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Ramadan 2024: When does the holy month start and why do Muslims fast?

We answer key questions about the holy month, including when it starts and ends this year, why the date changes every year and what can invalidate a fast
The courtyard of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi late on Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Destiny) on 17 April 2023 (AFP)

For the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, the holy month of Ramadan marks a time of deep spirituality and an opportunity to better themselves. During this period, worshippers will abstain from all forms of food and drink during the daylight hours, breaking their fast at sunset.

They'll also engage in additional acts of worship, from giving more to charity to taking part in more prayers and readings of the holy book, the Quran. Here, we answer some key questions about the holy month. 

What is Ramadan and when will it start this year?

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is the most sacred period of the year for Muslims. It is believed that during this time, God revealed the first verses of the Quran, Islam's holy book, to the Prophet Muhammad. During these weeks, Muslims are expected to fast if they are healthy and able to do so.

Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, which form the core of the religion. The other pillars are prayer, the declaration of faith, giving charity and going on the Hajj pilgrimage if the believer is physically and financially able. 

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Islam adheres to the lunar calendar. This means that the month of Ramadan begins when the first crescent of a new moon is sighted. Muslim countries have dedicated state committees that check and officially announce the start date.

For non-Muslim countries, there are different approaches: some will follow a national mosque or reputable Islamic authority, some follow another Muslim country. 

This year, Ramadan is set to start on 10 or 11 March and end on 9 April.

Why does the date of Ramadan change each year?

The lunar calendar, which is followed by Islam, is 10 to 11 days shorter than the modern 365-day Gregorian calendar, which is based on the Earth’s rotation around the sun.

This difference means Ramadan begins on a different day each year. This year it will begin in early March; in 10 years' time it will begin in mid-January.

Why do Muslims fast?

Muslims believe that through fasting they are able to strengthen their relationship with God. Time is spent participating in acts of worship, such as praying, reading the Quran and giving to charity.

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Abstaining from food and drink during daylight hours allows Muslims to practise willpower and focus their energy on working on their faith.  

Fasting also allows Muslims to empathise with those who are less fortunate, and be more compassionate to those in need.

There are numerous ways a fast can be invalidated, including intentionally eating or drinking, intercourse and smoking. A woman cannot fast if she is menstruating. 

One question most Muslims get asked during Ramadan (alongside the infamous gasp of  “not even water?”) is what happens if you eat or drink by mistake? Can you not just take a sneaky swig when no one is looking?

Eating or drinking intentionally invalidates your fast, as the purpose of Ramadan is to practise self-restraint and engage in religious acts.

However, eating or drinking, if it is done through a genuine mistake, does not nullify your fast: followers can continue fasting as normal.

How long will Muslims be fasting for this year?

The length of each day’s fast varies from place to place, depending on the number of daylight hours. It also varies with the time of year.

Take northern Norway: if Ramadan falls one year in December, then each day’s fast will be very short due to the limited amount of daylight near the North Pole at this time.

However, the hours of fasting will increase in the same place during the summer, when there is near-perpetual daylight. In such circumstances there are rulings that allow for the local Muslim population to follow the hours of the nearest Muslim country or Mecca, home to Islam's holiest site, in Saudi Arabia.

Typically, each day of fasting can be as short as 11 hours or as long as 20 hours.

Muslims in the UK, for instance those in London, can expect to fast 13-14 hours, while in Ottawa, Canada they will be fasting more than 14 hours, whereas in South Africa fasting time will be about 12 hours

How do Muslims prepare for Ramadan? 

Every family prepares for Ramadan differently. It is often a time for family and friends to get together.

Many will host iftars - the meal which breaks the fast at the end of the day - at home and invite friends. Mosques typically host open iftars when anybody can come by and eat.

Muslims gather for iftar in Cairo, Egypt, on 16 April 2022 (AFP)

Many Muslims try to break bad habits before the start of Ramadan, to ease themselves into the month, prepare spiritually and take part in more charitable acts.

What happens on a typical day during Ramadan?

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims will wake before the sun rises to eat a pre-dawn meal called suhoor. They will then not eat or drink until sunset, when they will have iftar.

Iftar is followed by optional nightly prayers, known as tarawih, which go on into the night, if not into the early hours of the morning.

Prayers usually take place at the mosque in large congregations but Muslims have the option to pray at home too.

What are some key Ramadan traditions?

Each day’s fast is typically broken by eating dates, which follows the tradition of the prophet.

After this, people will pray Maghrib - one of the five daily prayers - and then sit down to eat. 

In many parts of the Middle East, neighbourhoods are decorated with traditional lanterns and banners to welcome the holy month.

In some countries, such as Egypt and Turkey, a musaharati will go down the streets with a drum to wake people for the pre-dawn meal.

What else are Muslims expected to do during Ramadan?

Throughout the holy month, Muslims are expected to engage in charitable acts, one of which is the obligatory zakat al-fitr, which is given at the end of Ramadan but before the Eid prayer (see below).

The significance of the donation is to cleanse the donor from any shortcomings conducted during the month and provide food for the needy.

This payment is different to the zakat, which can be given at any time of year. It is one of the five pillars of Islam and equates to 2.5 percent of a full year's savings.

A Muslim worshipper reads the Quran in Jalalabad, Afghanistan in April 2017 (AFP)

In many Middle Eastern countries, Ramadan is prime time for the year's best TV series, showcasing the most dramatic storylines and top celebrities, capitalising on the time people spend waiting for iftar.

However, many people choose the holy month to reduce the hours spent on entertainment, preferring instead to focus on studying the Quran.

What else are Muslims expected to do during Ramadan?

The last 10 days of Ramadan are especially revered, with a focus on intense worship, as it is believed that the Quran was revealed to the prophet during this period, known as the “night of power”.

As the prophet never specified the exact date of the night, Muslims use those 10 days to increase their spirituality by reading and studying the Quran.

Some Muslims choose to live and sleep in a mosque during this period - known as i'tikaaf - to focus on increasing their religious knowledge, staying in separate parts according to gender.

What happens at the end of Ramadan?

At the end of the holy month there is a three-day celebration known as Eid al-Fitr or, more commonly, Eid.

Families will typically wake up early to go and pray in the mosque and greet friends, family and others in the community.

It is a time of food and festivities, when young children receive presents and homes are decorated to mark the occasion.

Others also use the occasion to visit graveyards and pay their respects to loved ones who have passed away.

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