What Is Ramadan?

What Is Ramadan?

Ramadan is a highly celebrated, deeply significant Islamic holiday.

O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may guard against evil.The Qur’an: Al-Baqara (The Heifer) Surah 2, verse 183
When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of the heaven are opened and the gates of Hell are closed and the devils are chained.Muhammad1

Every year, more than 1.6 billion Muslims around the world celebrate Ramadan with a month-long fast. As one of the five Pillars of Islam, fasting during Ramadan is an obligatory act of worship for all able-bodied adult Muslims.2 From sunrise to sunset, they must abstain from eating, drinking (even water), smoking, swearing, and sexual activity.

Lasting for twenty-nine or thirty days—depending on the position of the moon—the month of fasting can be quite taxing, especially when Ramadan falls in the hot summer months of the Middle East. Yet it is a time of celebration that most Muslims look forward to as their favorite time of year.

Ramadan (also called Ramazan) is not simply a Muslim celebration or festival. It is an actual month in the Islamic calendar. Since the Islamic calendar follows a strict lunar cycle, the month of Ramadan comes about eleven days earlier each year.  According to the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, the month of Ramadan begins only after there has been visual confirmation of the new moon.3

Why Do Muslims Fast?

According to the Qur’an, the main reason for the fast of Ramadan is for the Muslim believer to attain “taqwa”—God-consciousness. The purpose of fasting is to train Muslims in humility, patience, and spirituality.

It is a time of reflection when Muslims practice spiritual discipline, express gratitude for God’s guidance, and seek forgiveness of sins.4 Muhammad himself is reported to have said, “Whoever fasts in the month of Ramadan out of sincere faith, and hoping for a reward from Allah, then all his previous sins will be forgiven.”5

Ramadan is considered by Muslims to be the holiest month of the year, as it is also the month in which Muhammad claimed to have begun receiving the divine revelations of the Qur’an.6  In addition to fasting, observant Muslims will also increase their religious devotion through additional worship and prayer, reading and reciting the Qur’an, and giving to the poor. It is believed that the spiritual rewards of practicing Islam are greatly multiplied during Ramadan, especially on the “Night of Power,” which commemorates the night that Muhammad first received his revelation from God.

Much like Christmas and Easter are seasons when church attendance swells with the participation of many nominally practicing Christians, for Muslims, Ramadan is a time when even the less observant practice their faith. Those who do not normally attend prayers at the mosque will go to the mosque and pray; those who do not regularly observe the ritual of praying five times a day will meticulously observe the fast. Many of them do this as they seek to make up for past indiscretions or failure to observe religious obligations.

How Do Muslims Celebrate During Ramadan?

Each day during Ramadan, Muslims wake up before dawn to observe Sahoor, a pre-fast meal.  They will then begin the daily fast by observing the Fajr prayer, which is the first of the five daily prayers in Islam. Traditionally the fast is broken each night at sunset with a small snack of dates and water, followed by the evening or Maghrib prayer. According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad broke fast each day by eating three dates before the evening prayer.

After the prayers have been observed, the Iftar meal is served. Over time, the Iftar—which literally means “to break fast”—has grown into a daily feast where families, friends, and communities come together at the mosque or in a banquet hall for a large meal and celebration to commemorate the breaking of the fast. In non-Muslim countries, it is not uncommon for mosques and Islamic Centers to invite non-Muslims from the community to break fast with them.

In most Muslim countries, during the month of Ramadan, people will sleep more during daylight hours and celebrate late into the night. Interestingly enough, work productivity goes down and the consumption of food actually increases. Muslim clerics will often condemn the commercialization of the fast in much the same way as Christian leaders condemn the secularization of Christmas.7

A Time of Greater Spiritual Reward

Since Ramadan is considered a time when spiritual rewards are greatly multiplied, Muslims will gather at the mosque more frequently to pray the daily prayers in groups, because praying in groups is considered to be of greater spiritual benefit. Many Muslims will also perform taraweeh, which are special prayers that consist of reading from the Qur’an and performing several cycles of prayer (standing, bowing, prostrating, and sitting) at the mosque after the night prayers.

Each night one equal section of the Qur’an—called a Juz—will be read so that by the end of the month the entire Qur’an will have been recited. This is not mandatory but is strongly recommended for all Muslims.

As Ramadan draws near to an end, on the twenty-sixth or twenty-seventh night of the month, Muslims celebrate the Night of Power. The Qur’an says that this night is better than a thousand months, so it is believed by many Muslims that prayers offered on the Night of Power carry a great spiritual reward. 8

A Major Celebration

Finally, after the twenty-ninth or thirtieth day (depending on the lunar cycle), Ramadan comes to a close. At this time Muslims will offer their obligatory alms to the poor and one of the two great feasts in Islam begins.

Called Eid al-Fitr, it is the feast of the breaking of the fast.  It is a three-day celebration and major holiday where families come together and celebrate by giving treats to children and exchanging gifts.  Much like Christmas is to Christians, to the Muslim, Eid al-Fitr is the biggest and most meaningful celebration of the year.

For the Muslim, Ramadan is a time of great solidarity. It is an extended time in the year when the whole “ummah” (community) comes together for a shared sacrifice and a shared celebration. Despite the difficulties of the fast, it is a joyous time for most Muslims, who eagerly anticipate its arrival each year. They look forward to the chance to have past sins forgiven and to earn extra rewards for observing religious rituals.  For many, it is an opportunity to renew their faith and devotion to God.

  1. Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 31, Hadith 123.
  2. Hammudah ‘Abd al ‘Ati, Islam in Focus (Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications, 1998).
  3. Roland Muller, Understanding Islam (Saskatchewan, Canada: CanBooks, 2013), 176–177.
  4. John L. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988), 110.
  5. Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 31, Hadith 125.
  6. The Qur’an: Surah 2, verse 185.
  7. Paul Grieve, Islam: History, Faith and Politics: The Complete Introduction (New York, NY: Carrol and Graf  Publishers, 2006), 112.
  8. The Quran: Surah 97, verses 1–5.
  9. Photo Credit: Vladimir Melnik / Shutterstock.com.