According to numerous accounts of the Prophet Muhammad, fasting was a regular part of his practice and he admonished his followers to follow his example as they were able. For him, a normal routine was to fast during the daylight hours and pray during the evening (his prayer time taking from his sleeping hours). For followers, these days of fasting through the years were seen as supererogatory acts, above and beyond the basic requirements of the faith. The fasting done by Muhammad, though not required of the faithful, set the pattern to be followed in the required month of fasting known as Ramadan.
One of the five pillars of Islam, Ramadan is an annual fast named for the ninth month of the Islamic calendar when it occurs. As the Islamic calendar is a strictly lunar calendar, Ramadan occurs at a different point in the Common Era calendar each year. Ramadan recalls the beginning of Muhammad’s writing down the Koran. It is a requirement of all, and those who because of illness cannot fast, are required to make up the days once they again attain their health.
Fasting begins at daybreak, defined as the moment one can discern the first streak of dawn against the black horizon (usually an hour and a half before sunrise). The fast continues until sunset. The day of fasting begins with a predawn meal (sahur) and ends with a light fast-breaking meal (iftar) that is followed by a time of prayer. People may gather at the mosque at the end of the day to share the iftar and hold communal prayers (tarawih). Muhammad advised people to break the fast each day quickly; thus it became common to prepare food ahead of time and have it ready as soon as the sun descended beyond the horizon.
The practice of fasting is seen as one of the ways, if not the best way, to please God, though it is meant as a means of teaching self-discipline, not only about food and the body, but about life in general and relationships with others. Thus, during the fast, one takes pains not to use questionable language or show anger, and one responds to any screaming or shouting with the simple observation that she or he is fasting. Those who have taken up bad habits (such as the consumption of tobacco or alcohol) have Ramadan as a time to drop such practices.
Ramadan is also a time for additional prayer, the reading of the Koran, and the showing of generosity. Muslims are also required to pay a percentage of their income for the care of the poor (another pillar of the faith), and Ramadan is often chosen as the time to fulfill that obligation.
While Ramadan as a whole is considered a remembrance of the giving of the Koran, one night in particular, called Laylat al-Qadir, the Night of Power, is commemorated as the anniversary of the actual day that the Koran first began to be revealed to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel.
The Night of Power is usually observed on the 27th day of Ramadan, but it also carries with it a certain element of mystery. It is a night marked by the descent of angels from the heavens to the earthly realm. For those engaged in prayer it is a time to receive mercy and protection from every bad thing. Muhammad requested his followers to search for it and attempt to discern when it occurred, noting only that it was one night in the last 10 of the 30-day month. He noted that it was only one night and that the time of receiving its benefits lasted until dawn. Appropriate actions for the night include prayer, self-examination, the asking of forgiveness for oneself and all Muslims, listening to sermons and engaging in discussion concerning the Night of Power, and remembering Allah.
Ramadan is immediately followed by Eid ul-Fitr, the Festival of Breaking the Fast, a feast day that marks the end of the fasting period. It is the first day of the 10th month in the Islamic calendar (months being marked from new moon to new moon). The day is a truly festive occasion, being seen as a sign of God’s blessing following the time of testing and discipline, and is marked by donning fresh (and/or new) clothes, donating food to the poor (Zakat al-Fitr), and visiting family, friends, and neighbors. The day begins early in the morning with prayers in the local mosque.
In countries in which Islam is the predominant religion, the society is organized to accommodate Ramadan. Muslims living in other countries have imported the practice and accommodate their lives so as to participate fully in the fast and other activities.
Devotion/Devotional Traditions; Islam; Mosques; Muhammad.
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