Pillars of Islam: Ramadan

The sighting of a new moon last week began the holy month of Ramadan. Tahira Yaqoob shares what this Islamic practice means for Muslims around the world

Ramadan is the month of fasting, or sawm, and an obligation for all able-bodied Muslims. During its 29 or 30 day duration, Muslims are required to abstain from food, drink, smoking and intimate relations from dawn until dusk. It is also a time to be charitable toward others and practise kindness and generosity.

One of the five pillars of Islam, which all Muslims are duty-bound to observe in order to lead an honourable and fulfilled life, the exact start of Ramadan is based on the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and causes much excited debate around the world as the new moon reveals itself.

During the month, those fasting will typically rise before dawn to eat a meal known as suhoor. It is usually heavy to stave off hunger pangs during the day. Muslims will then perform fajr prayers at dawn.

After a day of abstinence, which should also include refraining from arguments or unholy thoughts, the fast is broken at sunset with dates and water before families sit down to enjoy a meal together, known as iftar.

Ramadan is known as the holy month as it is said to be the time the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). It is believed fasting can focus the mind and spirit on learning self-control, humility and an empathy with those less fortunate.

Muslims believe good actions performed during the blessed month reap greater rewards than at any other time during the year.

The night on which the Quran was revealed is known as Lailat ul Qadr and to pray throughout the night is said to be worth more than a thousand months of worship.

With the focus on being humble, many Muslims choose the month to give money to charity (zakat), another of the five pillars they are obliged to practice. They are also encouraged to read the Quran and mosques hold nightly tarawih prayers, where the holy book is recited over the course of the month.

The month brings together Muslims around the world in a common celebration, although some mark Ramadan in slightly different ways. In Egypt, for example, homes are often strung with lanterns while Moroccan iftars feature harira, a rich lentil and tomato soup. In the UAE, hotels frequently host lavish suhoor and iftar banquets, which are popular with both locals and expatriates. It is also common to see big firms and volunteers hosting iftars for workers and the needy.

Ramadan ends with the sighting of another crescent new moon. The celebration which follows is known as Eid ul-Fitr and a time for visiting friends and family, bestowing money, gifts and new clothes on children and the poor and to gather at the mosque for prayers to mark the end of the month.