This page is intended to provide some basic information on Ramadan for non-Muslims.
What does the word "Ramadan" mean?
Ramadan is the name of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The original meaning of the word was "scorching heat".
What's this Islamic calendar?
The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar. This means that each month begins with the sighting of the new crescent moon. There are twelve months in the year. A lunar year is 354 days long. This is different from a solar calendar like the Gregorian calendar used in the West. The solar year lasts 365 days. Because the lunar year is shorter, each date on it falls about 10 or 11 days earlier, relative to the solar calendar, with each succeeding year. For instance, in the year 2002, Ramadan started on November 6, while this year (2014), it is predicted to start on June 28 or June 29 - quite a change over the years!
Why do you say Ramadan is "predicted" to start on a certain date?
As I mentioned above, each month in the Islamic calendar starts with the sighting of the new crescent moon. Scientific calculations can pinpoint exactly when the astronomical new moon occurs, and can predict with some accuracy when the first crescent will be visible after this, but there are many factors that can complicate this, such as the weather. For this reason, and so that even ordinary Muslims who are not astronomers can take part, the rule is that the new crescent moon must be sighted by human observers. And we don't know exactly when it will appear until it's seen!
Does the month of Ramadan commemorate anything?
The month of Ramadan is when the first verses of the Quran were revealed. Note: The entire Quran was revealed over a period of about 23 years, starting in 610 CE and ending in 632 CE.
What is the purpose of the fast?
Quran Surah al-Baqarat verse 183 states that the purpose of the fast is to develop a quality called in Arabic "taqwa". Taqwa may be defined as, "Worshiping God as if you see Him because if you don't, He sees you." It is thus a kind of awe or God-fearingness, an awareness that God is always watching. Nobody but God and the person fasting know if that person actually observed the entire fast or secretly cheated. Thus, in order to resist the temptation to cheat, one has to remember that God is always watching and will see any lapse.
What does the fast entail?
The fast is from dawn to sunset each day of Ramadan. The fast involves refraining from food, drink, and (for married people) sexual relations during the daylight hours.
Who has to fast?
The fast is obligatory on all sexually mature adult Muslims. Those who are mentally disabled or insane are not considered "adult" and do not have to fast. People who are ill do not have to fast if it would further damage their health; however, they should make up the missed fasts later when they become well again. Women who are pregnant or nursing may be considered "ill" if fasting would harm the baby. As well, women who are having their menstrual period or who are experiencing post-partum bleeding should refrain from fasting during the days of their bleeding; the combination of blood loss and fasting could be harmful. Children who have not yet reached puberty are not required to fast. However, it is good for them to practice, and for this reason many Muslim children do fast starting from age seven or nine. A doctor should be consulted about how much fasting is safe for growing children and for any person who is concerned about their health. The fast can be as long as 18 hours in the summer in some locations - that's a long time to go without food or water. People who are traveling may also break their fast if they feel that keeping it would harm them; as well, soldiers on guard duty for whom maximum readiness is a must may break their fast. In all cases of illness or fear of illness, the missed days need to be made up later.
Are there any other observances or customs attached to Ramadan?
The Muslim world has an almost staggering diversity of cultures and each Muslim country may have its own customs and rites associated with Ramadan. Some customs that are observed by most Muslims include the following:
As well, the fast is broken each evening with a meal called "iftar" (meaning "breaking the fast"), and the last meal in the morning before dawn is called "suhur" (meaning "morning meal"). In Muslim countries it is quite common to have feasts that last all night and run from iftar to suhur. These feasts are a time of celebration and community. In Western countries, many Muslim communities host iftars for non-Muslims by way of interfaith outreach. President Thomas Jefferson hosted an iftar for a Muslim guest in 1805; both Presidents Bush and Obama have hosted iftars at the White House each year of their terms. There is also a special holiday marking the end of Ramadan, called Eid al-Fitr.
What's Eid al-Fitr?
The name Eid al-Fitr means "feast of the fast-breaking". It takes place on the first day of the month that follows Ramadan. There is a special salat (prayer) which the whole community should come together for. As well, those who can afford to do it should provide a small amount of food for the needy so that everybody can celebrate. The value of this gift is about $15 today. Most communities have a variety of festive celebrations and meals to mark the day.