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Ramadhan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, believed by Muslims to be the holiest month of the entire year. Its reverence signifies the revelation of the Holy Qur'an to Prophet Muhammad. During this month, Muslims throughout the world fast from dawn until dusk. The word Ramadhan comes from the Arabic root word ramida or ar-ramad, which means 'intense heat and dryness'. It is a fitting name for the month in which Muslims endure the heat of hunger and thirst.
Ramadhan begins with the sighting of the new moon and ends when the first crescent of the next new moon rises, declaring the start of a new month called Shawwal. The first day of Shawwal is marked by a joyous celebration called Eid ul-Fitr, meaning 'Festival of Breaking Fast'. This festival starts off with special congregational prayers in mosques or Islamic centers, followed by hearty feasts and socializing.
There are a few important things that Muslims observe during Ramadhan:
1. Fasting. The act of abstaining from food, drink and sexual intercourse is so prevalent during the month that people often misunderstand Ramadhan to mean fasting. Actually, the Arabic word for fasting is sawm. Fasting begins with suhoor, which is a light meal or snack at dawn, and ends with iftar or breaking fast, a full meal just after sunset.
Fasting is two-faceted, involving the physical and spiritual aspects of Islam. Physically, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking or having any form of sexual contact from sunrise until sunset. Spiritually, Muslims refrain from negative habits, such as gossipping, cursing, lying and badmouthing others. Additionally, Muslims avoid obscene sights and sounds.
Fasting strips away the distraction of worldly pleasures and enables Muslims to concentrate on inner reflection and heightened purity of thought and action. Ramadhan is the month to pray, perform good deeds and pass time with family and friends. It is also a time to remember the poor and how they suffer to get even one meal per day. In fact, at the end of Ramadhan, Muslims are encouraged to give fitra, a sufficient amount of charity to feed one person for a day.
Muslims who find fasting a problem are not obliged to perform the one-month fast during Ramadhan. The elderly, very young children and sickly people are exempted from fasting. Those who have a temporary condition that prevents them from fasting are required to make up for any missed days after Ramadhan. If their condition is permanent or extended for a long period of time, they can provide charity to feed a needy person for each day missed.
2. Laylat al-Qadr. Also known as the Night of (Will) Destiny, this is the holiest night during Ramadhan. It is the night when the Holy Qur'an was first revealed by God to Prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. Although the exact night remains a mystery, it is believed to be one of the last ten nights of Ramadhan, particularly the odd-numbered nights between the 21st and the 29th.
Muslims are encouraged to seek this night through ardent prayer. The Holy Qur'an has provided that prayers on this single night are better than prayers of a thousand months. Seekers of this night will be blessed manifold, whereby all of their sins will be erased as though they were reborn.
3. Tarawih prayers. Consisting of eight to twenty raka'ah, the Islamic units of prayer, these optional prayers are performed every night during Ramadhan. Tarawih prayers can be performed congregationally at the mosque or individually at home. At the mosque, the entire Holy Qur'an is recited for these prayers. The 114 chapters of the holy book have been conveniently divided into 30 equal sections, one for each night of Ramadhan.
Ramadhan is an opportunity for Muslims to cultivate a raised awareness of God the Almighty. It is a month of spiritual cleansing and reflection on past actions and a time for Muslims to think about their religious future. During this time, Muslims come together with a single objective: to serve God in accordance with His instructions and the practice of His messengers.