This Friday 26th May marks the start of the most widely held religious observance in the world, the month of Ramadan. Most people will be aware that this is the time when Muslims fast during daylight hours, but how much else do you know? Let’s take a closer look at Ramadan and how it is observed throughout the world.
The 9th month
Ramadan is the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, and is held to be the month in which the holy text of the Quran was revealed to the prophet Muhammad. Observance of Ramadan is considered one of the 5 pillars of Islam, and is therefore observed by almost all Muslims. This equates to the staggering figure of around 1.6 billion people worldwide, which is almost a quarter of the world’s population.
Observance of Ramadan is centred on self-discipline. This primarily manifests as fasting, which is obligatory for all Muslims, other than those who are ill, elderly, travelling, pregnant or breastfeeding. Fasting last from dawn until sunset and is more than simply not eating. Most Muslims abstain from consuming food, drinking liquids and smoking during daylight hours. Muslims are also encouraged to refrain on any other indulgent or sinful acts which may detract from the spiritual benefits attained as a reward for their fasting.
Generally Muslims also engage in increased levels of prayer and donations to charity during the month, often through charities such as Muslim Aid which facilitate Ramadan giving. The idea behind this is that charity, prayer, and recitation of the Quran that are carried out during Ramadan will have much more of a spiritual impact than at other times of the year.
Ramadan around the world
With Islam being practiced so widely around the world, customs relating to Ramadan can vary substantially depending on the country.
The countries that take Ramadan most seriously are naturally those with a majority Muslim population. In many Muslim countries, observance of the holy month is mandatory under law, and failing to follow the requirements, such as eating or smoking in the hours of daylight, can be considered minor criminal offences.
Generally, Muslims will continue to work during Ramadan. However in some Muslim countries working hours are shortened during the month to account for the extra physical and mental strain that the fasting has on people’s performance at work. In countries which do not have a predominantly Muslim population, Ramadan is usually worked as normal. Employees’ right to observe it is generally protected under legislation governing freedom of religion, and employers who do not respect this right may face discrimination claims.
Different countries also have different ways of celebrating Ramadan. In some countries, such as Egypt, it is common to see streets and other public places festooned with lights or lanterns – a tradition reputedly dating back to the early middle ages. Indonesia, being the country with the largest number of Muslims in the world, has many Ramadan traditions. These include, on the island of Java, where people bathe in holy springs to prepare themselves for fasting. In the capital city of Jakarta, firecrackers have been used to wake people up for morning prayer, although this tradition has largely died out in the last hundred or so years.
Ramadan near the poles
The observance of Ramadan is always a challenge, but never more so than in Polar Regions. Muslims that live in countries within or close to the Arctic Circle are faced with the fact that during the summer, which is when Ramadan takes place, daylight hours can last in excess of 22 hours. Obviously this is a very long time for anyone to fast, particularly to refrain from drinking any liquids. Whilst some Muslims do still observe the daylight rule, most prefer one of 2 alternatives. Many people choose to observe fasting for the same number of daylight hours as Mecca time, which is usually somewhere around 11. Alternatively, people also choose to follow the fasting hours observed by the nearest city outside the Arctic Circle.
Ramadan is easily the most important month in the Islamic calendar, and many Muslims will consider it to be the high point of their year. For a period so widely celebrated and of such spiritual significance, it is easy to see why.