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With the first glimpse of the new moon this week, Muslims worldwide began their annual month of fasting in observance of Ramadan. For 30 days, more than 1.5 billion Muslims will abstain from food, drink and sex during daylight hours.

Many non-Muslims know the basics of Ramadan, but often not much more. What does it mean? How did it start? Need to Know provides a primer.

The tradition

In Arabic, “Ramadan” is the name given to the ninth month of the lunar calendar, and this association predates the founding of Islam.

The observance of Ramadan commemorates the month during which Allah is said to have revealed the first verses of the Quran — the holy text at the center of Islam — to the prophet Muhammad. This event, known as Laylat al-Qadr, is said to have taken place in the year 610. Muslims believe that Muhammad was the last in a line of prophets including Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Reading the entire Quran is Ramadan tradition, and many mosques break the text into 30 sections to be read during evening prayers each night.

Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and during Ramadan, every healthy adult Muslim (defined as someone who has undergone puberty) must fast between sunrise and sunset for 30 days. Exceptions are made for women who are pregnant, nursing or menstruating, as well as anyone too ill to participate.

Because the lunar calendar is shorter than the Gregorian calendar, Ramadan begins 10 or 11 days earlier each year. The starting date is still a subject for debate as to whether observation of the new moon or scientific calculations should be used to determine the timing of the first fast, but the Fiqh Council of North America decreed that this year’s official U.S. start date would be August 11.

The required fast will prove particularly hard this year and for the next several years, as Ramadan falls at the height of summer, when daylight hours are extended and heat can be a concern.

Despite the added burden, Edina Lekovic, director of policy and programming for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, described this aspect of the tradition as “one of the beauties of Ramadan.”

“It’s never static, and nothing in life is ever static,” Lekovic said. “Over the course of your lifetime, you experience it through all seasons.”

The fast

This “spring cleaning for the soul” is a wonderful opportunity for self-reflection, Lekovic said. “The act of fasting is supposed to be about connecting mind, body and spirit all at the same time. Through the act of fasting you are remembering those who fast not by choice, but by circumstance.”

Muslims cope with the extended period of abstinence by waking up for a predawn breakfast and prayer. They break the fast each night with a communal feast that traditionally begins with participants eating dates and drinking either water or milk out of respect for Muhammad (water is not allowed during the day). A generous meal and evening congregational prayer generally follow.

“It’s like a feast when you break your fast,” said Munira Syeda, communications manager of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “There is a theory that you actually gain weight after the month of fasting because Muslims eat so much during the evening.”

In addition to fasting, Muslims are also urged to be on their best behavior — to refrain from engaging in foul language, lies, or any unethical or immoral act, Syeda noted.


Charity work and almsgiving – the fourth pillar of Islam – are also encouraged during Ramadan.

Muslims with financial means are encouraged to give away 2.5 percent of their accumulated wealth during the season. This means a renewed focus on community service and direct donations, plus the establishment of Humanitarian Day as part of a trend toward daylong service events, Lekovic noted.

Eid al-Fitr

When the fast ends, the celebration begins. A major Muslim holiday known as Eid al-Fitr, or the “Festival of Breaking Fast,” occurs on the first day of the month following Ramadan, this year September 10. The Eid is technically marked by an additional congregational prayer, but celebrations have become elaborate.

In southern California, Syeda described prayer gatherings at convention centers and bazaars where women buy jewelry and get painted with henna in preparation for the feasts. Gift giving is also becoming part of the tradition as Muslim families strive to make the day memorable.

Lekovic spoke of a “unique American manifestation of Ramadan” that has developed just in the last couple of decades. From mosques hosting Eid carnivals complete with bouncers, rides and face painting to celebratory excursions to Six Flags, there is a growing effort to further establish an American-Muslim identity: “I think that there’s a natural instinct, particularly for our youth, to create an authentically Muslim and American celebration of our holiday that is rooted in the here and now,” she said.

Ramadan in the U.S.

Although Americans tend to be less familiar with the stringent requirements of the fast, Lekovic has noticed increasing awareness and sensitivity toward Ramadan. Still, Muslims may have it harder in the U.S. than in places where Islam is the dominant religion.

Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world, according to an October 2009 report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, with Muslims representing 23 percent of the total world population, then estimated at 6.8 billion. The Pew report indicates that there are nearly 2.5 million Muslims living in the U.S., representing 0.8 percent of the worldwide community and only 0.2 percent of the U.S. population.

“If you were observing Ramadan in a Muslim majority country, it would be easier in the sense that people around you are doing the same thing,” said Syeda. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, Syeda was not tempted all day long by food and water because the community as a whole observed the fast.

“In America, you still have to go on with your daily life, you have to go to work, you have to go to school, you have to go about your business, so it provides a special challenge,” said Syeda.

Still, Syeda was quick to point out that observing Ramadan as an American also provides a greater reward – that of enduring amid greater temptation.