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What is Ramadan? How Muslims Observe Their Holiest Month

What is Ramadan? How Muslims Observe Their Holiest Month

For nearly two billion Muslims throughout the world, including the United States, Ramadan—which takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar—represents a period of self-restraint and self-sacrifice, introspection and prayer. Muslims believe that the revelation of the Qu’ran, their sacred scripture, began in the month of Ramadan.

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The origins of the Ramadan holy month  

According to Islamic tradition, in 610 AD the Prophet Mohammed spent the month of Ramadan contemplating his faith in a cave named Hira, located near his birthplace in the city of Mecca.

As the prophet meditated, Allah (God) began speaking through the Angel Gabriel, revealing verses that would become the Qu’ran.

That night became known as Lailat al Qadr—the Night of Power—and is considered by Muslims to be the most important event in history. Different denominations pinpoint the night on different dates: Sunnis (85–90% of Muslims) on the 27th of Ramadan and Shia (10–15% of Muslims) on the 23rd.

How Ramadan is observed  

Ramadan observations are included in the Five Pillars of Islam. Those basic acts are shahada (professing one’s faith), salat (prayer), zakat (giving to charity), sawm (fasting) and hajj (making a pilgrimage to Mecca).

Muslims observe the holiday by fasting from food and drink between dawn and dusk, as well as avoiding immoral behavior and thoughts. As fasting focuses the mind, celebrants are encouraged to think of others. Many of the faithful read or listen to recitations of the Qu’ran during Ramadan.

The observations and rituals take planning. Before dawn, people eat a meal called suhur to prepare them for fasting, followed by prayer.

After sunset and the call to evening prayer, Muslims often begin the iftar meal by eating three dates—said to be Mohammed’s way of breaking fasts.

“A few weeks prior to Ramadan starting, I start looking at meal preparation because I don’t like to do a lot of cooking during Ramadan. So I need to plan out what I’ll be eating prior to sunrise and then what I’ll be eating to break my fast. I also arrange my day so I complete my five-times-a-day prayers on time and read the Qu’ran on a daily basis. I also give charity every day during Ramadan. I plan ahead and send money to organizations via mail and online. During Ramadan, opportunities arise and charity can be given right then.” —Mahnaz Shabbir, diversity speaker and consultant, Shabbir Advisors

During Ramadan, the spiritual rewards of good behavior are believed to be multiplied—so abstaining from food and drink isn’t the only discipline Muslims adhere to. They focus their energies on prayer.

“Muslims fast in the month of Ramadan by not eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset. It does not mean that Muslims abstain from food only. It also means that we are at our best behavior, which really means no lying, cussing, cheating or showing temper. I think we are all human beings and with the passage of time we drift from our good behavior. The month of Ramadan brings us back to the right track.” —Seema Ahmed, proud Naano (grandmother)

Ramadan traditions bring Muslims together—wherever they are—to focus on their most strongly held beliefs.

“My memories are when the family gathers in the wee hours before sunrise to start our fasts. When my children were younger, they weren’t required to fast due to their age. Yet they would hear the early morning activity in the kitchen and want to join us. They would ‘start’ and by 10 am they were eating.” —Mahnaz Shabbir

“When I was little, I wanted to fast with my family. I recall chugging water ’til our stomachs hurt so we can last without water and food all day until about 7:30 PM. We never could make it ’til the end back then and ended up breaking fast around lunch time. I recall the sense of accomplishment I felt the first time I was able to fast all day. I was 9 years old. I also remember when I was 13 years old, I fasted the entire month of Ramadan for the first time. Each of my three kids have had the same request ever since they were little, and they have already told me that they want to fast with me this year. So the Lodhi family tradition continues.” —Sam Lodhi, Hallmark Manager

In the United States, where somewhere between 3.5 to 7 million Muslims live (with the population expected to grow), families might enjoy iftar in their own homes or with large groups at mosques or community centers. Since 1996, the White House has hosted iftar for community leaders and international visitors.

Ramadan ends with Eid al-Fitr, the Festival of Breaking the Fast, when the sighting of the crescent moon begins the next month of the lunar calendar. During this religious holiday, no fasting is allowed—Eid al-Fitr is a time for giving thanks to Allah, expressing joy for and gathering with friends and family.

Find out more about Eid al-Fitr (pronounced eed uhl-FEE-truh).

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