What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, preceded by the month of Sha'aban and succeeded by the month of Shawwal. Ramadan is the Holy Month for Muslims, when those twelve years old and above observe a dawn to dusk complete fast. They do not take any liquids (not even any water), no food, abstain from smoking, marital relations, and gossiping or saying anything malicious against another person. Some of the most pious and strict Muslims even manage to stop swallowing their own saliva during the fasting hours of Ramadan, but this isn't actually a requirement under observance of Ramadan, one of The Five Pillars of Islam, which are: • Observing Sawm (complete fasting) during the Holy month of Ramadan • Payment of Zakat (alms tax) during Ramadan • Performing the Hajj in Mecca at least once in a lifetime • Reciting the Shahadah (profession of faith) • Performing Salah (ritual prayers, five times a day)

When is Ramadan?
The Muslim calendar is a Lunar Calendar, which means that the month follows the cycles of the moon. This also means that by comparison to the western calendar, the month of Ramadan will be approximately 11 days earlier in the year compared to the previous year. In 2009, Ramadan will start on the 21st of August, Friday and will last till the 19th of September 2009. In North America, Ramadan will start one day later, that is the 22nd of August. While the above dates are almost certainly going to be accurate, Islam traditionally requires that the new moon be sighted by a person appointed by the Islamic authorities in the country where you're located. Why do Muslims fast during Ramadan? The first reason of course, is that fasting is a requirement of one of the Five Pillars of Islam. What is important, however, is to appreciate the reasons behind the fasting, what those reasons signify and what this means to fasting Muslims.

It is most important to a Muslim to show intent in the fast. It is required that they recite short prayer of intent either before they sleep or just before Suhoor, the pre-fast meal. The Arabic word for fasting means to 'refrain', to discipline yourself to avoid doing certain things which would be quite normal during the other twelve months of the year. It is also meant to teach Muslims to appreciate how much better off they are than millions of other fellow Muslims. So by refraining from drinking (even water) and food, for the long daylight hours, they should be reminded of those much less fortunate, for whom severe shortage of water and food is a way of life, not something merely done one month of the year. By reminding themselves of this fact, it is hoped that not only will they be more sensitive to those less fortunate, but to try to do something practical to help them. Do Muslims eat and drink immediately before they start their daily fast? Yes, most Muslims certainly do take a pre-fast meal and the period of eating before the fast is called Suhoor. This is an important meal, for it must set them up for the rest of the day, often 12 or 13 hours before their next meal or drink. A few choose to go to bed slightly later than usual and take a meal and drink before they sleep. While this isn't ideal, and is even frowned upon by more traditional Muslims, for some it does mean that they sleep longer and can cope more easily with the fast of the day to come. What happens every day when Muslims break their fast? As daylight begins to fade, Muslims await the Muezzin's call to perform the Maghrib prayers. Once the call is heard, and the Maghrib prayers are performed, they may break fast (called Iftaar in Arabic). (You can see here too the origin of the word "breakfast", which literally meant to break the fast during the night, after having eaten the last meal the day before). Most will first take some form of thirst-quenching drink, and this varies not only by individual preferences, but also but local customs. It is quite common in the Middle East to break fast with water and dates, but in Malaysia it is more common to drink a local fruit juice, sugar cane juice or rose syrup water, with either dates or kway (small, sweet cakes or pastry). Some prefer to drink soya bean milk not only as a thirst quencher, but also for its extra protein value.

Upon breaking fast, most very strict Muslims, will merely take a few fresh dates, or dried dates if fresh are not available. If neither is available they will just take a few sips of water. It is common for most families to have their evening meal at home straight after breaking fast, and while the meal should be in keeping with the meanings of Ramadan (in other words not a feast), it has become common in modern cities around the world for Muslim families to go out to eat at a local restaurant, particularly those in a hotel. If during Ramadan you see Muslim families sitting quietly at a restaurant table, with the meal served, but not yet eating, it is because the Maghrib prayers have not yet been called, and they cannot yet break fast. Can younger children fast during Ramadan? Indeed they can, and in fact many even as young as four or five, are encouraged to fast for a few hours a day during Ramadan, to begin to appreciate the significance of the Holy month. As they get a little older, most families encourage their children under 12 to fast for half a day, until they reach twelve years old, when all Muslim children are expected to fast for the full dawn to dusk period. Interestingly (and perhaps surprisingly to non-Muslim children), many who are approaching twelve look forward to being old enough to fast for the full day, more than anything else. It means to them, that they are now being treated the same as an adult, and all the responsibilities that adulthood brings. How is the end of Ramadan celebrated around the world? Wherever a Muslim resides, be it in one of the Middle East countries, in Indonesia (the country with the world's largest Muslim population), or even in London, Paris or Dearborn, Michigan, they will start their end of Ramadan celebrations by going to the mosque for special congregational prayers which give thanks to God for His blessings during the Holy month of Ramadan, now ended. Both men and women may go to the mosque at this time, but the men will say their prayers separately from the women. Many will return to their family home for Ramadan, usually where their parents are living, and in Indonesia and Malaysia this is known as Balik Kampung. Paying homage to their parents is a very important part of the celebrations, when the younger Muslims will ask their parents for

forgiveness for misdeeds during the year, and kiss their hands as a sign of respect. They return home (or go to the homes of family and friends) to continue their celebration, which in Arabic is called Eid Al Fitr. The meals prepared will reflect the culture and traditions of the country from which the Muslim family is living in or hails. For those who are now residing in western countries, it can be fascinating to find the end of Ramadan celebrations of Muslims from India, Pakistan, Arab countries, Malaysia, Indonesia or even European countries, reflected in the variety of food on the table. In Malaysia, where I live, Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan, what they call Hari Raya Puasa, will also hold an Open House, when they invite their non-Muslim friends and neighbors to join them for food and drink. The special Hari Raya Puasa food includes delicious beef or chicken rendang, often Johor or Penang Laksa and many different kueh delicacies, small sweet cakes and pastries, especially made for Puasa. It�s a wonderful time, and of course enjoyed by all, who will also all look forward to the next festival being celebrated

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