Understanding the Islamic calendar's ninth month: Ramadan

Flip open a typical calendar. Along with the standard dates and days, you can usually find major holidays listed. If you looked at last month's, you'd see some biggies - Hanukkah, Christmas, and one some people may be less familiar with: Ramadan.

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar - and a significant holy month in the Islamic faith. It's believed the Koran was revealed to the prophet Muhammad during Ramadan. Muslims worldwide mark the event with a month-long fast.

(The Islamic calendar is based on the lunar year and therefore the holiday lands at different times during the year. On the Common Era calendar this year, Ramadan is from Dec. 20, 1998 to Jan. 17, 1999).

Proper observance of Ramadan requires all followers to abstain from food, drink, tobacco, and sexual relations from dawn to sunset. Adherents are also expected to refrain from using obscenity or acting abusively. Additional prayers and charitable acts are encouraged.

While there are no specific rules of conduct for the hours from sunset to dawn, most Muslims follow the tradition of Muhammad and break the fast every evening by eating dates and drinking water.

In the Islamic faith, fasting is considered the most important method of testing a believer's faith and commitment to Allah. It also cautions against overindulgence and serves as a shield against sin by diminishing cravings. In fact, the fast is the fourth of Islam's five "pillars" - or the chief religious duties of a Muslim. (The other pillars are recitation of the creed, prayer, pilgrimage, and almsgiving.)

While the level of observance of Ramadan varies from country to country, breaking fast during the appointed hours is generally regarded with disfavor.

But at the end of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate Eid ul-Fitr which means literally, "breaking of the fast."

The three-day festival begins with special prayers at a mosque. It's then followed by feasting, giving food to the poor, visiting friends and relatives, and exchanging gifts and cards.

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