Ramadan lantern
Ramadan lantern stock photo used for Ramadan 2015

Resident Expert: On Ramadan

As a long-time instructor of the Arabic language, NYUAD Senior Arabic Language Instructor Nasser Isleem applies studies to his teaching that examine the impact of incorporating Arabic culture integration into a student's course work. Who better then to share what Ramadan is all about?

What, in a nutshell, is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic Calendar. The word "Ramadan" literally means "scorching" in Arabic. Ramadan has been the Holy Month for Muslims since the Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad in 610 CE on a night known as Laylat ul-Qadr, frequently translated as "the Night of Power." It is a time of spiritual reflection, improvement, and increased devotion and worship. Muslims are expected to increase their efforts into following the teachings of Islam.

Why does the timing of Ramadan change each year and how is the start date determined?
The cycle of the lunar calendar does not match the solar calendar, thus the dates of Ramadan come approximately 11 or 12 days earlier each year. The date is only confirmed at the time of the new moon sighting. Many countries still rely on a viewing of the new moon with the naked eye in order for the beginning of Ramadan to be declared. So the start of Ramadan can differ from place to place as a result of weather conditions and other factors that may affect how easily one can see the moon.

For those observing, does Ramadan have a significant impact on daily life?
In places where Muslims are the majority, Ramadan has a noticeable impact on daily life. During the Holy Month, most Muslims fast from dawn (Fajr) to sunset (Maghrib). In addition to abstaining from eating and drinking, Muslims also increase restraint, as Ramadan is a time of spiritual discipline and reflection. In Egypt, the clock is pushed back one hour during Ramadan so that the fast feels like it finishes earlier and the evenings last longer. Workdays are often shortened during Ramadan in order to accommodate extra time spent in prayer and for enjoying festive iftars come sundown.

How is Ramadan typically observed?
There are five Pillars of Islam:

Shahada: This is a profession of belief in the one true God. The declaration is as follows: ash-hado an laa ilaha illa Allah, wa ash-hado anna Mohammadan Rasoolul Allah, which means "There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet and servant."

Salat: Muslims pray five times daily facing Mecca. They must practice ablution (wudu) before each prayer.

Zakat: Giving charity to the poor and needy.

Sawm: Fasting during the month of Ramadan.

Hajj: The pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim should make at least once in his or her lifetime.

In what scriptural study do Muslims participate?
A great number of Muslims use their time during Ramadan to finish reading the whole Quran or to increase prayer and recitation. Muslims around the world divide the Quran into daily reading segments that conclude before Eid ul-Fitr, the day after the end of Ramadan. Some Muslims perform the recitation of the whole Quran by participating in special prayers named taraweeh, held in the mosques each night throughout Ramadan. During taraweeh, the Quran is divided into 30 sections. Thus, the Quran is completely read at the end of the month.

Non-Muslims living in or visiting Muslim countries during the Holy Month should be careful not to eat, drink, or smoke in the presence of Muslims throughout the daytime hours of fasting, as the law requires adherence to the fast in public.

Nasser Isleem

What is expected as far as charity?
Charity is an essential element in Islam and even more so during Ramadan. Zakat, which can be translated as "the poor rate" and is a mandatory Pillar of Islam, is the mandate to give a fixed percentage of one's savings to the poor. Sadaqa is voluntary charity above and beyond Zakat. In many Muslim countries, it is common to see people giving food to the poor and homeless, and to see large public areas for the poor to come and break their fasts.

What should non-Muslims living in Muslim countries know for Ramadan?
Non-Muslims living in or visiting Muslim countries during the Holy Month should be careful not to eat, drink, or smoke in the presence of Muslims throughout the daytime hours of fasting, as the law requires adherence to the fast in public. Non-Muslims have the choice to participate in Ramadan. In fact, many fast and even pray with their Muslim friends or family members. Non-Muslims are usually invited to participate in prayers and iftars. Non-Muslims who wish to show politeness to a Muslim who is fasting for Ramadan can use the greeting "Ramadan Mubarak" or "Ramadan Kareem," which means "Have a blessed or generous Ramadan."

How and when does the fast begin and end?
Every day before dawn, Muslims have a pre-fast meal called suhoor. Then, after Fajr, the first prayer of the day, the fast begins. At sunset, the fast-breaking meal, named iftar, begins. Based on the high diversity of the Muslim population around the world, it is difficult to describe a standard suhoor or iftar meal. Suhoor may consist of leftovers from the iftar, typical breakfast foods, or ethnic foods.

At iftar, dates are usually the first food consumed to break the fast at the call for Maghrib prayer; according to Sunnah tradition, Prophet Muhammad broke his fast with three dates. After that, the main meal is served. An iftar is typically buffet style and traditional dishes are often served, including desserts like kataayif, which is traditionally made only during Ramadan. Water, juice, and milk are usually the beverages of choice.

How and when does Ramadan end?
The end of Ramadan is marked by a holiday named Eid ul-Fitr, which takes place either 29 or 30 days after Ramadan begins (when the new moon is sighted). During Eid, Muslims celebrate by spending time with their families and loved ones, exchanging gifts, and having a big meal during the day. During this time, they must contribute a certain amount to charity, called zakatul fitr, so that the poor can also celebrate the breaking of the fast. In addition, Eid ul-Fitr is considered a time of reverence. Muslims praise Allah for helping them get through the month and ask for forgiveness for any sins.