As Muslims worldwide get ready for perhaps the most sacred month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan, it might come as a shock to many casual and observant Muslims that many of their non-moslem friends and the general public still have no idea what the observance is all about.
From Albemarle to Zanzibar, from Riyadh to Ilorin and all points in between, the 1.8 billion strong Muslim community will begin, from May 15/16, an ancient rite which goes back over a thousand years. And depending on where you live or work, the public manifestations of Ramadan are both large and small.
So what exactly is Ramadan? In case you have to ask, here are five simple things you need to know about it.
Ramadan (derived from the Arabic word which means “dryness” due to the intense heat of the sun) is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and lasts 29 to 30 days. The month starts officially with local sightings of the crescent moon, from which date adult Muslims are obligated to fast from dawn till dusk – with exemptions for those who are ill, pregnant, feeble, too old, menstruating or just too vulnerable to participate. Otherwise it is fard (compulsory) for Muslim adults. Think of it as the Islamic equivalent of Christian Lent.
Muslims believe that in this month, with the observance of the fasting and other prohibitions, the sins of the faithful are burned away, hence, ‘ramad’, which more or less means ‘to burn’.
This year, Ramadan starts on the sunset of Tuesday, the 15th of May and continues for 30 days till Thursday, the 14th of June.
Ramadan commemorates the month Muslim Prophet Muhammad had the first five verses of Islam’s holy book, the Quran, revealed to him over 1,400 years ago.
According to Quran 2:185, “The month of Ramadan is that in which was revealed the Quran…”
As it is instituted, it is a holy month to purify oneself and get closer to God.
The entire point of the period, much like the Christian Lent, is self-control and piety. With that in mind, the month requires observers to refrain from food, drink, smoking substances and even sexual relations for the daily dawn to dusk 30 day period. Tough? Well, it takes some getting used to and besides the rewards for the believer are immeasurable when he or she adds to their observance contemplative practices like prayer and reading the Islamic holy book.
Then there’s the Suhoor and Iftar. What’s that, you ask? Simply the meals observers eat before and after the period of abstinence each day. Some like to keep it spartan, others a little more elaborate. But all are agreed that the it shouldn’t defeat the point of what is essentially, for the practicing Muslim, a spiritual exercise.
Muslims are also encouraged to, in addition to abstinence and contemplation, actively do works of charity wherever they are.
Five Pillars of Islam
Did you know that Ramadan, along with such requirements as the five daily prayers (Salat) and the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj), is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. It is called Siyam (Fasting), which comprises of ritual fasting, ascetic fasting, and repentant fasting. Ramadan falls under the first category. It is in fact so fundamental that one cannot consider himself or herself a Muslim without having observed the ritual. It would be finding a self-professed Muslim that doesn’t do the daily prayer.
And so we come to the endpoint of Ramadan. Or rather, more accurately: what happens when the Holy Month is over? Well, Orthodox Christianity has Mardi Gras before its own Ramadan equivalent (Lenten fast); while Muslims have Eid-al-Fitr after their own Lenten equivalent. It is called Eid-al-Fitr, and the idea is the same: feasting and celebration.
With the cycle of ritual fasting and spiritual discipline complete, Muslims wind down and celebrate by throwing themselves a good old fashioned, wholesome banquet. And not just for themselves, but also for their non-Muslim friends and neighbours.
Now that you know what Ramadan is, and is not, wish every Muslim you meet a ‘Happy Ramadan’. Who knows: you just might be invited to break fast with the Muslim family across the street at the next Eid.