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1- Ramadan, the Month of Fasting

The Meaning of Ramadan

Ramadan is a special month of the year for over one billion Muslims throughout the world. It is a time for inner reflection, devotion to God, and self-control. Muslims think of it as a kind of tune-up for their spiritual lives. There are as many meanings of Ramadan as there are Muslims.

The third "pillar" or religious obligation of Islam, fasting has many special benefits. Among these, the most important is that it is a means of learning self-control. Due to the lack of preoccupation with the satisfaction of bodily appetites during the daylight hours of fasting, a measure of ascendancy is given to one's spiritual nature, which becomes a means of coming closer to God. Ramadan is also a time of intensive worship, reading of the Qur'an, giving charity, purifying one's behavior, and doing good deeds.

As a secondary goal, fasting is a way of experiencing hunger and developing sympathy for the less fortunate, and learning to thankfulness and appreciation for all of God's bounties. Fasting is also beneficial to the health and provides a break in the cycle of rigid habits or overindulgence.

Who Fasts in Ramadan?

While voluntary fasting is recommended for Muslims, during Ramadan fasting becomes obligatory. Sick people, travelers, and women in certain conditions are exempted from the fast but must make it up as they are able. Perhaps fasting in Ramadan is the most widely practiced of all the Muslim forms of worship.

The Sighting of the Moon

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The much-anticipated start of the month is based on a combination of physical sightings of the moon and astronomical calculations. The practice varies from place to place, some places relying heavily on sighting reports and others totally on calculations. In the United States, most communities follow the decision of the Islamic Society of North America, which accepts bonafide sightings of the new moon anywhere in the United States as the start of the new month. The end of the month, marked by the celebration of 'Eid-ul-Fitr, is similarly determined.

From Dawn to Sunset

The daily period of fasting starts at the breaking of dawn and ends at the setting of the sun. In between -- that is, during the daylight hours -- Muslims totally abstain from food, drink, smoking, and marital sex. The usual practice is to have a pre-fast meal (suhoor) before dawn and a post-fast meal (iftar) after sunset.

The Islamic lunar calendar, being 11 to 12 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar, migrates throughout the seasons. Thus, since Ramadan begins on January 20 or 21 this year, next year it will begin on January 9 or 10. The entire cycle takes around 35 years. In this way, the length of the day, and thus the fasting period, varies in length from place to place over the years. Every Muslim, no matter where he or she lives, will see an average Ramadan day of the approximately 13.5 hours.

Devotion to God

The last ten days of Ramadan are a time of special spiritual power as everyone tries to come closer to God through devotions and good deeds. The night on which the first verses of the Qur'an were revealed to the Prophet, known as the Night of Power (Lailat ul-Qadr), is generally taken to be the 27th night of the month. The Qur'an states that this night is better than a thousand months. Therefore many Muslims spend the entire night in prayer.

During the month, Muslims try to read as much of the Qur'an as they can. Most try to read the whole book at least once. Some spend part of their day listening to the recitation of the Qur'an in a mosque.

Food in Ramadan

Since Ramadan is a special time, Muslims in many parts of the world prepare certain favorite foods during this month.

It is a common practice for Muslims to break their fast at sunset with dates (iftar), following the custom of Prophet Muhammad. This is followed by the sunset prayer, which is followed by dinner. Since Ramadan emphasizes community aspects and since everyone eats dinner at the same time, Muslims often invite one another to share in the Ramadan evening meal.

Some Muslims find that they eat less for dinner during Ramadan than at other times due to stomach contraction. However, as a rule, most Muslims experience little fatigue during the day since the body becomes used to the altered routine during the first week of Ramadan.

The Spirit of Ramadan

Muslims use many phrases in various languages to congratulate one another for the completion of the obligation of fasting and the 'Eid-ul-Fitr festival. Here is a sampling of them:

    "Kullu am wa antum bi-khair" (May you be well throughout the year) - Arabic

    "Elveda, ey Ramazan" (Farewell, O Ramadan) - Turkish

    "'Eid mubarak (A Blessed 'Eid)" – universal

 

2 - 'Eid-ul-Fitr

'Eid-ul-Fitr, the Festival of Fast-Breaking The celebration at the end of Ramadan is called 'Eid-ul-Fitr (the Festival of Fast-Breaking). It is a joyous occasion, similar to Christmas in its celebration but with strong religious significance. The giving of a special charity for this occasion is obligatory. Muslims dress in holiday attire, attend a special community prayer in the morning, and visit friends and relatives. Greetings of "'Eid mubarak" or "a blessed Eid" are exchanged. In some places, children are given gifts or money by their parents and relatives.

The celebration of 'Eid-ul-Fitr lasts three days, although the main festivities occur on the first day.

 

3 - Hajj, the Pilgrimage to Makkah

Muslims from all over the world will converge on Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for the Hajj or Islamic pilgrimage. Each year, roughly two million followers of the Islamic faith participate in the pilgrimage, which constitutes the world's largest international gathering.

One of the five "pillars" or essential acts of worship in Islam, the Hajj is obligatory at least once in a Muslim's lifetime, if conditions permit. The purpose of the pilgrimage is the same for every pilgrim who makes the journey: the worship of God at the Sacred House in Mecca, the Kabah. According to the Qur'an, the sacred scripture of Islam, believed to have been revealed by God to Prophet Muhammad in the sixth century of the Christian era, the Kabah was built by the Prophet Abraham and his son, Ishmael, also a prophet, in ancient times. Abraham instituted the pilgrimage and established its rites around the Sacred House. Many centuries later, these rites were re-established by Muhammad.

The most important day of the pilgrimage is the ninth day of the Islamic month of Dhul-Hijjah. On this Day of Arafat, the huge throng of pilgrims spends the afternoon at the vast Plain of Arafat, believed to be a prototype of the gathering place of the Last Judgment, praying for God's forgiveness and mercy. They then move on to the next station of the pilgrimage.

The Hajj is a profound spiritual experience for Muslims, taking them back to the origin of their God- centered faith in the prophet Abraham. It is also a time of experiencing the brotherhood and equality of humanity.

 

4 - 'Eid-ul-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice

The Festival of Sacrifice, 'Eid ul-Adha, immediately follows the Day of Arafat (see above). This festival is celebrated throughout the Muslim world as a commemoration of Prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice everything for God, including the life of his son Ishmael. Because God spared Ishmael, substituting a sheep in his stead, Muslims commemorate this occasion by slaughtering an animal and distributing its meat among family, friends and the needy as a special act of charity for the occasion. Because of this, many poor Muslims are able to enjoy the unusual luxury of eating meat during the four days of the festival.

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