5 things you should know about Ramadan, Islam’s holy month of fasting

Muslims around the globe are gearing up for the holy month of Ramadan, which begins after May 15 this year.

Throughout the holiday, observers fast from sunrise to sunset and partake in nightly feasts.

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Here are five things to know about Islam’s sacred month:

What is Ramadan?

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The Islamic Center of America mosque in Dearborn, Michigan. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is the holy month of fasting, spiritual reflection and prayer for Muslims.

It is believed to be the month in which the Prophet Muhammad revealed the holy book — Quran — to Muslims.

The word “Ramadan” itself is taken from the Arabic word, “ramad,” an adjective describing something scorchingly dry or intensely heated by the sun.

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When is Ramadan?

Indonesian Muslims hold a Rukyatul Hilal to see the new crescent moon that determines the end of Ramadan. (Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)

The Islamic calendar is based on the moon’s cycle and not the sun’s (what the Western world uses), so the dates vary year to year.

By the Gregorian solar calendar, Ramadan is 10 to 12 days earlier every year.

In 2018, Ramadan will start on May 15, May 16 or May 17 (depending on the country) and last through June 14.

Last year, the first day of Ramadan in the United States was May 27, 2017.

This year, American Muslims will begin fasting on Wednesday, May 16 with Ramadan beginning on the eve of May 15.

Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Lebanon and many others have declared Thursday the first day of fasting, according to GulfNews.

To determine when exactly the holy month will begin, Muslim-majority countries look to local moon sighters, according to Al Jazeera.

The lunar months last between 29 and 30 days, depending on the sighting of the moon on the 29th night of each month. If the moon is not visible, the month will last 30 days.

In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, special infrared cameras are used to capture the new moon.

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What do Muslims do during Ramadan and why?

Muslim women gather for a special Eid ul-Fitr morning prayer at the Los Angeles Convention Center in Los Angeles, California. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Ramadan is known as the holy month of fasting, with Muslims abstaining from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset.

Fasting during the holiday is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, along with the daily prayer, declaration of faith, charity and performing the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

In 2016, according to Al Jazeera, fasting hours around the globe ranged between 11 and 22 hours and in the US, 16 to 18 hours.

The fast is intended to remind Muslims of the suffering of those less fortunate and bring believers closer to God (Allah, in Arabic). 

During the month, Muslims also abstain from habits such as smoking, caffeine, sex, and gossip; this is seen as a way to both physically and spiritually purify oneself while practicing self-restraint.

Here’s what a day of fasting during Ramadan is like:

  • Muslims have a predawn meal called the “suhoor.”
  • Then, they fast all day until sunset.
  • At sunset, Muslims break their fast with a sip of water and some dates, the way they believe the Prophet Muhammad broke his fast more than a thousand years ago.
  • After sunset prayers, they gather at event halls, mosques or at home with family and friends in a large feast called “iftar."

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How is the end of Ramadan celebrated?

A girl blows bubbles during an Eid celebration in London, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Toward the end of the month, Muslims celebrate Laylat al-Qadr or “the Night of Power/Destiny” — a day observers believe Allah sent the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad to reveal the Quran’s first verses.

On this night, which falls on one of the last 10 nights of Ramadan, Muslims practice intense worship as they pray for answers and seek forgiveness for any sins.

To mark the end of Ramadan, determined by the sighting of the moon on the 29th, a 3-day celebration called Eid al-Fitr brings families and friends together in early morning prayers followed by picnics, feasts and fun.

Does every Muslim fast during Ramadan?

Seventeen months -old Pakistani Muslim Ali Khaja gives his hat to his grandfather Ahsan Khaja before for the special 2011 Eid ul-Fitr morning prayer in Los Angeles, California. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

According to most interpreters of the Quran, children, the elderly, the ill, pregnant women, women who are nursing or menstruating, and travelers are exempt from fasting.

Some interpreters also consider intense hunger and thirst as well as compulsion (someone threatening another to do something) exceptions.

But as an entirety, whether Muslims fast or not often depends on their ethnicity and country.

Many Muslims in Muslim-majority countries, for example, observe the monthlong fast during Ramadan, according to 2012 data from the Pew Research Center.

In fact, in Saudi Arabia, Muslims and non-Muslims can be fined or jailed for eating in public during the day, according to the Associated Press.

But in the United States and in Europe, many Muslims are accepting of non-observers.

According to 2017 data from Pew researchers, eight-in-ten U.S. Muslims said they fast during the holiday.

The Pew survey found that more Muslim adults in America fast during Ramadan than say they pray five times a day or attend mosque every week. Additionally, far more women reported fasting during the holy month than wearing the hijab.

More from the Pew survey.

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