What is Ramadan? Why do Muslim people fast for the holy month? What you need to know.
Ramadan begins this week, a holy, month-long observance for Muslim communities in the United States and around the world.
Many Muslim people will observe Ramadan by fasting from sunup to sundown, praying together, holding communal meals and festivities and more.
Asma Sayeed, an associate professor of Islamic Studies at UCLA, explained that Ramadan is rooted in many practices, including to “invoke the remembrance of God for a continuous period" and “to celebrate and remember the revelation of the Qur'an as a gift to humanity.”
But when is Ramadan? Why do Muslims engage in fasting for Ramadan? Here’s what you need to know.
When is Ramadan?
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, begins on Wednesday, March 22 in the United States and continues through April 21, ending in the holiday Eid al-Fitr.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is a significant month for many Muslim people that involves prayer, fasting, spending time with family and friends and more.
“The simplest answer is that it's the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar,” Martyn Oliver, faculty chair of the American University Core, told USA TODAY. “The more specific sense is that it's one of the holiest celebratory months in Islamic practice.”
Muslims believe that, during the month of Ramadan, the Prophet Muhammad was given the Qur'an, Islam’s holy book. It marked the first time that God revealed to Muhammed he was a prophet tasked with carrying God’s message.
Why do some Muslims fast?
One major practice of Ramadan is fasting from sunrise to sunset. Muslim people who have reached puberty are called on to fast, a practice of self-restraint intended to bring people closer to God.
“It is for Muslims to remember God, to strengthen their relationship with him through an act of piety and sacrifice,” Sayeed said. “Because it's tough. It's not easy to fast for a full month, and also to abstain from drink.”
Ramadan is also “for Muslims to engage in acts of charity by depriving themselves of food and drink,” Sayeed said.
“They remember what it is to face bodily and material deprivation,” she explained. “The idea is to sort of invite Muslims to be more charitable in that month and for the rest of the year because you’ve sort of experienced want yourself in very direct ways.”
Muslim people fasting during Ramadan do not eat food or drink liquids, but it can also “mean abstaining from sexual relationships or for smoking or for any other kind of pleasurable consumption,” Oliver said.
Muslim people break their fasts after an evening prayer with a meal called ifṭār. These meals are often communal events with friends and family. While foods at these meals can vary by community, one common choice is dates, a reference to the Prophet Muhammad eating dates to break his fast.
People who are pregnant, nursing or menstruating are often exempt from fasting, as well as older people, people with illnesses and others.
How else is Ramadan observed?
Some Muslim people will also do “an additional voluntary prayer” called Tarawih, Sayeed said.
“These are additional nightly prayers. Sometimes they're prayed in congregation, in a mosque, and one-thirtieth of the Qur'an is recited each night,” she said. “So the idea here is that by the end of Ramadan, that community or people who are praying will have read, recited the entire Qur'an in prayer. That’s a very high act of devotion. Many Muslims try to read through the Qur'an actually, during the month of Ramadan.”
The holiest night of Ramadan is Laylat al-Qadr, which takes place in the final 10 days of the month. It is referred to as the “Night of Power,” when the Angel Jibril revealed the Qur'an’s initial verses to the Prophet Muhammad.
Ramadan is also a time to give to charities, Oliver said.
“It's also the time when you do a lot of charitable giving. It's the season of giving to worthy causes or to organizations that support those who are without,” he said.
Should I say ‘Happy Ramadan?’
If you are not observing Ramadan but want to greet a coworker or friend who is, Sayeed said that you may want to say “Ramadan Mubarak” or “Ramadan Kareem”
“The first is just like sort of, congratulations for Ramadan. Ramadan Kareem is actually a really beautiful one. Kareem is a word connoting generosity and giving. The idea that even though you're experiencing a very high level of material deprivation, that Ramadan itself and these charitable acts during Ramadan that are heightened for Muslims evoke generosity and bounty,” she said.
Oliver said you may also want to “wish somebody an easy fast, which is a sort of a recognition that somebody who is participating in Ramadan is going to be hungry and tired during the day.”
What is Eid al-Fitr?
Eid al-Fitr commemorates the end of Ramadan. It means “the feast of the breaking of the fast.”
Sayeed called it a “major annual holiday for Muslims,” when they “are advised to kind of wear their nicest clothes, go out in the morning for congregational prayer.”
Children may receive presents after prayers, and communities may come together for celebratory meals and fireworks.
“There's a sense of relief at having completed the fasting or maybe a sense of accomplishment, and also gratefulness for what one has,” Oliver said.
Contributing: Clare Mulroy, Maria Jimenez Moya; USA TODAY
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What is Ramadan? When is it in 2023? Muslim holy month explained