
In the UK, a new moon is very difficult to sight due to its cloudy skies, which means British Muslims have to rely on sightings from other countries to determine when Ramadan starts. This means some Muslims may start (and finish) fasting on a different day, depending on which country they choose to follow.
Muslims fast every day during Ramadan, beginning at dawn and ending at dusk. They have two main meals: the pre-dawn meal is called suhoor and the sunset meal to break the fast is called iftar.
In the UK, for example, dawn and dusk times change during the month; in 2019, fasts will last between 17.5 and 20 hours. This only gives Muslims a few hours for both meals, so they have to make them count! As well as this, Muslims face sleep deprivation as their routine changes during Ramadan.
People living in the Arctic Circle have the greatest challenge of all, as the sun is up for almost 24 hours and they have very little time to grab a bite to eat. For them, it is especially important to eat energy-boosting foods and get plenty of rest during the day, just like athletes and people with physically demanding jobs.
The type of food Muslims eat during Ramadan really depends on their culture and the country they live in. However, all Muslims around the world break their fast with dates, following the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad. Dates are perfect for ending a fast as they are high in sugar and nutrients. It’s also really important to drink lots of water as they also can’t drink during the day.
In Indian communities, people tend to eat a lot of fried food and sweet desserts at the end of the day. However, recently there’s been a trend towards becoming more health-conscious, and Indian Muslims now try to fill up on foods that will release energy slowly during the day, such as oats, eggs and bananas. Some people find it hard to stomach anything at the end of a long fast, while some also have a tendency to overeat and indulge in treats, so it is important to find a balance!
Muslims must not risk their health to fast, so anyone who is unwell is exempt from fasting. Women are also exempt from fasting during their periods, and pregnant and breastfeeding women do not have to fast if they feel unable to do so.
Apart from eating and drinking, Muslims are not allowed to smoke or engage in any sexual activity. Fasting is a test for both the body and mind, as they have to remain patient and get on with their daily activities despite the physical challenges of fasting.
It is a month for spiritual renewal, where they try to work on any vices and increase good deeds such as giving to charity. Fasting also helps to empathise with people who have little to eat every day, and don’t have the luxury of a big meal when the day is over.
Since Muslims are all fasting together, there is a strong sense of community during Ramadan. Families that rarely share a meal break their fast together at the same time each day, and many mosques organise a communal iftar which is especially beneficial for people who live alone.
Apart from the five daily prayers observed all year round, there is an extra night prayer during Ramadan called taraweeh, and Muslims are also encouraged to increase worship and recitation of the Quran.
Muslims wish each other Ramadan Mubarak or Ramadan Kareem, which are Arabic greetings that translate as “Have a blessed Ramadan”. You can use either the Arabic or English versions to wish your friends, colleagues or neighbours a blessed month.
They celebrate the end of the month with the three-day Eid festival, where they can indulge after a month of fasting and rest. During the Eid festival, you can wish your Muslim friends Eid Mubarak! or simply Happy Eid!.
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