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.

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Unlike the month of September, then, the month of Ramadan does not always fall at the beginning of autumn. Some years it might, making for a comparatively more pleasant or manageable fasting experience; in other years, however, Ramadan may fall at the peak of summer, with long and hot days making the daily fasting particularly challenging.

This is one of those years, with Ramadan currently falling during the Western calendar’s hot summer month of July. In 2011 Ramadan fell in August; in 2012, Ramadan began at sunset on either Friday, July 20, or Saturday, July 21, depending on where you are (as described above, the beginning of any given month can vary, since it depends upon when the crescent moon is first spotted in the sky at any given location, or in any given Muslim country). And it began at sunset because Islam, like Judaism, regards sunset (not sunrise, and not midnight) as marking the “official start” of each new day.

What’s so special about the month of Ramadan? Well, it’s regarded by Muslims as the holiest month in the entire Islamic calendar. It was during the month of Ramadan that Muhammad first began to receive the divine revelations that would then continue for the remaining 23 years of his life, and which would subsequently be compiled by his followers as the holy Quran (or Koran), which Muslims revere as the actual, literal Word of God.


Fasting during Ramadan means no eating, no drinking (not even water), and no sexual relations from dawn till dusk. Fasting is not required of children until puberty, and health-based exceptions to the month-long fast are permitted for illness, old age, pregnancy, and similar recognized extenuating circumstances (although in some such cases, missed fast days must be made up later, where possible).

In addition to fasting, Ramadan is also a month of increased worship and prayer, reading and recitation of the Quran, religious devotion and spiritual reflection, self-examination and charity to the poor. It is said that the spiritual rewards reaped for such intensive extra efforts during Ramadan are greatly multiplied.

The daily fast is broken at sunset with an evening meal known as iftar. Often a community meal, iftar is frequently a chance for social gathering and religious fellowship throughout Ramadan.

So, depending upon where you are in the world (and depending when the first sighting occurred of the new crescent moon which signaled the start of the month), Ramadan began this year on or about July 20; it will run for 29 or 30 days, ending on or around August 18 (again, its actual length will depend upon when the new crescent moon is again sighted, marking the end of the month of Ramadan and the start of the following Islamic calendar month).

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Related Topics: Islam, Faiths And Prayer, Ramadan
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