Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. This is the month during which Muslims’ holy book the Quran was revealed; Hassan the second Shi’ite Imam was born; the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali was murdered; a conclusive battle at Badr was won; and Muslims are expected to fast. One of the main rituals of Islam, fasting is obligatory for all Muslims except the sick, pregnant women and some travelers. In all cases once health is restored or traveling has ended, these missing days should be made up by fasting (for the same number of days).
The practice is observed for the whole month and ends with the celebration ‘Fitr’. The daily period of fasting starts at dawn and ends at sunset with no food, drink or sex during the fasting hours. Such self-control is believed to benefit the individuals by elevating their spiritual nature or energy and is symbolic of an inner purification of the character. The believers must have good intentions (niyyat) in their mind when fasting. This intention must be pure and the ritual should be performed for the love of God only, not for the sake of earthly gains or even the reward of paradise. Special acts of piety, such as the recitation of the entire Quran (one-thirtieth each night of the month) and prayers specific to Ramadan are performed privately or communally at the mosques. Alms are given to the needy and charitable people will provide free meals at sunset when “ending the fast meals” are consumed.
Fasting is a common ritual practiced by most religions and was known in pre-Islamic Arabia. There were several Gnostic sects, Christian and Manichean missionaries that practiced fasting and were present in Arabia at the time of Prophet Muhammad. The Muslim fasting was originally based on the Jewish tradition. In the Quran, the crossing of the Red Sea by the Jewish exodus from Egypt is called ‘furghan’ meaning salvation. Each year Jews commemorate this furghan at Passover. However, the fasting occurs on Yom Kippur, another Jewish holy day when the entire day is dedicated to praying and other religious observances. Since food cannot be consumed during the prayers, fasting is observed until the rituals are over. This is called the Day of Atonement by the Jews and happens on the tenth of the Jewish month Tishri.
After the Prophet’s migration to Medina, influenced by the Jewish tradition, the Muslim fasting happened at Passover mixing this day and Yom Kippur together. The fasting was established for the day of ‘Ashura’—the tenth day of Muharram. However, after the decisive and unexpected victory at the battle of Badr, the Prophet declared that the fast at Passover was no longer obligatory for Muslims. Instead they were required to fast only during Ramadan to commemorate their own furghan of Badr. The fast of Ramadan was observed for the first time in 625 AD, and became one of the essential practices of Islam and a must for all Muslims. It is not obligatory for youngsters until they reach puberty; however, most practicing Muslims encourage their children to practice occasional fasting long before they reach that age.
Women during menstruation and up to forty days following childbirth as well as pregnant women are also exempt from fasting. However, the missed days should be made up before the next Ramadan. The very old and the insane are permanently exempt from fasting.
The fasting starts in the beginning of the month when the moon is in conjunction with the sun illuminating the side of the moon away from the earth. In this position, the moon is known as the “new moon” with its dark side facing the earth. By definition a new moon is not visible until it has orbited long enough to form a crescent. A lunar month is approximately 29.5 days and on average is one day shorter than a solar month. Therefore, the month of Ramadan comes 10 – 12 days earlier each year. Any observatory and astronomy center can provide detailed and exact information as to the start of the month. However, many Muslims will not start fasting until the moon crescent is sighted.
For Muslims, as for Jews, the day begins at sunset and ends at the next sunset. In this system the night comes before the day. If the “new moon” is sighted before the sunset, fasting starts the next day. But if the moon is sighted after the sunset, the first day of Ramadan does not start until the next sunset. The same system is used to determine the ending of the month. If the new moon for the following month, Shawwal, is sighted before the sunset, then fasting ends at the sunset on that day. If it is sighted after the sunset, the fasting continues until the next day.
People fasting will rise early before dawn to have a pre-fast breakfast (sahari) and a more elaborate meal at the end of the fasting day called Iftar (iftari). The first one being early in the morning is a family affair and normally consists of a large breakfast with previously prepared cold meals like koko, kofteh with flat bread, feta cheese, eggs, bread and jam served with tea. Dates are always served with all religious rituals and are assumed to bring barakat (blessing). These were Prophet Muhammad’s favourite foods and are used at most Muslim ceremonies. There is no prescribed food as such and it varies according to the taste and the economic status of the participants. Iftar, however, is like a feast and if possible is consumed with other close members of the family clan, friends and neighbors. Takeya;anindependent religious gathering place, may serve iftari food for people attending the event with communal praying, recitations of the Quran, and preaching by the religious figures and other respected authorities—mainly males.
Segregation of the sexes is still practiced by many Muslims, therefore in some traditional families and in the Mosques males and females will be seated separately. Volunteers perform acts of charity by preparing food in the kitchens and serving the needy with food donated by charitable people. Ramadan is regarded as a festive month for most Muslims. Streets and shops will be decorated with lights and flowers. People will congratulate each other by saying ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ (blessed Ramadan). People are not expected to give up their daily routine and work despite the apparent hardships caused by fasting. In fact they are expected to carry on as usual and enduring the hardships is regarded as an act of self-discipline rather than an ascetic withdrawal from the every day life.