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What Is Ramadan? A Social and Historical Explanation of Islam's Holy Month

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Question: What Is Ramadan? A Social and Historical Explanation of Islam's Holy Month
Answer: Ramadan is the ninth and holiest month of the Muslim lunar calendar. For those 29 or 30 days, Muslims, as a spiritual exercise designed to bring them closer to God through contemplation and humility, but not without joy and festivities, are required to abstain from food, drink and sex of any sort during daylight hours. They may indulge in all three at night, and often do so with gusto: Ramadan is in Islam what Thanksgiving is in the United States, an extended occasion for socializing, celebrating and loving.

Ramadan is one of the five pillars, or essential practices, of Islam.

The fasting rule is not inflexible. Children, the infirm, the sick, pregnant women and sometimes even travelers are not required to fast. There’s also the matter of logic: what would a scientist working in the Arctic or the Antarctic, for example, where the sun may neither set nor rise at all, depending on the season, be required to do? What would a traveler jetting from one end of the globe to the other, hurdling time zones while outlasting the sun’s normal rhythm for 24 hours, be required to do? In either case, Islam is not obtuse. The practicing Muslim would fast in accordance with a clock he or she sets realistically, perhaps in line with the rising and setting sun on Mecca time.

Ramadan’s Calendar

Ramadan does not fall on a specific date on the Gregorian, or Western, calendar. Nor is it determined scientifically, but by clerics’ observation, through the naked eye, of the first sliver of the new moon on the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. That means Ramadan in Algeria could begin a full day earlier or later than Ramadan in Oman.

Roughly speaking, and barring cosmic interruptions, here are Ramadan’s dates for the coming years:

  • 2008: Sept. 1-Oct. 1
  • 2009: Aug. 22-Sept. 20
  • 2010: Aug. 11-Sept. 10
  • 2011: Aug. 1-Aug. 30
  • 2012: July 20-Aug. 19
  • 2013: July 9-Aug. 8

Ramadan’s Jewish Inspiration

Ramadan was not an Islamic invention, but an adaptation of the Jewish fast on Yum Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which the Prophet Muhammad had actually adapted whole, with a name change. Yum Kippur falls on the 10th day of the Jewish month of Tishri. The Arabization of the Aramaic word for “tenth” is Ashura.

For a few years, therefore, Muslims were required to fast on Ashura—and pray facing Jerusalem. In March 625, the fast of Ramadan proper was observed for the first time as Ashura was dropped in favor of the month-long fast as Muhammad was imposing a more self-consciously Muslim character on the faithful. It was also about that time that he ordered the faithful to pray facing Mecca rather than Jerusalem.

Ramadan: Ideal vs. Reality

In Islam, Ramadan is the most unifying of observations as Muslims around the world—Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites and other derivatives of the Prophet Muhammad’s religion—enact in body as well as spirit the meaning of umma, or community, so central to Islam in its ideal form. Ramadan was also meant to impose a truce on all hostilities.

The gulf between the ideal and the reality may be vast. It is one of the ironies of Islam (an irony Islam shares with Christianity, to be sure) that a religion founded on the principle of umma has been so riven with dissention and chasms from its earliest days. Ramadan does not keep Sunnis and Muslims from massacring each other in such chronic battlegrounds of the faith as Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Nor does it keep Muslims from giving their warring impulse a break, anymore than Christians do during the 40 days of Lent.

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