President Obama to hold iftar dinner: Five facts about the Muslim ceremony

Continuing a tradition first started by one of the nation’s Founding Fathers, President Obama will host an iftar dinner Wednesday evening at 8:30 in the State Dining Room to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The president is no stranger to the sunset fast-breaking meal – he likely attended many as a boy in Indonesia – but Wednesday’s event comes with a star-studded guest list and an agenda: reaching out to an important, and often embattled constituency.

1. What’s the purpose of Ramadan?

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Men answer the call to prayer at sunset during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at The Islamic Cultural Center in New York on Aug. 20, 2010.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calender and a time during which 1.7 billion Muslims around the world – including 2.5 million in the US – observe an obligatory fast from dawn until sunset. It was in Ramadan that the Koran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad, an event Muslims mark by fasting, reading the Koran, performing additional prayers, and giving in charity.

The Arabic word for fasting, sawm, means "to refrain," and Muslims believe the entire body fasts during Ramadan – the tongue from backbiting, the eyes from seeing unlawful things, and the ears from listening to gossip or obscene language, for example. As such, Ramadan acts as a month-long exercise in discipline, cleansing, and refocusing one’s attention on worshipping God.

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