What is Ramadan?
Muslims worldwide are currently in the midst of observing Ramadan. But just what, exactly, is Ramadan? Beliefnet’s columnist Reed Hall explains.
Muslims worldwide are currently in the midst of observing Ramadan. But just what, exactly, is Ramadan?
Ramadan is well known as the famous month-long fast of Islam. But Ramadan is actually also the proper name of a specific month in the Islamic calendar. Just as September is the name of the ninth month of the Western calendar, so Ramadan is the name of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar.
And yes, the calendar month of Ramadan is the month during which Muslims fast, from sunrise until sunset, every single day throughout the entire month. This is not considered optional, but is regarded as a compulsory religious duty (it is one of the so-called “Five Pillars of Islam,” each of which is incumbent upon all Muslims to abide by).
The month of September always runs 30 days. However, the month of Ramadan, like all months in the Islamic calendar, may run either 29 or 30 days. Islam follows a lunar calendar, according to which each successive new month does not technically begin until the first sighting of the crescent moon, just after sunset, on the last day of the previous month; the new month then runs for 29 or 30 days, depending upon when the next crescent moon is sighted (which in turn marks the beginning of the following month in the calendar).
This introduces a brief variable of uncertainty which makes it impossible to precisely predict, in advance, just exactly when a given month is going to end or begin; it also means that when months begin and end may vary slightly from location to location (from Muslim country to Muslim country).
This method of calculating months also means that the Islamic year ends up being 10 or 11 days shorter than a Western calendar year. In contrast to the Gregorian solar calendar followed by the West, with its 12 months of 365 days per year, Islam’s lunar calendar has 12 months of only 354 or 355 days per year. This means that its months are not locked in fixed synch with the seasons of the year, but instead fall 10 or 11 days earlier each year than they did in the previous year; as this creeping drift gradually accumulates year after year, Islamic calendar months slowly cycle their way back through each season, as the calendar years pile up.