What Is Ramadan?

updated May 6, 2019
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Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion, but for many non-Muslims, the month-long observance of Ramadan may still seem a little mysterious. This is particularly true in the United States, where, according to data from the Pew Research Center, about one percent of Americans practice the Muslim faith. But Ramadan presents an opportunity for the curious to gain a deeper understanding.

When Is Ramadan?

On the Islamic calendar, Ramadan always begins on the same date each year, but the start date shifts on the Gregorian calendar by about 11 days annually. The disparity exists because the Islamic calendar follows the phases of the moon, while the Gregorian calendar is solar-based.

This year, sun down on May 5 is considered to be the start of the holiday based on astronomical calculations, although some Muslims don’t initiate their observance until the crescent moon has been spotted with the naked eye.

The Rules of Fasting and Ramadan

During Ramadan, faithful Muslims forego all food and drink, including water, during daylight hours for 30 days. Fasting is one of the five pillars, or primary obligations, of Islam, along with the declaration of faith, daily prayer, charitable giving, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca.

However, Islam allows for sensible exceptions. Children, the sick or elderly, pregnant women, travelers, and even athletes are not expected to fast. According to Arsalan Bukhari, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations for the state of Washington, “The guideline is: Don’t risk your health.”

The Meals of Ramadan: Suhoor and Iftar

Fasting Muslims typically rise before dawn to eat suhoor, a hearty meal designed to power them through the day. Suhoor food choices vary, depending on where you are in the world, but all Muslims try to drink plenty of water before first light.

At sunset, the faithful break their fast with a sip of water and a few dates, just as the Prophet Mohammed is said to have done some 1,400 years ago. Next comes the maghrib (or sunset) prayer, followed by a feast with family and friends known as iftar. Here again, what’s on the menu depends on where you are in the world, but the fare is certain to be nourishing and tasty.

Although Muslims find abstaining from sustenance during the day personally taxing, these evening gatherings bring the community together to socialize and strengthen interpersonal bonds. Again, the foods served vary by region, but everywhere in the world, Muslims invite the poor and people of all faiths to attend the iftar feast as guests. As fortifying as these iftar meals are, events can stretch late into the night, particularly when Ramadan falls during the long days of summer. This means that the faithful contend not only with hunger during the day, but also lack of sleep.

Beyond Fasting and Food

But Ramadan isn’t only about the fast or the food. Muslims consider it a time to focus on their relationship with God, an occasion for intensified worship and reflection. The holy month brings a reminder to eschew bad habits like cursing and smoking, nurture gratitude, and recalibrate both body and soul. For many Muslims, Ramadan also encourages increased charitable giving. According to Bukhari, those who cannot fast may choose to donate especially generously to the poor at this time of year in consolation.

The Final Celebration

As the end of Ramadan draws near, Muslims may pray with even greater fervor. Sometime in the final 10 days, the faithful mark the Laylat al-Qadr, or Night of Destiny, a commemoration of the visit the Angel Gabriel paid on God’s behalf to the Prophet Mohammed to reveal the first verses of the Koran. Laylat al-Qadr is considered an auspicious time for followers to pray for salvation and mercy. Ramadan concludes with a three-day holiday known as Eid al-Fitr, a celebration filled with family activities, gifts for the children, and plenty of daytime eating.

Ramadan Mubarak!