The Holiest Islamic Holiday of the Year

by Chelsea Chang & Rebecca Lin (T4 Social Studies)

When is Ramadan celebrated?

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It is also known as the holy month of fasting, and the Month of Revelations. Due to the fact that the Islamic religion uses a lunar calendar, the time of Ramadan varies each year; it gets earlier by approximately 11 days with each passing year. However, the way that Ramadan’s duration is determined remains the same. The celebration of Ramadan begins and concludes when the new moon appears and disappears, respectively. Most people rely on both the traditional method of moon sighting reports, and the alternative method of astronomical calculations to determine the start of Ramadan.

Ramadan next occurs in 2015 from the sunset of June 17 (sunrise of June 18) to the sunrise of July 17, going by the Gregorian calendar, which is the calendar generally used around the world. Ramadan lasts for 30 days from 3:45 A.M. on June 18th to 4:05 A.M. on July 17 in the Eastern Time Zone.

What is Ramadan and why is it celebrated? What purpose does Ramadan serve?

The Islamic holiday of Ramadan is a “month of blessing” for over a billion Muslims worldwide, in which they pray, fast, physically restrain their body parts, and give to charities, in order to show their faithfulness to Allah (God). Ramadan is an opportunity Muslims to prove their obedience to Allah, and express their gratitude to him for what they are provided with. Therefore, Muslims find ways to help the poor, whether that is delivering food and clothing to the homeless, or participating in charity events. In other words, for Muslims, Ramadan is about self restraint, selflessness, self evaluation, self purification, and devotion to Allah. Not only is Ramadan about cleansing the soul, but it commemorates and marks the time when the Qur’an, the Holy Book of Islam, was revealed to the prophet Muhammad, too. Although Ramadan emphasizes the spiritual lives of Muslims, it is a month when they have a sense of sharing with their family and community as well. The main purpose of Ramadan is to get rid of one’s worldly desires so one can concentrate on being of service to Allah. Ramadan is considered the most sacred Islamic holiday.

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During Ramadan in the Saudi Arabian capital, Mecca, inside of the Al-Masjid al-Haram, (Grand Mosque) Islam's most sacred mosque, Muslims circle around the Kaaba in deep prayer called tarawih.
World's Best Quran Recitation
Here is an video of the World's Best Qur'an Recitation in 2006. It is performed by Mr. Amin Pouya at the International Qur'an Competitions in India. Tarawih prayers are held for performers like him. There is also an English translation provided. Enjoy!

What is the story behind Ramadan & its connection to Islam?

According to followers of the religion Islam, the celebration of Ramadan was instituted by Islam's last prophet, Muhammad. Muslims believe that during the month of Ramadan in the year 610 A.D., Allah revealed the first verses, or revelations of the Qur’an (the Holy Book of Islam) through the angel Gabriel, to a man named Muhammad, who, at the time, was a caravan trader from Mecca. As he was praying in a cave on Mount Hira one evening, Muhammad, age 40, began to reflect upon his devotion to Allah. Then, all of a sudden, Muhammad had a vision. In that vision, he spotted an angel holding a snippet of cloth with writing on it. Next, the angel gave Muhammad instructions to read the words on the cloth. But, most people in ancient times were not able to read. Yet again, the angel insisted that Muhammad read words on the cloth, and this second time, Muhammad could successfully repeat them. After Muhammad read the cloth, the angel told Muhammad that his destiny since birth, was to become a prophet; a messenger of Allah. Muhammad became a little frightened because of the angel revealing his true destiny, so when he returned home, he recounted the vision to his wife, Khadijah. Later, she became the first person to suspect that the angel's message in the vision was sent from Allah. Eventually, later in the month of Ramadan, Muhammad was presented with more messages from Allah through an angel named Gabriel, including the first revelations of the Qur'an:

Recite in the name of your Lord Who creates,

Creates man from a clot,

Recite: And your Lord is the Most Bountiful,

Who teaches by the pen,
He teaches man what he does not know.

Ultimately, these exact words Allah said to Muhammad were recorded and later written as the first verses of the Qur'an. During the passing years, Muhammad aspired to repay Allah for the sacred knowledge he received from him, because Muhammad wanted to show his respect. Thus, Muhammad requested his followers of Islam to spend the entire month of Ramadan honing their obedience to Allah by fasting, increasing prayers, ridding themselves of impure thoughts and deeds, and celebrating at the end with a grand festival. Even centuries from when Muhammad started Ramadan, the holiday survives generation after generation for the Muslims who celebrate it nowadays!

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This detailed illustration, which was published in a book in the year 1307 A.D., portrays the moment when Muhammad received the first revelation and first verses of the Qur'an from the angel Gabriel.

What are some specific and major rituals, traditions, or customs celebrated during Ramadan?

Contrary to popular belief, most Muslims do not dread, but embrace the approach and arrival of Ramadan with arms wide open. Ramadan is often considered to be the most joyful time of the year for Muslims, despite the required fasting during daylight hours. Smoking, sexual activity, evil actions or intents, and fighting, not just eating and drinking, are prohibited between dawn and dusk as well. Common, general activities that are done during Ramadan include, but are not limited to: meditation, entertainment, such as elaborate light shows, and everyday acts of compassion, such as donating to charities that benefit the destitute. On the other hand, one of the specific rituals, and possibly, most often associated with Ramadan, is sawm. Sawm literally means “to refrain” in Arabic. Sawm is especially significant because it is the third pillar, or institution (basic rule), of Islam. As mentioned above, sawm prevents Muslims from drinking, including water, eating, engaging in sexual activity, having malevolent thoughts, stealing, being dishonest, and behaving in any sort of wicked manner. After sawm, at night, they are encouraged to have elaborate meals called iftars with their family and friends. Muslims are also encouraged to have the meal before sunrise, when fasting resumes, called suhoor. Another major ritual of Ramadan is zakat, which can be translated as “ the poor-rate”, or giving to the impoverished. Like sawm, zakat is another pillar, or duty, of Islam. During Ramadan, what most Muslims do is give a certain percentage of their savings to the poor. Other Muslims might choose different charitable outlets to ease the suffering of the poor instead of giving away money. For example, throughout the entire duration of Ramadan, mosques and religious foundations offer free iftar meals at night to the homeless. Many affluent Muslims will try to pack Ramadan bags or baskets with basic food items and cooking ingredients for the less fortunate before Ramadan begins. Charity is a major component of Ramadan, and in Islamic countries, charity is important all the time.

But, religious and spiritual rituals are the most significant elements of the holiday. Since Ramadan is a particularly religious holiday, Muslims use special prayers called tarawih, for those who perform a recitation the whole Qur’an. Tarawih is derived from the Arabic word for “rest”. Tarawih prayers are held every night of Ramadan in mosques, and attending them is not mandatory. Muslims are always welcome to listen to public readings of the Qur’an by others, but attempting to read the entire Qur’an privately, at least once, is still highly recommended. Recitations of the Qur’an can be split into separate sections, or read as a whole without stopping until the end. Usually, 1/30 of the Qur’an is read each night in mosques so that by the conclusion of the 30 days of Ramadan, the entire Qur’an is finished. Sometimes, recitations can take hours and even days, rather than shorter amounts of time! For that reason, there are nightly tarawih prayers and brief breaks for the Muslims who are willing to spend long, exhausting hours reciting the complete Qur’an. Praying and worshipping Allah, similar to charity, is not just a part of Ramadan, but everyday life. Praying becomes an even higher priority on the last ten nights of Ramadan, including Laylat al-Qadr, which is also the 27th night of Ramadan , the “Night of Power”, and the “grandest night”, according to the Holy Qur’an. It is not uncommon for Muslims to pray the entire night, because the Qur’an states that the 27th of Ramadan is the most suitable night of praying; better than a thousand months. More importantly, Laylat al-Qadr is the anniversary of the night Muhammad received the first verses, or revelations, of the Holy Qur’an from Allah through the angel Gabriel.

In conclusion to Ramadan, the first three days after the month ends, are reserved for Eid al-Fitr, the “Festival of Breaking the Fast”. Families rejoice and gather together, everyone dresses in their best clothing, gifts are exchanged, and visits are paid to mosques and graves of deceased loved ones. Parents give their children sweet treats, and decorate their homes with bright, twinkling lights or lanterns. Joy is spread! Muslim people mail or give cards to other Muslims to wish them “Eid Mubarak”, which in English, is “Happy Eid festival”. Muslims, no matter where they are, or what branch of Islam they are, Sunni or Shi’a, all celebrate during Eid al-Fitr. Just as Ramadan does, Eid al-Fitr gives Muslims a feeling of gratitude, family, and commitment, all of which are values to followers of Islam.
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Nine members of a Muslim family gather together on the floor at home to share a typical iftar meal consisting of fiber-loaded fruits and vegetables, protein-rich meat, foods with carbohydrates, like rice, and nourishing soup.

What are the rules, regulations, exceptions, consequences, punishments, etc. of not participating in sawm?

The severity of the consequence for specifically breaking sawm varies with the circumstances. If a person breaks the fasting, he or she should fast an additional 60 days as punishment to make up for lost time. Young children under the age of puberty (ages 7 and under), elderly people, travelers, people who are mentally ill, and pregnant women are not obligated to fast. However, diabetics are expected to contribute a sum of money to provide 60 meals to the poor. Seriously sick and injured people who need to take daily medication are not expected to fast, but they can recover their lost time by fasting after Eid al-Fitr. Punishments are dealt out on rare occasion. When they are, that fact does not ruin the meaningful and happy spirit of Ramadan!

Did You Know?

The daily fast, sawm, is traditionally broken by eating dates and drinking water or milk, because eating those foods is a way of being loyal towards the teachings of Muhammad, and Muhammad himself, who also broke his fast by eating three dates and quenching his thirst with milk and water. Date vendors give their highest quality and tastiest dates catchy or clever names to market them around the time of Ramadan. Past favorite varieties of dates include: Martyrs of the Revolution, from 2011, and Tahrir Square. Even if you or your family do not celebrate Ramadan, you still can try the legendary food that has been used to break fasts for over countless centuries. Below is a video that can teach various ways of preparing dates for Ramadan, or just any time of the year when dates are popular! Shahia tayebah! (Enjoy the food!)

Works Cited

Are you interested in learning more about Ramadan? You can visit one of the following websites, or go to your local library to read one of the books listed below:

  1. "Ramadan Fast Facts." CNN. Cable News Network, 25 Nov. 2014. Web. 29 Nov. 2014. <http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/05/world/ramadan-fast-facts/>.

  2. Gulevich, Tanya. Understanding Islam and Muslim Traditions: An Introduction to the Religious Practices, Celebrations, Festivals, Observances, Beliefs, Folklore, Customs, and Calendar System of the World's Muslim Communities, including an Overview of Islamic History and Geography. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 2004. Print.

  3. "Islamic Holidays and Observances." Islamic Holidays and Observances. Web. 29 Nov. 2014. <http://www.colostate.edu/orgs/MSA/events/Ramadan.html>.

  4. "Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr." Fact Monster: Online Almanac, Dictionary, Encyclopedia, and Homework Help. Web. 29 Nov. 2014. <http://www.factmonster.com/spot/ramadan1.html>.

  5. "Ramadan Starts in United States." Ramadan Starts in United States. Web. 27 Nov. 2014. <http://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/us/ramadan-begins>.


  7. "What Is Ramadan?" About. Web. 26 Nov. 2014. <http://islam.about.com/od/ramadan/f/ramadanintro.htm>.

  8. "Ramadan". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 29 Nov. 2014


9. Hauslohner, Abigail. "Top 10 Things You Didn't Know About Ramadan."Time. Time Inc., 02 Aug. 2011. Web. 29 Nov. 2014. <http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2086309_2086333_2086331,00.html>.

10. "Ramadan." - ReligionFacts. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <http://www.religionfacts.com/islam/holidays/ramadan.htm>.

11. "Question: What Are The Main Practices And Rituals Of Islam?" What Are The Main Practices And Rituals Of Islam? Web. 27 Nov. 2014. <http://www.questionsaboutislam.com/faith-beliefs-practices/main-practices-rituals-of-islam.php>.

12. "IslamiCity.com - Ramadan: History, Dates, Greeting And Rules Of The Muslim Fast." IslamiCity.com - Ramadan: History, Dates, Greeting And Rules Of The Muslim Fast. Web. 26 Nov. 2014. <http://www.islamicity.com/articles/Articles.asp?ref=HF1207-5201>.

13. Hooda, Samreen. "Ramadan 2012: History, Dates, Greeting And Rules Of The Muslim Fast." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 16 July 2012. Web. 29 Nov. 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/16/ramadan-top-ten_n_1676639.html>

14. Rituals of Ramadan." Newsletter. Web. 29 Nov. 2014. <http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/general/rituals-of-ramadan-1.848081>.

15. "How Is Ramadan Celebrated? - How Ramadan Works." HowStuffWorks. Web. 29 Nov. 2014. <http://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/holidays-other/ramadan2.htm>
16. "Traditional Foods For Ramadan (with Recipes!)." HubPages. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

17. "Live From Mecca, It's Ramadan." NPR. NPR. Web. 02 Dec. 2014. <http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/07/10/200755340/live-from-mecca-its-ramadan>.