Muslims around the world are preparing for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. From waking up in the early hours for a quick bite and sip of water, to the waiting – date in hand – for the seconds to tick by until the call to prayer at sunset, why do Muslims fast and what is Ramadan?
What is Ramadan?
Muslims – there are 1.6 billion in the world – believe Ramadan is the holiest month in the year, when the Quran, the holy book of Islam, was revealed to the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).
Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, or the Hijri calendar based on the lunar cycle, which began in AD622 when the holy prophet Mohammad (PBUH) migrated from Mecca to Medina.
When is Ramadan?
Depending on the sighting of the crescent moon, or hilal, the month begins this year on the evening of the Wednesday or Thursday (17 or 18 of June depending on the longitudinal specification of each country), which means Muslims will begin their first day of fasting at sunrise on Thursday 18 or Friday 19 of June.
The month of fasting will end on either Friday 17 July or Saturday 18 July, as there are either 29 or 30 days in a lunar month.
As Ramadan begins about 11 days earlier each year, it sometimes falls in winter months when the fasts are short, and in summer months when the fasts are long.
Why do Muslims fast?
During this month, observant Muslims do not eat or drink during daylight hours. This is because fasting is an act of worship in Islam.
Fasting in Ramadan is obligatory for Muslims, and in the Quran it states:
“O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may attain Taqwa [God-consciousness]. “ (The Quran, Al-Baqarah:183)
Fasting, or Siam in Arabic, literally means “to refrain” – and not only is it abstaining from food, drink and sex, but also actions such as smoking cigarettes, talking about others behind their backs, or using foul language or any other acts that might displease the holy Lord.
Fasting does not mean Muslims retreat from their daily routine; rather they are encouraged to continue as normal in their work and usual activities. In fact, this is where the challenge of patience and endurance comes in. Muslims believe fasting is not merely a physical ritual, but is primarily a time for reflection and spiritual recharging.
During the fast, Muslims believe that their desires are curbed and that they can gain understanding of how those who are less privileged than them feel. It is considered to increase one’s patience, closeness to God and generosity towards others.
The month is also a time of community; it is the custom for Muslims to invite their neighbors and friends to share their evening meal – iftar – and recite special Tarawih prayers in congregation. It is also a time when Muslims try to reconnect with the Quran, which they believe is the word of God.
Healthy Muslim men and women are required to fast during the month according to Islamic teachings.
Who is exempt from fasting?
Children, people who are sick or who have mental illness, elderly people, travelers and women who are menstruating , postnatal, pregnant or breast-feeding do not have to fast.
People exempt from fasting during Ramadan can make up the missed fasts later. But if a person is not able to fast at all – particularly if that is for health reasons – can compensate by feeding a needy person for each day they do not fast.
Is it healthy?
Muslims do not fast continuously throughout the month: they eat before sunrise and break their fast at sunset each day.
Scientists have found that short periods of fasting – if properly controlled – can have a number of health benefits, as well as potentially helping overweight people.
Health advice from the NHS includes keeping hydrated and having the right proportion of carbohydrates, fat and protein in between fasts, and not bingeing on oily feasts – however tempting. This may, in fact, lead to gaining weight.
During fasting, the body uses up glucose and then starts to burn fat, which can lead to weight loss. So with prolonged fasting of many days or weeks, the body starts using protein for energy.
After a few days of the fast, higher levels of endorphins – hormones related to mood – appear in the blood and can make a person more alert and give an overall feeling of general mental wellbeing, according to the NHS website.
Dr Razeen Mahroof, an anesthetist from Oxford, said in a statement about fasting to the NHS: “A detoxification process also occurs, because any toxins stored in the body’s fat are dissolved and removed from the body.”
Muslims have varying Ramadan customs across the world, depending on their culture. Islamic traditions include:
Eating and drinking at sahoor, the pre-fast meal, just before sunrise
Not delaying breaking the fast at sunset, which is iftar time
Breaking the fast with an odd number of fresh dates, or dried dates if none are available, or a few sips of water
Searching for the “Night of Power” or Laylat al-Qadr. According to Islamic tradition, this is when the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the prophet Mohammad (PBUH) by God. This falls within the last 10 nights of Ramadan.
How Ramadan moves each year
Why do Muslims start Ramadan on different days?
The most likely reason for differences over the start and end dates of Ramadan, from one country to another, is variations in the sighting of the moon.
In places where it is not possible to see the crescent moon, Muslims may begin fasting according to the closest place where the moon has been sighted, while other scholars rely on the calculations of astronomers.
However, some Islamic scholars have called for Muslims to be united in fasting, and to start the month of fasting based on the sighting of the moon in the holy city of Mecca.
As Muslims across the globe have no institutionalized leadership, there is no single edict on which approach should be followed.
How do Muslims fast in places with no sunset?
It’s a good question. How does a Muslim in Juneau, Alaska, fast? The sun remains visible at midnight in the Arctic Circle, and in northernmost Finland, it does not set at all for 60 days during summer.
As a result, local scholars have said it is permissible to follow more reasonable sunrise and sunset times of another country. The Islamic Centre of Northern Norway, issued a fatwa – a ruling by a scholar of Islamic law or Muslim judicial authority – that gives local Muslims the option of following the fasting hours of Mecca, when the fasting day in Norway exceeds 20 hours.
The Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America made a similar ruling that Muslims living in the most northerly regions of Alaska can use the sunrise and sunset times of another part of the country where “day is distinguishable from night”.
Where is the longest fast in the world?
In Reykjavik, Iceland, the fast will be about 21 hours 57 minutes long in the beginning of the month, with a fast starting at 2:03 am and finishing at midnight.
Where is the shortest fast in the world?
In Sydney, Australia, a fasting day will be about 11 hours 24 minutes long at the start of Ramadan, when a fast starts at 5.29 am and finishes at 16:53 pm.
What happens at the end?
Muslims worldwide celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the festival of breaking of the fast, which marks the end of Ramadan. According to tradition the angels call it the day of prize giving because all those who fasted are rewarded by God on this day, and so it is common to hear Muslims greet each other with Eid Mubārak (Happy Eid). It falls on the first day of the new Islamic month of Shawwal and it is forbidden to fast on this day.
It is Islamic custom to celebrate Eid with a small sweet breakfast, and to give charity before Eid prayers in congregation. Many Muslims celebrate by giving gifts, wearing new or clean clothes, and visiting friends and family.
Do people of other faiths fast?
Jews fast for about 25 hours on Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, to ask for God’s forgiveness. Orthodox Christians can spend up to half a year in various forms of fasting, which they believe brings them closer to God.