All About Ramadan

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Podcast Transcript

Once a month, every year, Muslims around the world celebrate Ramadan. 

It is a month of fasting, prayer, and introspection, and it is the most important month on the Islamic calendar.

However, the time of Ramadan change every year, and the exact date it starts is often a matter of interpretation, as is the time it is observed every day. 

Learn more about Ramadan and how it is celebrated on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The celebration of Ramadan is one of the most important tenants of Islam. 

In fact, fasting during the month of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, along with the profession of faith, prayer, almsgiving, and the Hajj. 

Before I get too much further, I should explain exactly what it is and why it is celebrated. 

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The reason why it is given special importance is that it is believed it was the month when all holy scripture was revealed. This includes the Torah, gospels, psalms, and the Quran. 

The word “Ramadan” comes from the Arabic word “ramida” which roughly translates to “scorching heat.”

The Quran itself refers to Ramadan and gives instructions for what must be done. 

Rama?ân is the month in which the Quran was revealed as a guide for humanity with clear proofs of guidance and the standard ?to distinguish between right and wrong?. So whoever is present this month, let them fast. But whoever is ill or on a journey, then ?let them fast? an equal number of days ?after Rama?ân?. Allah intends ease for you, not hardship, so that you may complete the prescribed period and proclaim the greatness of Allah for guiding you, and perhaps you will be grateful.

The primary command for the month of Ramadan is, of course, fasting. 

From sunrise to sunset, Muslims cannot eat, drink, smoke, or engage in sexual relations. The prohibition against drinking also extends to water as well. 

Most Muslims will usually engage in a pre-dawn meal known as suhoor. This is consumed before the first prayer of the day and is one of the two main meals which are consumed during Ramadan. 

In some Mulsim committees, someone may be appointed to the traditional role of musaharati, who is someone that wakes everyone up for the suhoor meal. They serve as personal alarm clocks for their neighborhood.

After sunset, there is a corresponding evening meal known as an Iftar. 

What is served during the meal depends on where it is taking place, however, it is tradition to consume a date as the first thing to break the fast, as that is what Mohammed used to break his fast. 

Depending on the country, the evening meal is often a feast with a neighborhood, a local mosque, or eaten with you family.

Fasting isn’t the only thing that is to be done during Ramadan. Muslims are admonished to give to charity, study the Quran, and pray. Many Muslims will often engage in an extra evening prayer, although this is not mandatory. 

In addition to the religious observances, different countries will have other traditions as well. In some places, lights might be strung up at night. In others, night markets with food stalls are very popular.

Fireworks are often lit in Indonesia, a tradition that was actually borrowed from Chinese immigrants. 

The traditional greetings during Ramadan are Ramadan mubarak, which means blessed Ramadan, and Ramadan kareem, which means generous Ramadan. 

Not everyone is required to fast during Ramadan. If you are sick, pregnant, breastfeeding, menstruating, or traveling, you are not obliged to fast. Also, children who have not yet reached puberty are not obligated to fast, but some older children often do or will fast for half a day.

If, for whatever reason, someone can’t fast for some days of Ramadan, they are encouraged to fast for an equal number of days after Ramadan.

If you are a non-Muslim in a Muslim country during Ramadan, your options are to either buy food beforehand that you can eat in private or just observe the fast with everyone else around you. Option two is much easier. 

For the most part, Sunni and Shia Muslims celebrate Ramadan the same way. However, there are differences in how sunrise and sunset are determined, and they will celebrate Laylat al-Qadr on different nights. More on both of these in a bit. 

I said that Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. However, determining when Ramadan starts isn’t clear-cut. 

To understand why there is some confusion, you have to understand the Islamic calendar. 

In the west, we use the Gregorian Calendar, which is a solar calendar. With a solar calendar, the solstices will be on about the same day every year. 

Other traditional calendars, such as the Chinese or Jewish calendars, are what’s called a lunisolar calendar. A lunisolar calendar is a lunar calendar, but with frequent adjustments made so days stay at the same time of year. 

Chinese New Year can vary by almost a month, but it will always be around January or February. 

The Islamic calendar, however, is a strictly lunar calendar. It consists of 12 lunar months. The problem is that a lunar year isn’t the same length as a solar year. There are usually 11 fewer days in a lunar calendar than in a solar calendar. 

As such, every year, Ramanda starts 11 or 12 days earlier than it did the year before. 

That means, over the course of about 33 years, Ramadan will cycle once through a solar year. As I am recording this, Ramadan starts on March 23. The year before, it started on April 2, and next year it will start on March 11. 

So, that means eventually, every day of the year will have Ramadan fall on it. 

The next issue has to do with when a new month starts on the Islamic calendar. 

A new month starts with the appearance of the first crescent, no matter how slim, after sunset. 

This can lead to discrepancies as to when the start of Ramadan is because where on Earth it appears will always be different. 

Some places will require the physical sighting of the crescent moon to start Ramadan. Other places will use the pronouncement by Saudi Arabia, who are the keepers of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. 

We can calculate when the first crescent of a new moon appears, and that has mostly taken care of the dating of the start of Ramadan. That being said, some localities might differ by a day or two when they start. 

The next big issue has to do with when sunrise and sunset occur. You’ve probably noticed that there is light before the orb of the sun rises above the horizon. 

The traditional definition of when the start of fasting occurs is when you can differentiate between a white and black thread. 

Sunni Muslims will define sunrise and sunset by the orb of the sun being above or below the horizon. Shia Muslims tend to define it by how much light is still in the sky or from dusk to dawn.

The other major difference between Sunni and Shia is when they celebrate Laylat al-Qadr, which is considered the holiest day of the year. This is the day when the words of the Quran were first received by Mohammed. 

It is held that this took place on an odd-numbered day during the last 10 days of Ramadan. 

Shia will observe this on either the 19th, 21st, or 23rd day of Ramadan. Sunnis will tend to observe this on the 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th or 29th day of the month, with the 27th day being the most common. 

Preference will often be given to a day if it falls on a Friday.

The issue of sunrise and sunset is critical to the observance of Ramadan. For the vast majority of Muslims, this is not a problem. 

However, as Ramadan can fall on any season of the year, this can cause a problem for the small number of Muslims who live at extreme latitudes. If you live above the Arctic Circle, for example, in the summer, the sun never sets. 

That means you couldn’t eat or drink for an entire month. 

Likewise, if you were there in the winter, there would be no sunlight, and you wouldn’t have to fast at all. 

Several imams have issued rulings regarding this problem, and there are several ways around it. 

One option is to simply fast and observe Ramadan at a time when there are normal sunrise and sunset times. So, for example, if Ramadan is in the summer, you could wait until September to begin fasting. 

The second option is to use the sunrise and sunset times for a nearby Muslim community. The small Muslim community in Iqaluit, Canada, uses the sunrise and sunset times for Toronto. 

The third option is to use the sunrise and sunset times for Mecca.

One special case is for Muslim astronauts. In orbit, you experience sunrise and sunset every 90 minutes or so. The ruling is that Muslim astronauts would observe the sunrise and sunset times from wherever they left Earth, or they can observe Ramadan when they return to Earth, as an astronaut fits the definition of a traveler, which has an exemption in the Koran. 

As I am recording this, astronaut Sultan Alneyadi from the United Arab Emirates is aboard the International Space Station. He has said that he will do the best he can while in space.

I’ll end this discussion of Ramadan with the end of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, or, as it is usually called in English, Eid.

Eid begins after the month of Ramadan is over. There is no fasting and it is usually the most festive time on the Islamic Calendar. There are special prayers that are done on Eid in addition to feasting and celebrations. 

Eid usually lasts one to three days, depending on the country, and celebrations vary widely by country. Some places have concerts, and some countries have started a tradition of gift-giving, 

The traditional greeting during Eid is ‘Eid Mubarak,’ which means blessed Eid.

Ramadan is celebrated by 1.9 billion Muslims around the world, making it one of the biggest annually observed events on Earth. 

For all of you celebrating Ramadan around the world, Ramadan mubarak! 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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