For Muslims all around the world, this week marks the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, a period commonly known as a time for fasting. Yet how it came to be and why it is observed remain unknown to many, especially to those outside the Islamic faith.
This year, Ramadan begins on either the eve of May 15 or 16, depending on the visibility of the new crescent moon from one’s locale.
Saudi Arabia and many Arab countries are expected to see it on May 15, while Iran, Morocco and Pakistan could see it the next day since these countries started the lunar calendar a day later, according to Al Jazeera.
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, comes from the Arabic root ramiḍa or ar-ramaḍ, meaning “scorching heat” or “dryness.” In essence, it is a period of spiritual growth attained through prayer and self-control.
It is also the month when the first verses of the Quran were revealed. Chapter 2, Verse 185 of the religious text states:
“The month of Ramadan is that in which was revealed the Quran; a guidance for mankind, and clear proofs of the guidance, and the criterion (of right and wrong). And whosoever of you is present, let him fast the month, and whosoever of you is sick or on a journey, a number of other days. Allah desires for you ease; He desires not hardship for you; and that you should complete the period, and that you should magnify Allah for having guided you, and that perhaps you may be thankful.”
Fasting, or the abstinence from food and drink from sunrise to sunset, develops a quality called taqwa, or the awareness that Allah is always watching. The meal before sunrise is called suhur, while that which breaks the fast after sunset is called iftar.
All adult Muslims are obliged to fast, with the exception of the mentally disabled and ill ones who could worsen their health condition. As such, those who are sick must make up for the missed fasts some time later when they are in better shape.
Others who may not fast include pregnant or lactating women whose babies may be harmed, women in their menstrual period or having postpartum bleeding and others in situations that require them to be in their best physical condition (i.e. soldiers on guard duty). While children who have not reached puberty are not obliged to fast, many are encouraged to practice early on.
During Ramadan, Muslims may also read the whole Quran, while some choose to perform extra prayers in the evening called tarawih. However, many Muslims visit mosques on the last ten nights to read the Quran, pray and stay away from worldly affairs, an activity of seclusion known as itikaf.
Muslims also celebrate an evening of utmost importance called Laylat al-Qadr, known in English as the “Night of Power,” which happens to be the night when the first revelation of the Quran was received by Muhammad. It is generally believed to take place on an odd-numbered night in the last ten days of the period (that being the 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th or 29th).
While these are common practices, there are other less-familiar pointers to observe. For one, the fasting is “less reward” if one partakes in “back-biting, gossiping or swearing at other people,” scholar Shabbir Hassan told BBC.
Meanwhile, those who genuinely forget that they are fasting and eat by accident are still doing something valid provided that they stop immediately after realizing their mistake.
It must be noted, however, that failing to fast during the period constitutes an infraction that could also be a crime in some Muslim countries. For instance, at least four Palestinians were detained last year for committing the offense in public.
Following Ramadan, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, which falls on the first day of the succeeding month. This year, it could start on June 14, 15 or 16.