Ramadan is the name of the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar. It is an important month in the Islamic calendar and culture. Each day during the month of Ramadan, Muslims around the world observe the sacred month by fasting during day light hours (from dawn to sunset), performing nightly prayers in addition to the daily obligatory prayers, and concluding each day’s fast over food with family and friends. At the end of the month is a three-day holiday that celebrates the conclusion of the month with Eid al-Fitr and prepares individuals to return to their regular daily routine.
Fasting is one of the pillars of Islam. “The month of Ramadan, during which the Qur’an was revealed, a guidance for mankind, and clear proofs of the guidance and the criterion; and whoever of you is resident, let him fast the month” (al-Qur’an, 2:185).
Fasting is compulsory upon every sane, adult, healthy Muslim male who is not traveling at that time. As for a Muslim female, she must not be menstruating or having post-childbirth bleeding. People who are insane, minors, and those who are traveling, menstruating, or going through post-childbirth bleeding, and the elderly and breast-feeding or pregnant women do not need to observe the fast.
There are those who may not fast but have to make up the missed days of fasting at a later date. These include those who are ill (not chronically) and travelers. “And [for] him who is sick among you or on a journey, [the same] number of other days.” (al-Qur’an, 2:184). Elderly men and women are exempted from fasting; so are the chronically ill, and those who have to perform difficult jobs under harsh circumstances and who could not find any other way to support themselves. They are not obliged to make up the days they missed but in turn are obliged to feed one poor person a day (for every day of fasting that they do not perform). Pregnant and breast-feeding women who fear for themselves or for their babies may break their fast, feed one poor person for every day they miss, and make up the missed days at a later time. Women who are constantly pregnant or breast-feeding are not obliged to make up the days. Though the young are not required to fast, it is proper for their parents or guardians to encourage them to fast so they will become accustomed to it at an early age. They may fast as long as they are able to and then break it.
The main objective of fasting is to achieve piety and righteousness. This implies becoming conscious of our Creator, increasing our awareness of His Majesty, exalting and glorifying His names and attributes, appreciating His greatness, recalling His blessings upon us, and being grateful and thankful for His guidance. “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, so you may remain conscious of God” (al-Qur’an, 2 : 183).
During Ramadan while individuals abstain from food and drink during day light hours, they get together over food with families and friends in the evenings. The meal with which the fast is broken is called iftar. Usually the meal is simple designed to provide nourishment, but may sometimes be sumptuous when there is a large get-together of family and friends.
Abstaining from food has great ramification on the person observing the fast, physical as well as spiritual. It is an exercise for the discipline and control of the baser self. One learns how to restrain one’s urges and desires. Fasting frees the person from the bondage of lusts and desires. Abstaining from intakes also reminds us of the less fortunate ones, the poor and the destitute. Fasting gives us a general sense of how they feel. It boosts the morale of the poor by knowing that even kings have to go hungry for a while. Fasting makes the rich realize and understand what the poor goes through day after day.
Fasting also purifies one’s heart and tongue. One is urged to control himself and learn how to abstain from vain talk, lying, and cheating. Although fasting is beneficial to health, it is mainly a method of self-purification and self-restraint. By cutting oneself from worldly comforts, even for a short time, a fasting person focuses on his or her purpose in life by constantly being aware of the presence of God.
The month of Ramadan is not only the month of fasting. It is also the month of the Qur’an. The Qur’an is the Muslim Scripture. “Ramadan is the (month) in which the Qur’an was sent down, as a guide to mankind, also Clear (Signs) for guidance and the differentiation (between right and wrong)”(al-Qur’an, 2 : 185). According to a prophetic tradition, it is believed that all Abrahamic Scriptures including the Scrolls of Abraham, the Torah, the Gospel, the Psalms of David, and the Qur’an were revealed in the month of Ramadan.
Practicing Muslims congregate at mosques observing the nightly prayers (tarawih) that start after the last prayer of the day, about an hour and a half after sunset. The nightly prayers usually last for nearly an hour.
Every night the Imam (leader in prayer) recites an equal portion of the Qur’an so that by the 27th or the 29th night of Ramadan the entire Qur’an would have been recited by the Imam from his memory. Reciting the Qur’an not only brings one nearer to God, but also rejuvenates one’s spirit and soul. Reciting the Qur’an, reflecting upon the divine words, and acting upon the divine teachings are central to Ramadan.
As the end of Ramadan approaches, Muslims prepare for Eid al-fitr (end of fasting celebration), which draws Ramadan to a close. Eid is a time of giving gifts, sharing food, gathering with family and taking a holiday.