What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Islam uses a lunar calendar - that is, each month begins with the sighting of the new moon. Because the lunar calendar is about 11 days shorter than the solar calendar used elsewhere, Islamic holidays "move" each year. In 2003 Ramadan begins on Oct. 27; in 2004 it will begin on Oct. 15.
For more than a billion Muslims around the world-including some 8 million in North America-Ramadan is a "month of blessing" marked by prayer, fasting, and charity. This year Ramadan precedes Christmas and overlaps Hanukkah.
But while in many places these holidays have become widely commercialized, Ramadan retains its focus on self-sacrifice and devotion to God (Allah in Arabic).
Why this month?
Muslims believe that during the month of Ramadan, Allah revealed the first verses of the Quran, the holy book of Islam. Around 610 A.D., the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, used to go out to the desert near Mecca (in today's Saudi Arabia) to think about faith, society and God.
One night a voice called to him from the night sky. It was the angel Gabriel, who told Muhammad he had been chosen to receive the word of Allah. In the days that followed, Muhammad found himself speaking the verses that would be transcribed as the Quran.
At many mosques during Ramadan, about one thirtieth of the Quran is recited each night in prayers known as Tarawih. In this way, by the end of the month the complete scripture will have been recited.
Why do Muslims fast?
Muslims practice Sawm, or fasting, for the entire month of Ramadan. This means that they may eat or drink nothing, including water, while the sun is up as well as making a special effort to avoid sins. Fasting is one of the Five Pillars (duties) of Islam. As with other Islamic duties, all able Muslims take part in Sawm from about age twelve.
Fasting serves many purposes. While they are hungry and thirsty, Muslims are reminded of the suffering of the poor. Fasting is also an opportunity to practice self-control and to cleanse the body and mind. And in this most sacred month, fasting helps Muslims feel the peace that comes from spiritual devotion as well as kinship with fellow believers.
During Ramadan in the Muslim world, most restaurants are closed during the daylight hours. Families get up early for suhoor, a meal eaten before the sun rises. After the sun sets, the fast is broken with a meal known as Iftar. Iftar usually begins with dates and sweet drinks that provide a quick energy boost.
How does Ramadan end?
Ramadan ends with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which in 2003 occurs on November 26. Literally the "Festival of Breaking the Fast," Eid al-Fitr is one of the two most important Islamic celebrations (the other occurs after the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca). At Eid al-Fitr people dress in their finest clothes, adorn their homes with lights and decorations, give treats to children, and enjoy visits with friends and family.
A sense of generosity and gratitude colors these festivities. Although charity and good deeds are always important in Islam, they have special significance at the end of Ramadan. As the month draws to a close, Muslims are obligated to share their blessings by feeding the poor and making contributions to Mosques.