Ramadan 101: Five facts about the holy month of Ramadan

Muslims around the world will begin celebrating Ramadan today. Throughout the month-long holiday, they will fast from dawn to dusk. Ramadan is happening at the heart of summer this year, posing a greater challenge than normal for those observing the fast.

The start of Ramadan is determined by the moon

Pakistani Muslims look toward the new moon that indicates the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in Islamabad, Pakistan on Monday, Aug 1. (Anjum Naveed/AP)

The exact start of Ramadan is often up in the air until just before the holiday begins because it is determined by a sighting of the new moon. Many places still depend on someone seeing the new moon with the naked eye in order to declare the holiday. As a result, Ramadan’s start can vary from place to place because of weather conditions and other factors that affect how easily the moon is seen.

However, countries are increasingly relying on astronomical calculations and observatories, leading to a more uniform start time. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, and Yemen all declared today the official start of the holiday, according to MSNBC.

The date changes every year

Islam functions on a lunar calendar that doesn’t quite line up with the solar Gregorian calendar that the secular world uses. So while Muslim holidays are always the same day on the Muslim calendar, they happen on different days on the Gregorian calendar – typically moving 11 or 12 days earlier each year. In 2010, Ramadan began on Aug. 11.

What is the purpose of Ramadan?

During Ramadan, observers are expected to abstain from food, drink, and other pleasures from dawn to dusk. Removing these comforts from daily routine is intended to focus the mind on prayer, spirituality, and charity and to purify the body and mind. Muslims are also expected to abstain from impurities such as gossip and watching pornography.

A month of big changes

In countries where Muslims are the majority, Ramadan has a drastic impact on daily life. Egypt pushes the clocks back an hour during the holy month so that the fast feels like it is ending earlier and the evenings are lengthened. Work days are made shorter during the month to accommodate the additional time spent in prayer and in enjoying festive meals to end the daily fast.

According to bankers and economists in Muslim countries, Ramadan almost always ushers in a month-long period of inflation as people drastically increase the amount of money spent on clothing and food. The prices of certain staples go up dramatically – according to a former Monitor correspondent in Cairo, during Ramadan a cup of tea can cost six times its normal price. However, economic productivity also declines because of the shorter working hours and the general malaise among those abstaining from food and water all day.

Ironically, many people gain weight during Ramadan. They are more sedentary during the daytime, eat richer food than normal at the fast-breaking iftar meal in the evenings, and get the majority of their daily calories at night, shortly before they go to sleep.

Exceptions to the fast

Several different groups are excused from fasting during Ramadan: pregnant women, people who are mentally or physically ill, and sometimes women who are breastfeeding. Children are not obligated to fast until they hit puberty, although many choose to observe the fast at least part of the month in preparation for later years.

With Ramadan now coming in the hottest months of the year – Baghdad declared Aug. 1 a public holiday because of the 120-degree-plus temperatures and lack of electricity for air conditioning – other exceptions have been made for the safety of those fasting.

Last year, a religious body in the United Arab Emirates issued a fatwa, allowing workers to break the fast if they needed to. Similar religious proclamations are likely to come down this year, with some Muslims facing days that begin at 4 a.m. and don’t end until after 8 p.m., depending on how far north they live.