Ramadan: Meanings, Practices and Expectations

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Ramadan is the month-long Muslim fast or more properly the ninth month of the Muslim year in which the fast takes place. According to Islamic custom, every able bodied Muslim is required to fast during the daylight hours or "as long as a white thread can be distinguished from a black one."

Abstinence from dawn to dusk from all food and beverages during the Islamic month of Ramadan is the fourth pillar of the faith required of Muslims. Persons who are ill; women who are pregnant, nursing, or menstruating; soldiers on duty; travelers on necessary journeys; and young children are exempted from the fast. However, adults who are unable to fast during Ramadan are expected to observe a fast later. Ramadan is a period of spiritual renewal, and the daytime fasting is meant to help concentrate a Muslim's thoughts on religious matters. Many mosques, especially in urban areas, sponsor special prayer meetings and study groups during the month. The evening meal that breaks the fast has special religious significance and also is an occasion for sharing among families and friends. Muslims who can afford to do so often host one or more fast-breaking meals for indigents during Ramadan. The month of fasting is followed by a three-day celebration, Seker Bayrami (in Arabic, Id al Fitr), which is observed as a national holiday in most Muslim countries. [Source: Library of Congress]

Ramadan is the most sacred month of the year for Muslims. The Prophet Muhammad reportedly said, "When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of Hell are closed and the devils are chained." Muslims believe it was during this month that God revealed the first verses of the Quran, Islam's sacred text, to Muhammad, on a night known as "The Night of Power" (or Laylat al-Qadr in Arabic). During the entire month of Ramadan, Muslims fast every day from sunrise to sunset. It is meant to be a time of spiritual discipline — of deep contemplation of one's relationship with God, extra prayer, increased charity and generosity, and intense study of the Quran. [Source: Jennifer Williams, Vox, June 7, 2016]

Websites and Resources: Islam IslamOnline islamonline.net ; Institute for Social Policy and Understanding ispu.org; Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline

Why Ramadan is Important

Al-Nabi Mosque in Qazvin, Iran

Ramadan is a time a sacrifice that leads to renewal and strength and is intended to teach Muslims discipline, subdue their passions, cleanses their spirit and humble them by letting them experience what it is like to be poor. Fasting represents both a submission to God and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for God. By going through the experience together, Muslims are expected to develop a stronger bond with one another and a sense of community. Some religious scholars have suggested that Muhammad had Christian relatives and that the notion of fasting as a form of penitence was picked up from Christian ascetics who lived in the desert.

Ramadan’s fasting, prayer, good deeds, spirituality, and charity are aimed at "purifying the body and mind." It celebrates the month when the first verses of the Quran were said to be revealed to the prophet Muhammad in A.D. 610. Muslims fast during the day to bring themselves closer to God and their fellow man. According to the BBC: “There are several reasons why Ramadan is considered important: 1) The Qur'an was first revealed during this month; 2) The gates of Heaven are open; 3) The gates of Hell are closed and the devils are chained up in Hell. [Source: BBC, July 5, 2011 |::|]

Ramadan is a time when much of the Islamic world spends the month coming together and reflecting. Jennifer Williams wrote in Vox: “Despite the hardship of fasting for a whole month, most Muslims (myself included) actually look forward to Ramadan and are a little sad when it's over. There's just something really special about knowing that tens of millions of your fellow Muslims around the world are experiencing the same hunger pangs, dry mouth, and dizzy spells that you are, and that we're all in it together.”

Ramadan History and the Qur’an

Ramadan commemorates the night when Allah revealed the first portion of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 610. Ramadan is often called 'month of the Qur'an' because the Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, and Muslims attempt to recite as much of the Qur'an as they can during the month. Most mosques will recite one thirtieth of the Qur'an each night during the Taraweeh prayers. |::|

first revelation of the Qur'an to Muhammad

“No one knows on which particular night the Qur'an was first revealed, but it is said to be one of the last ten nights of Ramadan. To Muslims the night that the Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad is called Lailat ul Qadr, and to stand in prayer on this one night is said to be better than a thousand months of worship. |”The month of Ramadan in which was revealed the Qur'an, a guidance for mankind and clear proofs for the guidance and the criterion (between right and wrong)” — al-Baqarah 2:185 It was narrated from Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: "When Ramadan comes, the gates of Paradise are opened and the gates of Hell are closed, and the devils are put in chains."

While Muhammad was alive and living in Medina, he instituted a fast on ’Ashura’ — the 10th day of Muharram, the first month in the Muslim calendar — but later he abrogated this and instead ordained abstinence during the entire ninth month of the lunar calendar, Ramadan. Haïm Z’ew Hirschberg wrote in the “Encyclopaedia Judaica”: One version of this tradition maintains that this was in emulation of, or in competition with, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Other traditions deny any Jewish connection and hold that the ʿashuraʾ commemorates the saving of Noah during the flood, or a fast observed by the tribe of Quraysh in the pre-Islamic period. In A.D. 624 , Qur’an 2:185 was revealed, instituting the month of Ramadan as the month of fasting. [Source: Haïm Z’ew Hirschberg, “Encyclopaedia Judaica”, 2000, Encyclopedia.com]

Ramadan and Building Good Character

During Ramadan, Muslims are expected to focus on prayer, spirituality and charity and expected to abstain from gossip and cursing. Before the end of the month, Muslims must give charity to the poor. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: The primary emphasis of fasting is not simply on abstinence and self-mortification but, rather, on spiritual self-discipline, reflection on human frailty and dependence on God, and performance of good works in response to the less fortunate. Ramadan is also a special time to recite or listen to the recitation of the Qur’an. This is popularly done by dividing the Qur’an into 30 portions to be recited throughout the days of the month. Near the end of Ramadan, on the 27th day, Muslims commemorate the Night of Power, on which Muhammad received the first of God's revelations. [Source: John L. Esposito “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

According to the BBC: “Muslims believe that their good actions bring a greater reward during this month than at any other time of year, because this month has been blessed by Allah. They also believe that it is easier to do good in this month because the devils have been chained in Hell, and so can't tempt believers. This doesn't mean that Muslims will not behave badly, but that any evil that they do comes from within themselves, without additional encouragement from Satan. Almost all Muslims try to give up bad habits during Ramadan, and some will try to become better Muslims by praying more or reading the Qur'an. Muslims believe that this is one way that the chaining up of the devils is manifested, since there is no other reason for them to do so.

Jennifer Williams wrote in Vox: “Muslims are also supposed to try to curb negative thoughts and emotions like jealousy and anger, and even lesser things like swearing, complaining, and gossiping, during the month. Some people may also choose to give up or limit activities like listening to music and watching television, often in favor of listening to recitations of the Quran.” [Source: Jennifer Williams, Vox, June 7, 2016]

On Internet sites such as IslamOnline, a Cairo-based website created by Yusef Qaradawi, a popular Islamist preacher on the satellite channel al-Jazeera, users ask question about what is allowed and what isn’t. Abu Malih, an expert on Sharia who answer questions with the help of 10 assistants and advise from a network of 100 sheiks and muftis, told AFP, “It is sometimes difficult to answer, but never impossible.” His group has issued fatwas that using nasal sprays and receiving non-nutritive injections was in keeping with the Ramadan fast but smoking was not. His group also said dreams with a sexual content are okay as long as you don’t carry out the acts.

Ramadan Practices

Taraweeh night prayers at the Grand Mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia

Ramadan marked by intense prayer, dawn-to-dusk fasting and good deeds. The faithful spend the month of Ramadan in mosques for evening prayers known as "taraweeh", while free time during the day is often spent reading the Quran and listening to religious lectures.

According to the BBC: “There are a number of special practices which are only done during Ramadan. Fasting the whole month long Although Muslims fast during other times of the year, Ramadan is the only time when fasting, or sawm, is obligatory during the entire month for every able Muslim. Ramadan is intended to increase self-control in all areas, including food, sleeping, sex and the use of time. [Source: BBC, July 5, 2011 |::|]

“Taraweeh Prayers: These are long night prayers, which are not obligatory, but highly recommended. Mosques are filled with worshippers who go to attend these prayers, which usually last for one and a half to two hours. These prayers also give Muslims a chance to meet at the mosque every day, and so they also help to improve relationships in the Muslim community. |::|

“I'tikaf: I'tikaf refers to going into seclusion during the last ten nights of Ramadan, in order to seek Lailat ul Qadr by praying and reading the Qur'an. Some people live in the mosque during this time for serious reflection and worship. Others spend a few hours at the mosque or home.

Typical Day for a Muslim During Ramadan

Jennifer Williams wrote in Vox: “During Ramadan, Muslims wake up well before dawn to eat the first meal of the day, which has to last until sunset. This means eating lots of high-protein foods and drinking as much water as possible right up until dawn, after which you can't eat or drink anything. At dawn, we perform the morning prayer. Since it's usually still pretty early, many go back to sleep for a bit before waking up again to get ready for the day (I certainly do). [Source: Jennifer Williams, Vox, June 7, 2016 ^/^]

Airport Ramadan tent

“Muslims are not supposed to avoid work or school or any other normal duties during the day just because we are fasting. In many Muslim countries, however, businesses and schools may reduce their hours during the day or close entirely. For the most part, though, Muslims go about their daily business as we normally would, despite not being able to eat or drink anything the whole day. ^/^

“When the evening call to prayer is finally made (or when the alarm on your phone's Muslim prayer app goes off), we break the day's fast with a light meal — really more of a snack — called an iftar (literally "breakfast"), before performing the evening prayer. Many also go to the mosque for the evening prayer, followed by a special prayer that is only recited during Ramadan. This is usually followed by a larger meal a bit later in the evening, which is often shared with family and friends in one another's homes throughout the month. Then it's off to bed for a few hours of sleep before it's time to wake up and start all over again. ^/^

“There are good reasons for only having a small snack to break your fast before performing the evening prayer and then eating a bigger meal later. Muslim prayers involve a lot of movement — bending over, prostrating on the ground, standing up, etc. Doing all that physical activity on a full stomach after not having eaten for 15 hours is a recipe for disaster. Just trust me on this one.” ^/^

Differences In How Sunnis and Shia Observe Ramadan

For the most part, Sunni and Shia Muslims observe Ramadan in a similar fashion. Jennifer Williams wrote in Vox: “Both Sunni and Shia Muslims fast during Ramadan. But there are some minor differences — for instance, Sunnis break their daily fast at sunset, when the sun is no longer visible on the horizon (but there's still light in the sky), whereas Shia wait until the redness of the setting sun has completely vanished and the sky is totally dark. [Source: Jennifer Williams, Vox, June 7, 2016 ^/^]

Gargee'an in Ahwaz, Iran

“Shia also celebrate an additional holiday within the month of Ramadan that Sunnis do not. For three days — the 19th, 20th, and 21st days of Ramadan — Shia commemorate the martyrdom of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad who was both the revered fourth caliph of Sunni Islam and the first "legitimate" imam (leader) of Shia Islam.^/^

“Ali was assassinated in the fierce civil wars that erupted following the death of Muhammad over who should lead the Muslim community in his stead. On the 19th day of the month of Ramadan, while Ali was worshipping at a mosque in Kufa, Iraq, an assassin from a group of rebels who opposed his leadership fatally struck him with a poisoned sword. Ali died two days later. ^/^

“Ali is a hugely important figure in Shia Islam. His tomb in nearby Najaf, Iraq, is the third-holiest site in Shia Islam, and millions of Shia make pilgrimage there every year. Although Sunnis revere Ali as one of the four "rightly guided" caliphs who ruled after Muhammad's death, they do not commemorate his death or make pilgrimage to his tomb.” ^/^

Ramadan in the Middle East

In 2008, Associated Press reported: “This year's Muslim holy month comes at a time of high food prices region-wide — a burden for low-income people struggling to afford the special foods traditionally prepared for the meal that breaks the fast at each sunset. High food prices also complicate the usual practice of buying new clothes and other Ramadan treats. Hot weather also will likely create extra challenges this year for observers who go without food or water during daylight hours. [Source: Associated Press, September 1, 2008 /^]

“In Shia Iran, 100 groups sent to different parts of the country on the order of Iran's top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did not detect the moon Sunday night, said state-run TV. It said Ramadan would start Tuesday in Iran. In Iraq, Shia will also begin observing the month on Tuesday, but Sunnis started on Monday, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called on Iraq to "maintain peace and security" during Ramadan. Lebanon's Sunnis and some Shia did start Ramadan on Monday, but the Iranian-backed militant Hezbollah group and its supporters are to begin fasting Tuesday. There have been proposals by Muslim scholars from both major sects to have a Sunni-Shia committee work together to agree on the sighting of the Ramadan moon, but such efforts have failed in the past. /^\

20120509-Hurghada_main_street_of_the_bazaar_Ramadan Egypt 2004.jpg
Quiet daytime main street in Hurghada, Egypt
during Ramadan
“In a gesture of goodwill ahead of the holy month, Egypt opened its sealed border crossing with Gaza over the weekend, allowing hundreds of Palestinians to leave the coastal territory for medical treatment in Egypt and other reasons, officials said. In Gaza itself, Palestinians are marking the holy month under the strain of an Israeli blockade that has lasted more than a year, since Hamas militants seized control of the territory. More goods have been entering Gaza since a June cease-fire went into effect, but a shortage of cooking gas has forced dozens of bakeries to cut back on the number of traditional Ramadan pastries they produce. /^\

“In Ramallah in the West Bank, the atmosphere Monday was a little more upbeat than last year. Many homes were decorated with colored lights in the shape of crescents — the symbol of Islam. To cash in on the season's traditional soap opera television specials, shops offered a Ramadan special — a 50% discount on TV satellite dishes. In Jordan, police distributed small booklets to motorists, urging traffic safety. Traffic accidents — a problem across the region during Ramadan — increase by an average of 70% during the fasting month in Jordan. In Dubai, newspapers published special editions with ads for Ramadan sales in the city-state's giant shopping malls and lavish meals at its luxury hotels.” /^\

Ramadan in Asia

As Ramadan began in 2012, Niniek Karmini of Associated Press wrote: “Muslims have begun fasting for the start of the Ramadan holy month in Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere around Asia, but the somber occasion was marred in Buddhist-dominated Thailand by two bomb blasts that killed one person and injured seven. The Muhammadiyah group, Indonesia's second-largest Muslim organization, told its 30 million followers that Ramadan starts Friday. The government, however, declared the official start as Saturday, when most of the remaining 190 million Indonesians began the dawn-to-dusk fast. Muslims in Thailand also began Ramadan on Friday, while Malaysians began Saturday. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were to start Saturday or Sunday. [Source: Niniek Karmini, Associated Press, July 20, 2012 ***]

Ramadan's start varies because Muslim countries and groups use different ways of calculating when the new moon crescent is sighted. which uses calendar-based astronomical calculations, believed that the crescent should have appeared after sunset on Thursday. But the government argued it could not be seen by eyes or telescopes, hence Ramadan has to start Saturday. ***

drum calling people to Friday prayers in Indonesia

“In Malaysia, where nearly two-thirds of the population is Muslim, people began observing the holy month by heading to mosques Friday night on the eve of Ramadan's start, with special Quran-reading and prayer sessions to proceed nightly throughout the month. The start of Ramadan is often quiet in Malaysia, with excitement peaking in the final week, when people buy new clothes, food and other supplies to celebrate the end of the holy month. Many hotels in Kuala Lumpur have begun advertising promotional dinners featuring roast lamb, savory curries and sumptuous cakes for more affluent Muslims to break their fast, while in numerous neighborhoods, entrepreneurs will set up evening stalls for customers to purchase cooked rice, meat and vegetables to bring home for their families. ***

“Homemaker Karina Hassan said this Ramadan might be significant for her family because her 8-year-old daughter could try fasting for the first time. "She might try to fast for half a day at first," Karina said. "She's always hungry 24 hours a day, so fasting could be tough for her." Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak urged his country's Muslims to set aside their political differences during Ramadan and foster unity among believers. Political rhetoric and mudslinging has intensified in Malaysia over the past year ahead of national elections that must be held before mid-2013. ***

In Brunei, an air force helicopter crashed late Friday, killing at least 10 people, mostly military cadets being flown home after training. The sultanate's Borneo Bulletin newspaper called it "a national tragedy" that struck a day before the country's Muslim majority marked the start of Ramadan. ***

“Pakistan's government has promised there will not be any power blackouts during the key hours when people are preparing for their fast or during the evening when they pray and break their fasts. "If there is electricity or no electricity, people do fast, and they fast with patience," said Shah Muhammad, who sells nuts in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. "Allah gives you patience." In Bangladesh too, Ramadan is likely to start Saturday. However, a national moon sighting committee headed by state minister for religious affairs was to sit Friday evening to make an official declaration. Parts of India, where about 13 percent of the 1.2 billion people are Muslim, started Saturday, including New Delhi and the Indian portion of Kashmir.” ***

Ramadan During the Coronavirus Pandemic in Indonesia

During Ramadan in 2020, Muslim authorities closed all mosques and clerics issued fatwas urging Muslims to pray at home over the holy month rather than congregate in crowded spaces and risk spreading the virus, In 2021, Associated Press reported, Muslims in Indonesia began marking Ramadan with communal prayers in a socially distanced contrast to the empty mosques of 2020 when Islam's holiest month coincided with the start of the coronavirus pandemic. [Source: Niniek Karmini, Associated Press, April 13, 2021]

“COVID-19 cases are spiking in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, but vaccines are being administered and the government is loosening restrictions. Mosques were allowed to open for Ramadan prayers with strict health protocols in place, and with malls and cafes open, passers-by could again see curtains shielding the sight of food from people fasting.

“Muslims are expecting a virus resurgence but all mosques will be continuing to adhere to social distancing and other precautions, which will significantly reduce crowds, said Nasaruddin Umar, imam of Jakarta’s Istiqlal grand mosque. “I miss everything of Ramadan already,” Umar said, “The heart of faithful Muslims is tied to the mosque... the longing for Ramadan lovers has finally been relieved today although the pandemic has not yet ended.”

“In the capital, Jakarta, authorities disinfected 317 mosques in preparation for Ramadan, said Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan. Social distancing markers have been installed and soap and hand sanitizers have been prepared. The government also will allow people to hold “iftar” gatherings during Ramadan in restaurants, malls and cafes, which can serve customers up to 50 percent of their capacity and follow strict health guidelines.

“Indonesia is the worst-hit country in Southeast Asia with over 1.5 million infections as of Monday and more than 42,600 deaths. The Health Ministry will maintain the vaccine rollout through Ramadan as officials try to ease worries over the Islamic teaching that Muslims should refrain “from anything entering the body” between sunrise and sunset.

“Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body said Muslims eligible for vaccinations are not only allowed but “required” to get them during Ramadan. Although Muslims abstain from all food and drink in daylight hours during Ramadan, the vaccine enters muscle rather than the bloodstream and is not nutrition, so does not invalidate fasting, said Asrorun Niam Sholeh, the head of fatwas for the the Indonesian Ulema Council. “If we carry on taking our vaccines, we can ensure that next Ramadan we do return to some normality,” Sholeh said. Some vaccine sites in Jakarta are extending their opening hours so Muslims can come after they have broken their fast.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, Encyclopedia.com, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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