(The following is a post by Muhannad Salhi, Arab World Specialist, Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.)
With Muslims constituting roughly a quarter of the world’s population, almost every nation on earth has become familiar, in one way or another, with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. To Muslims, the month of Ramadan can be compared to that of a visitor: a close relative or a dear family friend who visits every single year; one whom you have grown up seeing and whose visit you expect at a certain time of the year. And, when, with the coming of the new moon, this “visitor” arrives, your whole world will be turned upside down, your night becoming day, and your day becoming night, and for an entire month the atmosphere is imbued with the holy aura of this beloved “guest.”
What then is Ramadan, what is its significance, and how is it observed? The month of Ramadan is the holiest month in Islam, indeed, the only month mentioned in the Qur’an (2:185), the Muslim holy book. It was during this month, when meditating in a cave called Ghar Hira’ in the mountain of Jabal al-Nur in the Arabian Peninsula, that the Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation through the medium of the Archangel Gabriel, and thus the religion of Islam was born. According to the Five Pillars of Islam, which form the basis of the Muslim faith, it is incumbent on all Muslims to observe the fast during the holy month. This entails abstaining from all food, drink, smoking, sexual activity and by extension, any thoughts and actions that pollute the mind and soul, from sunrise to sunset. After breaking the fast, the nights are filled with prayer, meditation, and reflection, in addition to activities such as socializing. Special lanterns, decorations, games, riddles, and other pastimes have come to characterize this holy month. Ramadan may be a month of fasting and prayer, but it is also a month of charity, social activity, and of families eagerly gathering around the television to watch this year’s latest Ramadan television series.
As with any spiritual practice, one gets out of Ramadan as much as one is willing to put into it. Hence, if one focuses primarily on abstaining from food and drink, it could be said that one improves one’s self-discipline in that regard. If one also seeks to control one’s mind, thoughts, and emotions as a part of the fast, then one attains an even higher level of discipline and purification. The more you interact with the “guest,” the more you learn and the deeper your relationship becomes. Every night, following the evening prayers, the nights are filled with special prayers known as tarawih. Mosques are packed with people eager to spend more time in prayer and contemplation in this special Ramadan ritual. Traditionally, right before day break, a man beating a drum known as the musaharati, wanders the streets awakening the faithful to have one last light meal (known as suhur) before the dawn prayer and the onset of the daily fast.
For children, Ramadan indeed holds a special place as nights become simply magical; filled with stories and play, everyone can go out at night, where there are so many lights, sounds, and activities going on. Day becomes night, and night becomes day, and parents too worn out by the daily fast tend to become laxer in enforcing their usual strict discipline. The holy month ends with the coming of the new moon, and once again, the visitor leaves the faithful for another year. Our “guest’s” departure is hardly a quiet one, however. It culminates in a three-day celebration known as ‘Id al-Fitr, full of festivities, social activities, food and drink. Children receive new clothes, gifts, money, but are also burdened with having to visit numerous relatives they only see on such occasions.
As with the departure of all guests near and dear, the end of Ramadan is met with a combination of secret relief and sorrow, saddened that the long awaited visit has come to an end, yet consoled by the fact that the guest will return again next year.
 Islam follows a lunar calendar, so the month begins with the new moon.
 The Five Pillars of Islam include: the shahadatayn (two testimonies): there is only one God and Muhammad is His Messenger; prayer; fasting; charity; and pilgrimage to Mecca for those who are able to do so.
 Exceptions are made for children, the elderly, the sick, those who are travelling, those who fighting in a war or are in similarly dire circumstances are hence unable to bear the burden of fasting.