Every year, Muslims all over the world observe a month-long fast during the 9th month of the Islamic calendar: Ramadan, also known as Ramadhan or Ramazan.
All Muslims fast from first light until sundown, abstaining from food and drink. Those who are sick, elderly, or on a journey, and women who are pregnant or nursing are exempted to break the fast and make up an equal number of days later in the year. If they are physically unable to do this, they must feed a needy person for every day missed. The fasting during Ramadan is regarded principally as a method of self purification. By cutting oneself off from worldly comforts, even for a short time, a fasting person gains true sympathy with those who go hungry as well as growth in one's spiritual life.
Muslims believe that this month is filled with blessings, and it is appropriate to wish well, everyone who’s observing it, at the beginning of the month. While friendly words in any language are welcome, there are some traditional or common Arabic greetings that one may use or come across:
- "Ramadan Kareem!" ("Noble (or Generous) Ramadan!")
- "Ramadan Mubarak!" ("Blessed Ramadan!")
At the end of the month, Muslims observe a holiday called Eid ul-Fitr (the Festival of Fast-Breaking).
Holy Qur’an describes this months as:
[2:185] "Ramadan is the month during which the Quran was revealed, providing guidance for the people, clear teachings, and the statute book. Those of you who witness this month shall fast therein. Those who are ill or traveling may substitute the same number of other days. GOD wishes for you convenience, not hardship, that you may fulfill your obligations, and to glorify GOD for guiding you, and to express your appreciation."
In fact, many regard it as the holiest time of the Muslim year. The principle outward characteristic of Ramadan is that Muslims are expected to fast all day, every day. Traditionally the times of fast are marked as whenever a white thread can be distinguished from a black thread. Once those threads can no longer told apart, eating is permitted.
Fasting during Ramadan is considered one of the Five Pillars, meaning it is one of the five most basic beliefs/acts which a Muslim has to do. However, it's not accurate to say that everyone simply goes without food or water - there are quite a few rules which apply to it. For one thing, a Muslim must consciously formulate the intention to fast as part of a rite. This is to prevent fasting from becoming an empty symbol which people don't give much thought to. The full formulation reads: "to fast tomorrow to acquit my duty towards God of fasting Ramadan this year."
There are all sorts of ways in which a person can legitimately be exempted from fasting:
People in poor health
Travellers, if the distance travelled is great
If one feeds thirty poor people each day
The status of children is actually mixed. The youngest are not expected to fast, but as they get older they gradually begin fasting for more and more of the day until they are able to go the entire day without food or water without endangering one's health.
Although travellers and menstruating women can be exempted from fasting, they are nevertheless expected to make up the same number of missed days some time later in the year after Ramadan. Thus, they fast the same number of days as everyone else, but not at the same time.
Feeding thirty poor people each day is a technical excuse for avoiding the fast which everyone must observe, but it is rare for a rich person to actually use this exemption. It would be looked up very, very badly by the rest of the community and the rich person would probably lose much too much respect for it to be worthwhile.
There are also a number of things which would not otherwise qualify as food, but which are also prohibited:
Putting drops in the eyes
Saliva leaving the mouth and then re-entering
Listening to music
The theological reason for abstaining from food, water and other things is to better learn the nature of personal limitation. It is believed that knowledge cannot be acquired unless a person can first learn his or her limits - then, and only then, can the true nature of something become evident. Muslims also believe that fasting during Ramadan allows them to purify themselves through a kind of sacrifice.
Because the Muslim calendar is lunar rather than solar, the month of Ramadan moves through the year. Thus, sometimes if falls during the winter when the days are shorter and fasting is easier but other times it falls during the summer when the days are longer and fasting is more difficult.
After the sun sets, Muslims break their fast first with a small meal and then, often, a larger meal later on in the evening. It is also common for Muslims to take a meal early in the morning before dawn, a meal known as suhur. There are musicians and others who volunteer to walk through town to wake people for this early meal.