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Ramadan 2019: 13 questions you have about Muslims' holy month - answered

Millions of Muslims around the world are set to welcome the month of fasting. When does Ramadan start? How do Muslims fast? Middle East Eye answers all these questions
A Jordanian woman fixes a Ramadan decoration in Amman in July 2012 (AFP)

Most of the world’s estimated 1.6 bn Muslims will fast during the coming weeks for the holy month of Ramadan, abstaining from food and drink for much of the day.

It is a devotional time for followers of Islam but can cause confusion among 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? 

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, the holy book, to the Prophet Muhammad. During these weeks, Muslims are expected to fast if they are healthy and able to do so.

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.

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A Palestinian recites a prayer near sunset in Gaza City in June 2018 (AFP)

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 it is anticipated Ramadan will run from the evening of Sunday 5 May to Wednesday 5 June, depending on the phases of the moon.

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 daytime hours allows Muslims to practice willpower and focus their energy into 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?

Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, alongside a declaration of faith, praying five times a day, giving to charity and making the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

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Iraqi boys read the Koran at a mosque in central Baghdad in June 2016 (AFP)

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.

Can anything invalidate a fast?

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

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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 practice 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.

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 round the sun). This difference means Ramadan begins on a different day each year. This year it will begin in early May: in 10 years time it will begin in mid January.

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 hours. It also varies with the time of year.

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Muslims pray during Eid at Bensonhurst Park, Brooklyn, in June 2017 (AFP)

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 last as short as 11 hours or as long as 20 hours.

For the holy month this year, Muslims in Murmansk, Russia, will need to fast for more than 20 hours, while it’s at least 18 hours in Copenhagen, 17.5 hours in London and 15.5 hours in Rome.

Compare that to 14 hours in Oman and Riyadh, 12 hours in Cape Town and only 11 hours in Ushuaia, Argentina.

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.

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A Bangladeshi volunteer prepares Iftar food at a shrine in Dhaka in May 2018 (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, the meal which breaks the fast.

Iftar is followed by optional nightly prayers, known as tarawih, which go into the night, if not 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 Muhammad. 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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A Ramadan lantern bears the image of Liverpool Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Salah at a Cairo market (AFP)

In many Middle Eastern countries, Ramadan is the 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?

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.

The amount of the zakat al-fitr is the value of one meal, which roughly equates to £7. All Muslims must pay this amount, regardless of age or gender, as long as they possess enough to feed them for a day or longer. The head of the family will pay the amount on behalf of any children or dependants.

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Worshippers at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi in May 2018 (AFP)

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.

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 Muhammad 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.

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.

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Syrian children in the rebel-held town of Douma on the outskirts of Damascus as Muslims in 2017 (AFP)

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.