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What is Ramadan?

7 min read
What is Ramadan?

As Ramadan is around the corner, I receive a lot of questions about the Muslim month of fasting on Twitter, Facebook and even in my mailbox, so I decided to re-publish this article with answers to some of the most commonly asked questions. Note that there are cultural differences between the way Ramadan is celebrated, and that some of these views are specific to a half-Egyptian being born in the Netherlands.

What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the ‘September’ of the Islamic calendar – in other words, it’s the 9th month. It’s after the month of Sha’baan and before the month of Shawwal. The Islamic calendar is based on the moon, with the lunar crescent after a new moon indicating the first day of a new month. That means that Islamic months are 29 or 30 days, and as such, the month of Ramadan lasts for 29 or 30 days, until the moon crescent is seen again after the next new moon. Note that that also means that Islamic months do not necessarily start on the same Gregorian day all around the world, nor that Islamic months last the same amount of time all around the world. It is currently the year 1439 in the Islamic calendar. As far as I know, the calendar isn’t used for much beyond establishing the dates of religious events, and most places in the Muslim world adhere to the Gregorian calendar.

OK, so it’s a month, but what is Ramadan?
Ramadan happens to be one of the holy months in Islam, and it’s by far the best known and most adhered to holy month among people worldwide. During Ramadan, a Muslim is expected to ‘fast’ between the dawn and sunset. Besides that, a Muslim is expected to support the poor and weak and to be at their best behavior. Fasting, known as ‘Sawm’, means complete abstinence from the consumption of any food, drink or sexual activity. This lasts for the entire 29 or 30 days of Ramadan. The meal prior to dawn is called Suhoor, and the meal has to be concluded before ‘the white thread of dawn is distinct from the darkness of night’ – which coincides with the time for the prayer of Fajr. Fast then continues until the Magreb prayer, which occurs when the disc of the sun has moved under the horizon fully.

And this year what dates are that?
For me, Ramadan will start on the 15th or 16th of May, until the end of Ramadan, which also hasn’t been decided yet – but is expected to be on the 14th of June. Since it’s based on sightings of the moon crescent, it can be different per country, per community or even per Muslim. If the moon cannot be seen, we use science to determine what date to start on. I adhere to the Egyptian dates for Ramadan.

So from sunrise to sunset?
From Fajr to Magreb, so from the earliest break of dawn to the disc of the sun being under the horizon. Breaking the fast is called Iftar, and it translates to ‘breakfast’. Note that we break our fast at night, not in the morning.

And you can’t eat or drink until Iftar?
No food, no drink.

Not even water?
Not even water. Nothing.

But, isn’t that unhealthy?
Not really. Islam is actually extremely lenient when it comes to rules and health. In many cases, the cause of harm to your health is a good reason to be exempt from most rules. You’re exempt from fasting if you’re sick, on your period, pregnant, traveling or those before puberty or of old age. You’re supposed to catch up on days missed after the Ramadan for anything but the age exemptions.

But you travel between timezones all the time.
Yeah, it’s a bit of a problem, because there are no clear rules for that. It’s generally considered OK to not fast while traveling, but for a few years that meant I would skip literally all of Ramadan. Instead, if the travel I do makes the fast unreasonably long, I opt to fast according to the times of the place I had my Fajr in.

OK, so sunrise-

Right, Fajr, at what time is that?
Where I’m at, in the Netherlands, Fajr occurs currently at about 3:13AM.

3AM? And when is sunse-Magreb? I mean Iftar.
Magreb, where I’m at, occurs around 21:25PM.

That’s 18 hours of fast!
Yes. I’m in one of those places where it’s summer and relatively far from the equator. The time one needs to fast differs enormously depending on when Fajr and Magreb occur, the fast currently being less than 12 hours per day in Australia and almost day-round in Reykjavik.

So remember how Ramadan is a month based on the movements of the moon? The Islamic calendar is about 11 days shorter than our Gregorian calendar. That means that every year, the Ramadan moves forward into the year. When I was born, in 1988, it happened on the 18th of April. Since then, it has shifted to start in March, February, January, December, November… and now back to the end of May. It takes about 33 years for Ramadan to loop around the entire year. It just so happened to start not too far the longest day of the year here on the Northern Hemisphere, so it’s a bit rough. In a dozen years, Australia will have long days of fasting during Ramadan and it’ll be easier here.

But what about places further north than Reykjavik? Places where the sun-
-never sets? They get to adhere to the times in Mecca. The fast in Saudi Arabia is about 14 hours this Ramadan.

So this is a really tough Ramadan?
That’s not really how I would word that, but yes, this Ramadan on the Northern Hemisphere has very long days. This year is also different from last year in that the Ramadan has fully slipped before the summer solstice, meaning the days are getting longer as we go.

Why wouldn’t you call it a ‘rough’ Ramadan?
Many muslims, even though they appreciate the challenge of fasting, consider the Ramadan to be festive. It’s a holiday, of sorts. 30 days of Christmas dinner with your family and friends, only you don’t get to eat during the day.

So can you wish people good luck?
Sure, although generally you’d say ‘Ramadan Kareem’ or ‘Ramadan Mubarak’, which means ‘a generous Ramadan’ or ‘a blessed Ramadan’. In a rather crude analogy, it’s like saying ‘Merry Christmas’ rather than saying ‘Good luck with the dishes’. Not that I’d compare the act of fasting to doing the dishes, it’s just that we focus on the positives of fasting and community.

But it’s a celebration?
Indeed. It’s a month of reflection, community, discipline and celebration. To me, it’s a month in which I get to have breakfasts with my parents and siblings – I grew up in a middle class family, and all of us would wake up and have breakfast at different times, but during Ramadan we all had meals together.

And the religious importance of it?
Nobody is 100% sure, but it’s generally accepted to be an act of cleansing, discipline and worship. There is a day later on in the month – generally considered to be in the last 10 days of Ramadan – that is named Laylat al-Qadr, or the night of values. It’s the night on which the first part of the Quran was relayed to the prophet, and prayer on that night is considered the most valuable prayer a Muslim can do. Since scholars disagree about when that night is, they’ve narrowed it down to nights on uneven days during the last ten days of Ramadan.

So what’s special about that night?
It’s said that any good deed during that night is worth more than that same activity during a thousand months. When I was a kid, my dad would take us to the mosque every single one of those nights to pray. It was awesome, because everybody would be there.

Do scholars disagree about a lot of things?
Actually, yeah. The times of prayer aren’t 100% agreed upon, nor the starting or ending days of the Ramadan. That’s fine though, Islam has always been a relatively decentralized religion. For all the talk of ‘religious leaders’ there is, the Imam is generally just the most literate person in a prayer.

OK. Is community a large part of Ramadan?
Oh yes, yes, absolutely. Community is a large part of the whole thing. Muslims during Ramadan all know what they’re all going through, so we help each other out. We’ll serve food to one another for free – even at restaurants, in Muslim countries mosques prepare large meals and generally try and make sure we all have food when Iftar happens. Poor people and beggars get bags of food from people better off, and in Egypt supermarkets sell bags full of dried foods at lower prices to give to the poor. I ordered a pizza earlier last year during Ramadan, and when I mentioned I wanted them delivered at 10:03PM for Iftar, the guy taking my order said he was fasting too and that he’d make sure the pizza was there at perfect temperature at exactly that moment, and he did. Or I’d walk into a restaurant, but ask for my meal to be brought out at a specific time, and they waived the costs for my dinner and brought off-menu traditional foods for Iftar.

Traditional foods?
I’ve traditionally always broken fast with a glass of milk with dates and cashew in it. The traditions regarding Iftar are different per culture, but dates seem to be pretty universal to it.

All of that sounds great.
Doesn’t it? Imagine your entire country doing that, lights in the mosques like Christmas lights everywhere, public life grinding to a halt with meals everywhere and being woken up by people in the streets with trumpets or the like for your morning meal.

So wasn’t there a celebration at the end?
Yeah, when the crescent of the new moon is seen at the end of Ramadan, it’s Eid al-Fitr, which literally translates to ‘Feast of breaking fast’. It’s always a bit exciting when it gets to the 29th day of Ramadan comes around, because if the crescent is seen, it means you don’t have to fast another day and it’s time to celebrate the end of Ramadan. If it isn’t seen, there’s an additional day of Ramadan before the month is over. Eid is a celebrational day during which Muslims are not allowed to fast. It includes a special prayer, celebrations, family visits and gifts for children. In many countries, the holidays surrounding Eid lasts for a few days. Any missed days are to be made up for after Eid is over.

Can I try?
If you want to in support of others, or out of curiosity, sure. You can find the times for fasting at – stop your breakfast at Fajr and fast until Magreb.

Ramadan Mubarak!
And to you.

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