The When, What and Why of Ramadan

The when, what and why of Ramadan

This month – between 27 May and 24 June – Muslims the world over commemorate the revelation of the Quran. Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, is a time of dawn-to-dusk fasting, spiritual reflection and religious observance for Muslims. 


Ramadan does not fall on the same dates every year because the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar – its months are determined by the cycles of the moon. A lunar year is 10 to 11 days shorter than the solar year of the Gregorian calendar, the most widely used calendar in the world. Because the lunar and solar calendars are not aligned, the month of Ramadan “migrates” through the Gregorian year.

Each month in the Islamic calendar starts with the sighting of the first crescent of a new moon. This year the new moon that marked the start of the Islam’s holiest month appeared on the eve of 27 May; the moon will conclude its cycle on 24 June 2017.

Many Muslims insist on sighting the moon locally instead of using the Umm al-Qura calendar of Saudi Arabia as a reference point. The imam and other members of moon sighting groups gather and search the skies for the luminescent sliver. Because the crescent moon is not visible simultaneously in all locations on the globe, Ramadan dates may vary between different countries, but usually not by more than a day.


During the month of Ramadan Muslims across the world commemorate the revelation of the Quran, the Muslim holy text, to the prophet Muhammad. Ramadan is a time of spiritual dedication during which able-bodied Muslims fast from dawn to dusk every day and engage in extra prayers.  Young children are generally exempt (although children may undertake a half-fast with their families); so are the elderly, pregnant women, those who are travelling and those who are ill.

Throughout Ramadan Muslims abstain from eating, drinking and sexual intercourse during the daylight hours.

When night falls, Ramadan becomes a time of communal feasting, called iftar. Iftar means “break fast”.  The daily fast is often broken by drinking water or consuming three dates in emulation of the prophet Muhammad. After this symbolic act Muslims from different parts of the world gather at home or in the mosques to enjoy a variety of traditional foods – jalebis in Pakistan, paneer in Iran and nonbu kanji in parts of India. Following iftar, a chapter of the holy Quran is read in congregation every night to remind the devout of the teachings of the holy book.

When the month of fasting is over, Muslims celebrate Eid ul-Fitr on the first day of Shawwal, the tenth month of the Islamic calendar. This year Eid falls on 25/26 June, depending on where the person lives.


Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. The other pillars are faith, prayer, charity and pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims believe that these religious practices demonstrate submission to God. The purpose of the fasting and prayer during Ramadan is to draw closer to Allah, to reflect on one’s spiritual health and to re-examine one’s conduct.

Muslims experience thirst, hunger and fatigue during the daylight fasting; the aim is to translate this physical discomfort into greater spiritual awareness and devotion.   Because the body is deprived, the spirit becomes more acutely aware of itself and its state.  During the fast physical appetites are tamed, self-restraint is practiced and the consciousness is primed to shift its focus from the carnal to the divine. The Quran uses the term taqwa – becoming aware of Allah, guarding oneself from evil and reflecting on the essence of piety.

Charity, the third pillar of Islam, also plays an important role in Ramadan observances.  Compulsory charitable sharing of food and wealth with those who are less fortunate is an important aspect of the spiritual commitment Muslims make during the holy month. The hunger they experience during the day reminds them of the plight of the poor, who have to survive on meagre rations all year round. Therefore, Muslims who can afford it share food with the needy or distribute it during the iftar evening meals.

Ramadan is an ancient religious observance. For centuries the sighting of the new moon in the night sky has inspired a greater spiritual connection with Allah, oneself and other people.