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Ramadan 2021: Key questions about the holy month answered

Why do Muslims fast? What is Ramadan? What invalidates a fast? Middle East Eye answers questions about the holy month
Ramadan lanterns are sold in markets in Cairo, Egypt (AFP)

Most of the world’s estimated 1.6 billion Muslims will be fasting for the next few weeks for the holy month of Ramadan, abstaining from food and drink in daylight hours.

It is a time of deep contemplation for followers of Islam, but the rites and rituals can cause confusion for others, including friends and colleagues. Why are foodie pals passing up their regular Saturday morning brunch date? How come friends are skipping evening football to attend the mosque? 

Middle East Eye answers some of the most asked questions about the holy month of Ramadan:

What is Ramadan?

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 are compulsory commandments ordered by God. 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. 

When does Ramadan start?

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 will 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. 

In 2021, some marked the start of Ramadan on the evening of the 12 April, and others on the evening of 13 April. 

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The Palestinian mufti of Hebron uses an electronic telescope to watch the crescent moon which announces the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (AFP)

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-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 mid-April; 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.

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.

Does everyone have to fast?

During Ramadan, all Muslims are expected to fast every day from sunrise to sunset.

Exemptions are made for children and the elderly, also women who are pregnant, menstruating and nursing as well as people who are ill or travelling.

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Palestinian men buy pickles and olives in Hebron during the month of Ramadan (AFP)

Can anything invalidate a fast?

Yes, including intentionally eating or drinking, intercourse, smoking and menstrual bleeding. 

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 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 during this time.

However, the hours of fasting will increase at the same place during the summer, when there is near-perpetual daylight. In such circumstances there are rulings which 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.

This year, Muslims in South Africa will be fasting for 11-12 hours; in India, the fast will be around 14 hours; in the UK, Muslims will be fasting for around 16 hours. 

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People shop at a market in Baghdad ahead of Ramadan (Reuters)

Muslims in Moscow will fast around for 17 hours, similar to France, Kazakhastan and Poland. In Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Kuwait, Bangladesh and Hong Kong, this year's fast will be around 14-15 hours.

In far northern cities, such as Longyearbyen, on Norway's Svalbard archipelago, the fast would be over 21 hours, as the sun does not set from 20 April to 22 August. For countries such as this, religious rulings, known as fatwas, have been issued for citizens to follow the nearest Muslim country or Saudi Arabia.

Some of the shortest fasting hours this year will be in New Zealand, Chile, Australia, Uruguay and Argentina, where worshippers will be fasting for 11-12 hours. 

How do Muslims prepare for Ramadan? 

Every family prepares for Ramadan differently. It is typically 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.

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.

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A vendor decorates his shop in Kuwait City in anticipation of Ramadan (AFP)

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 the 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 up for the pre-dawn meal.

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An elderly Yemeni man reads from a large printed version of the Quran in the Grand Mosque of Sanaa (AFP)

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. 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 and is one of the five pillars of Islam. It equates to 2.5 percent of a full year's savings.

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.  

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Organisations and individuals will often organise meals to be distributed to those in need free of charge as a form of charity (AFP)

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 solely on increasing their religious knowledge, staying in separate parts according to gender.

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Eid prayers take place in Cairo, Egypt (AFP)

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.