A boy prays before iftar at Memon Mosque in Karachi, Pakistan. (photo: Syed Yasir Kazmi/Demotix/Corbis)
A woman buys bangle bracelets to celebrate Eid ul Fitr in Bhopal, India. (photo: Sanjeev Gupta/epa/Corbis)
On the night of 31 July 2011, millions of eyes literally and figuratively looked up into the evening sky. Muslims gazed upon the hilal, or the first crescent of the new moon.
Once the new moon has been officially sighted, the next day begins Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar and the Month of the Fast. The exact beginning of Ramadan depends on this sighting of the new moon, which occurs anytime within a two–day period. As a result it is never absolutely certain in any given year when Ramadan officially begins.
Similarly, because the Muslim year is lunar, i.e., calculated by the moon, it is about 11 days shorter than the solar calendar, which is familiar to most people. As a result, every year Ramadan is about 11 days earlier than the year before.
What is absolutely clear is that Ramadan is the most important event of the year for Muslims. There are five pillars of Islam: the šahada, or creed that there is one and only God and Muhammad is his messenger; salat, or the five daily prayers; zakat, or almsgiving; sawm, or fasting during Ramadan; and hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Ramadan and Eid ul Fitr, the feast ending it, have become increasingly visible in Europe and North America in the past two decades. Immigration has increased the number of Muslims in the West and more and more people are becoming aware of the monthlong fast and celebration.
In places where Muslims represent a religious minority, recognition of Ramadan and Eid ul Fitr increasingly symbolizes a degree of social acceptance by the majority. In the United States, for instance, the postal service issues a postage stamp for Eid ul Fitr every year. And more and more often, shops sell greeting cards for the holiday, and many non–Muslims now send or give them to their Muslim friends and neighbors.
During the 28 days of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. The fast begins at dawn when one can distinguish a white thread from a black one (Quran 2:188) and ends when the sun has set below the horizon. The fast is absolute n that nothing enters the body. Thus, fasting excludes not only eating food but also drinking fluids, smoking and sexual activity.
Since the month of Ramadan moves backward through the solar year, it occurs at some point in every season of the year in any given location. In the summer in both northern and southern latitudes, days can be quite long and the fast can go on for more than 15 hours. If 15 hours without food is difficult, 15 hours in the summer without water is even more so.
In many places in the Muslim world, the end of the days fast is announced by a cannon shot or some other major public announcement after the sun sets, informing people they may now engage in iftar, or the breaking of the fast. Muslims often first eat a date to break the fast, as did Muhammad. The nightly meals during Ramadan are often quite festive and families gather and enjoy specially prepared dishes.
The Quran excuses several groups of people from fasting: the ill, those on a journey and those for whom the fast would be a grave burden. Later schools of Islamic law expanded the group to include pregnant and nursing women, small children and the elderly. Those who break the fast for whatever reason are required to feed a needy person for each day of fast they miss and to make up the days of fast when they are again able.
On the surface, Ramadan resembles Christian Lent. It differs, however, in several fundamental ways.
Perhaps the most apparent difference is that after breaking the fast at nightfall, Muslims celebrate and often feast. During the first weeks of the month, there are especially festive dinners with the last dinner of the night being the suhur, which is to be eaten as close to dawn as possible. Losing weight is not generally connected with Ramadan in the Muslim mind.
More important, unlike Lent, Ramadan is not generally understood as an act of penance. Muslims rather consider Ramadan as an exercise in self–discipline, as purification and as a reminder of the believers dependence on the bounty of God.
As does fasting in Christianity, Judaism and Indic religions, the fast in Islam helps the believer focus on what is important. Fasting is closely connected to prayer and contemplation. It is the setting aside of the ordinary that allows the believer to focus on the transcendent.
One of the more striking aspects of Ramadan, particularly to Christians and Jews, is the joy with which Muslims anticipate and observe the month. Whereas Lent is a time of quiet, penitential reflection for Christians and Yom Kippur (or the Day of Atonement) is a solemn day for Jews, Ramadan is a time of spiritual and physical refreshment for Muslims. It is a time to put aside the burdens and cares of everyday life and to focus on what really matters. Whereas Christians created Fat Tuesday as the last celebration before Lent, Muslims see no need to get it all in before Ramadan. Ramadan is a celebration.
To be sure however, Ramadan is not only celebration. Muslims challenge themselves to live all their spiritual obligations with particular intensity and devotion during the month. They must not only fast, but pray, read the Quran and demonstrate just behavior, honesty, kindness and faithfulness to their word. Harsh or vulgar speech and arguments are frowned upon during the month. Violence of any sort is seen as a serious violation of Ramadan.
In addition, Muslims also engage in other spiritual activities. It is not uncommon for Muslims to read the Quran (approximately the size of the New Testament) from cover to cover during Ramadan. Though the Quran comprises 114 chapters, ranging in size from four to 287 verses, it is divided into 30 juz (or sections), each of which Muslims read as a unit, one per day, so as to read the entire Quran over the course of Ramadan. Muslims also lay particular importance on acts of charity during Ramadan.
In Islam, the mosque does not function quite the same as a church in Christianity. However, during Ramadan Muslims visit the mosque more frequently than during the rest of the year. Often the iftar takes place at the mosque after maghrib, or the evening prayer.
Though Ramadan is the month of the fast, it is also the month in which the Quran was sent down as a guidance for mankind (2:186). In the last 10 days of Ramadan, Muslims observe laylat ul qadr. Often translated as the Night of Power, some Muslims prefer it translated as the Night of Destiny or the Night of Decree.
In any case, Surah al Qadr (chapter 97) of the Quran states:
Surely we sent it down on the Night of Power. And what is the Night of Power?
The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.
On it the angels and the spirit descend at the command of the Lord.
It is peace until the break of dawn.
According to Muslim belief, it was on the Night of Power that the Quran was first revealed. The Qurans assertion that the Night of Power is better than a thousand months leads Muslims to intensify their spiritual practices toward the end of Ramadan. The exact day on which the Night of Power falls is not clear other than that it is on an odd–numbered day during the last 10 days of the month.
Pious Muslims, therefore, observe it on the odd–numbered days of Ramadan, starting on the 21st day. During this period, some Muslims practice itikaf, or a type of retreat in which they spend all their time in the mosque. During the day, they observe the fast with prayers and by reading the Quran. During the night after the breaking of the fast, they continue their spiritual practices and discipline.
Just as Ramadan began with the sighting of the crescent of the new moon, the celebration of Eid ul Fitr, or the feast of the Breaking of the Fast, begins with the sighting of the new moon. The sighting marks the end of the fast and the beginning of perhaps the most joyous Muslim festivals.
Eid ul Fitr is one of two major feasts on the Muslim calendar. The other is Eid al Adha, or the feast of Sacrifice, which falls on the 10th day of the 12th month of the Muslim calendar, after the completion of the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. The feast commemorates the sacrifice of Abraham, in which an animal is substituted for Ishmael, his son.
The importance of the two feasts in Islam shares an interesting parallel with Easter and Christmas in Christianity. Though Easter and Eid al Adha are theologically the most important festivals in Christianity and Islam respectively, Christmas and Eid ul Fitr are the festivals that capture the hearts of most believers.
Eid ul Fitr begins before daybreak with a prayer, followed later by a prayer at dawn. For three days, Muslims celebrate the feast with decorations, special meals, visits with relatives and gift giving to children. Though works of charity constitute a central component of Ramadan, Muslims are especially careful during Eid ul Fitr to remember those less fortunate. The third pillar of Islam is zakat, or almsgiving. Though different schools of jurisprudence calculate it somewhat differently, zakat generally requires a Muslim to donate 2.5 percent of his or her wealth to charity. Though technically this can be done at any time of the year, many Muslims choose to give most or all of their charitable donations during Eid ul Fitr.
While Muslims around the world celebrate Eid ul Fitr with early morning prayers, feasts and charity, communities in different parts of the world add their own flare to the holiday. Muslims in different countries — whether in the Middle East, Indonesia, South Asia or elsewhere — celebrate with culturally distinct cuisine, decorations, clothing and activities.
A new and popular Ramadan tradition is for Muslims to invite their non–Muslims neighbors to take part in the iftar or Eid ul Fitr. In some communities in Europe and North America, where Muslims are a religious minority, the iftar has become an important interfaith celebration. What better way to promote interreligious understanding around the world than by sharing the joy of the iftar and Eid ul Fitr?
Rev. Dr. Elias D. Mallon is CNEWA’s education and interreligious affairs officer. He holds a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Languages and a Licentiate Degree in Old Testament Studies from the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.