How Ramadan Works

By: Allison Klein  | 

children celebrate Ramadan
Children carry torches to celebrate the beginning of Ramadan, a time of fasting and prayer for Muslims. Oscar Siagian/Getty Images

Every year, more than one billion Muslims around the globe observe the importance of the month of Ramadan. This time of the year is a time for reflection, devotion to God, and self-control. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims show their devotion to God by fasting, or abstaining from food.

Many religions encourage some kind of fasting for religious purposes. For instance, Catholics give up meat for Lent and Jews fast during the holiday of Yom Kippur. For Muslims, fasting is a very important component of Islam. The benefits of fasting for Ramadan are numerous. The most important, though, is the idea that through the self-control of fasting one can pay special attention to his spiritual nature.


Ramadan is an important time for Muslims, not simply because it helps develop a closer relationship with God, but also because Ramadan is a time to think about those who are less fortunate. Another goal of fasting for Ramadan is to experience hunger in sympathy for those without food. It is a way that many Muslims learn thankfulness and appreciation for what they have.

In this article, we will examine the meaning of Ramadan, the tradition of fasting, how the time of Ramadan is determined, Eid al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan) and the benefits of observing the holiday.

What is Ramadan?

For Muslims, Ramadan is a month of blessing that includes prayer, fasting and charity.
For Muslims, Ramadan is a month of blessing that includes prayer, fasting and charity.
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Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Because Islam uses a lunar calendar, Ramadan begins and ends at a different time each year. The way the lunar calendar works is that the beginning of each month begins with the sighting of the new moon. The lunar calendar is about 11 days shorter than the solar calendar used in much of the Western world. To learn more about the various calendars of the past and present, see Calendar Zone.

The start of Ramadan each year is based on a combination of sightings of the moon and astronomical calculations. In the United States, many Muslims adhere to the decision of the Islamic Society of North America on the start of the holiday. The end of Ramadan is determined in a similar way.


The Meaning of Ramadan

For Muslims, Ramadan is a month of blessing that includes prayer, fasting and charity. The meaning of Ramadan goes back many centuries, to about 610 A.D. It was at this time, during the ninth month of the lunar calendar, that Muslims believe God, or Allah, revealed the first verses of the Qu'ran, the holy book of Islam.

According to Islam, a caravan trader named Mohammed was walking in the desert near Mecca. This occurred in what is now Saudi Arabia. One night a voice called to him from the sky. It was the angel, Gabriel, who told Mohammed he had been chosen to receive the word of Allah. In the days after, Mohammed began speaking the verses that would be transcribed as the Qu'ran.

At many mosques, during Ramadan, verses from the Qu'ran are recited each night. The prayers are known as tarawih. By the end of Ramadan, the complete scripture has been recited. Ramadan is a time when Muslims can connect with the teachings of the Qu'ran.

The main component of Ramadan is the fast. In the next section, we'll find out how Muslims practice the fast of Ramadan and the significance of the fast to the Islamic faith.

How is Ramadan Celebrated?

a man eating dates
A man offers dates brought from Saudi Arabia at a mosque on the first day of Ramadan in Kabul, Afghanistan.
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During Ramadan, Muslims practice sawm, or fasting. Of course, no one is required to fast for an entire month. The practice of fasting during Ramadan means that Muslims may not eat or drink anything including water while the sun is shining. Fasting is one of the five pillars or duties of Islam. As with most other religious practices in Islam, Muslims participate in the fast from the age of 12.

One of the most important aspects of the Ramadan fast is called niyyah. Niyyah literally means "intention." Muslims must not simply or accidentally abstain from food; they must achieve the requirement of niyyah. To achieve this requirement, a Muslim must "intend in heart that [the fast] is meant to be a worship for Allah alone." So, if someone fasts for political or dietary reasons, he would not achieve niyyah. In fact, according to scripture, "Whoever does not make niyyah before dawn, would not have fasted." The determination to fast is equal in importance to the fast itself.


In much of the Muslim world, restaurants are closed during the daylight hours of Ramadan. Families wake up early, before the sun rises, and eat a meal called sohour. After the sun sets, the fast is broken with a meal called iftar. Iftar often begins with eating dates and sweet drinks to give fasting Muslims a quick energy boost, and it is a rich meal. It can include any type of food, but the dessert almost always includes konafa or qattayef. Konafa is a cake made of wheat, sugar, honey, raisins and nuts. Qatayef is a similar cake, but it is smaller and is folded to encase the nuts and raisins. In between the two meals, the night-time iftar and the pre-dawn sohour, Muslims can eat freely.

Fasting is so important to Muslims for a number of reasons. First, when you are not paying attention to your mortal needs such as food, you may be able to become more in tune with God and your spiritual side. Also, the fast serves to remind Muslims of the suffering of the poor. This idea reinforces the importance of charity during Ramadan.

Fasting gives Muslims an opportunity to practice self-control and cleanse the body and mind. Many cultures and religions use fasting for this purpose. During Ramadan, fasting helps Muslims with their spiritual devotion as well as in developing a feeling of kinship with other Muslims.

As the history goes, Ramadan is the month in which Allah contacted the prophet, Mohammed, to give him the verses of the holy book, or Qu'ran. As such, praying during Ramadan is especially important. Muslims say nightly prayers whether it is Ramadan or not, but the taraweeh, or Ramadan nightly prayer, carries additional weight.

According to scripture, "Whoever observes night prayer in Ramadan as an expression of his faith and to seek reward from Allah, his previous sins will be blotted out." Thus, the Ramadan nightly prayer, after a day of fasting, serves the purpose of eradicating the sins that have been previously committed. In this way, the nightly prayer is an important element of the rituals of Ramadan.

At the end of Ramadan and before the breaking of the fast, Muslims say takbeer. The takbeer is a statement indicating there is nothing in the world that is bigger or greater than Allah. Takbeer is always said when a Muslim completes an important task, as in the completion of the fast of Ramadan.

Translated, the takbeer exclaims, "Allah is the Greatest, Allah is the Greatest. There is no deity worthy of worship but Allah, and Allah is greatest. Allah is the Greatest and all praise is due to Allah." It is recommended that men say the takbeer out loud and women say it silently. Takbeer is a sign that the festivities of Eid Al-Fitr have begun. It is a joyful statement of faith and accomplishment.

Eid al-Fitr

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Ramadan is considered the most joyful month of the year, and the month ends with the greatest celebration of all, the breaking of the fast, Eid al-Fitr. Around the world, Muslims celebrate with lights and decorations. In Egypt, "fanoos" -- lanterns made of tin and colored glass -- decorate streets and mosques. In the past, children played with the lanterns in the streets. In many areas, the current age of cars makes this unsafe, but the tradition is still practiced in homes and at Eid al-Fitr gatherings.

During the celebration, people dress in their finest clothes, decorate their homes with lights, give treats to the children and visit with friends and family. According to many, a sense of generosity and gratitude are a major part of Eid al-Fitr. Charity and doing good deeds is a very important part of Ramadan. The month will often consist of Muslims helping to feed the poor and making contributions to their mosques.When Muslims end the month of fasting, they are left with the many benefits that Ramadan leaves behind. According to Muslim tradition, Ramadan:


Muslims bowing in prayer
Muslims bowing in prayer
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  • strengthens one's ties with Allah and trains the soul to observe duties of devotion in accordance with the teachings of the Qur'an.
  • enforces patience and determination.
  • promotes the principle of sincerity by keeping the individual away from arrogance and showing off.
  • promotes good character, particularly truthfulness and trustworthiness.
  • encourages the individual to do away with bad habits and change his or her circumstances for the better.
  • enhances generosity, hospitality and giving to charity.
  • reinforces feelings of unity and brotherhood among Muslims.
  • instills orderliness and observance of the value of time.
  • serves as an opportunity for children to perform acts of obedience and to practice Islamic acts of worship.
  • offers the chance to balance one's attention to both physical and spiritual needs.

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims gain more than a cleansing of the body and mind. Muslims feel that they are doing the work of getting closer to Allah through prayer, and are becoming more compassionate people by experiencing hunger, learning about the suffering of the poor. The fast of Ramadan is a central experience in the Islamic religion.

To learn more about Ramadan, the rituals and history, and about Islam in general, check out the links on the next page.

Originally Published: Oct 21, 2003