RAMADAN. Ramadan, the major fast of the Islamic year, falls in the ninth lunar month. Traditionally, Ramadan commences and ends with the sighting of the new moon, though now a standard calendar is more commonly used.
The month-long fast involves abstinence from food, liquids, smoking, and sexual intercourse between the hours of sunrise and sunset, but at night the holiday has turned into a feast in many Arab countries, each of which has its favorite special Ramadan foods and recipes. Moreover, fasting must be undertaken with spiritual intent (niyyah ), and this intent must be renewed each day before dawn. Mean-spirited words, and thoughts and deeds such as slander, lying, and covetousness negate the value of fasting. The fast commences each day at dawn, immediately prior to which an early morning meal, suhoor, should be eaten. It usually includes a special bread called mushtah and a sweet cream-filled pastry called kilaj, which are served only during Ramadan. During the day no food or drink may be taken, which can be a severe test when Ramadan falls during the hot summer season. The day's fast is broken with a small meal, iftar, taken as soon as possible after sunset. Traditionally, this is dates and water in remembrance of Muhammed, who always broke his fast by first eating dates, followed by lentil soup and salad. A larger, often quite elaborate meal may be eaten later at a mosque or shared with visiting friends and family. There are no particular rules governing what should be served for the main course. Sweets are very popular during Ramadan.
Although the fast is obligatory for all sane adult Muslims in good health, a number of exemptions are allowed. These are seen as proof of Allah's wish not to place too onerous a burden on His people.
- Children are not required to fast until they reach the Age of Responsibility (twelve years for girls; fifteen years for boys). Children from the ages of six to eight may fast for half the day, gradually increasing the duration until old enough to fully observe the fast.
- The elderly and the chronically ill whose health may be compromised by fasting may substitute the feeding of one poor person for each day of fasting missed.
- Pregnant and nursing women, women in post-child-birth confinement, and menstruating women may postpone the fast and make up the days later.
- Those who are sick, traveling, or engaged in hard labor may make up missed fast days later.
Unintentional breaking of the fast is not punished, and Muslims are enjoined to break their fast if there is a threat to health. Other types of infractions require restitution. This is of two kinds: Qada, which involves making up missed days, and Kaffarah, which additionally exacts a penalty from the transgressor.
Fasting in a religious context is often undertaken for reasons of self-denial, penance, or mourning. In contrast, the Ramadan fast is a festive occasion of gratitude and thanksgiving to God. It has also acquired moral, social, and physical virtues. Observance of the fast is commonly seen as a way of receiving pardon for past sins; it creates empathy with the plight of the hungry, and it teaches self-control and endurance of deprivation.
Following Ramadan there is a three-day festival of prayer and feasting known as ʿAl Id-Fitr. Special sweet dishes are prepared, giving the festival its other name of Sweet Id. Muslims give thanks to Allah for enabling them to perform their duty of fasting, and there is much visiting and exchange of gifts, including food, with family and friends. Charitable giving is also encouraged.
See also Africa: North Africa ; Fasting and Abstinence: Islam ; Islam ; Middle East .
Wagtendonk, K. Fasting in the Koran. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1968.
Welch, Alford T. "Islam." In A New Handbook of Living Religions, edited by John R. Hinnells. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997.
Ram·a·dan / ˈräməˌdän; ˈraməˌdan/ • n. the ninth month of the Muslim year, during which strict fasting is observed from sunrise to sunset.