The Origins and Practices of Holidays: Ramadan

May 6 - June 5, 2019 - Ramadan

Ramadan is a holiday celebrated by Muslims all around the world. This year it begins at sundown on Sunday, May 5 and will end at sundown on Tuesday, June 4. The dates of Ramadan change year to year, as the Muslim calendar is based on a lunar calendar. Ramadan is the most sacred month of the year for Muslims. Muslims believe that during this month, Allah revealed the first verses of the Quran (the sacred text of Islam), to Mohammed. That night, is known as “The Night of Power” or Laylat al-Qadr. Laylat al-Qadr is celebrated on the 27th day of Ramadan, and is considered the holiest day of the year for Muslims. We will cover this celebration in another post as the date gets closer.

Ramadan is meant to be a time of spiritual discipline, increased prayers, charity, generosity, and time spent with family. At the end of Ramadan, there is a three-day celebration called Eid al Fitr, which means the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast. Families come together for this big meal, and they exchange presents. We will cover Eid-al Fitr in another post as the date gets closer.

During Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn until sunset. All Muslims are required to do this every year. However, there are special allowances given for young children and those who are pregnant, nursing, menstruating, ill, traveling, or elderly. Fasting is a part of sawm (one of the five tenants of Islam). However, many Muslims interpret sawm, which means “to refrain,” as the obligation not only to fast between dawn and dusk, but also to not participate in any immoral behavior, including swearing, gossiping, complaining, or thinking negative thoughts.

Fasting is supposed to serve a couple of purposes. It reminds Muslims of human frailty and their dependence on God for sustenance. It should also to remind Muslims of what it is like to be hungry and thirsty so they feel compassion for the poor and needy. Lastly, it’s supposed to help Muslims focus more clearly on their relationship with God, by reducing distractions.

When it’s time to break the day’s fast, Muslims eat what’s called an iftar, which literally means “breakfast.” The iftar is a snack that usually consists of dates, apricots, or sweetened milk. Afterwards, Muslims recite a special prayer that is said only during Ramadan. After the prayer, there is a larger meal that everyone shares with friends and family. The reason Muslims consume a light snack first is because Muslim prayers tend to involve a lot of physical movement; going down to the floor and back up again. Doing this movement on a full stomach, after not eating for many hours, can cause lots of discomfort. This is why they eat the large meal later, and only consume a light snack to break their fast before the evening prayer.

There are some differences on how Sunni and Shia Muslims celebrate Ramadan. Sunni Muslims break their fast at sunset, which is when the sun is no longer visible, but there is still light in the sky. Shia Muslims wait until all light has disappeared from the sky before they break their fast.

In addition, Shia Muslims also celebrate the martyrdom of Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed. He was also the revered fourth caliph of Sunni Islam and the first "legitimate" imam (leader) of Shia Islam. He was assassinated in a civil war that occurred after Mohammed’s death. The war was about who should lead the Muslim community, now that Mohammed was dead. On the 19th day of Ramadan, while Ali was worshipping at a mosque, an assassin from the opposing group struck him with a poisoned sword. He died two days later. Therefore, Shia Muslims honor Ali on the 19th, 20th and 21st days of Ramadan.

Learn more about Ramadan with the items below:

Lailah's Lunchbox

It's Ramadan, Curious George

The First Muslim

If there's a particular celebration you or someone you know participates in that we missed, let us know by leaving a comment on this post. Or, if you think we got something wrong, please also comment and let us know. We try to be as accurate as possible, but if there's a mistake, we want to correct it.