By Michael Munnik and Carool Kersten
Ramadan is a holy month of fasting in the Islamic calendar, when many Muslims will not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset
How did Ramadan begin?
Muslims have fasted since 624, two years after the Prophet Muhammad had migrated from his native city of Mecca to the northern oasis of Medina, both in what is now Saudi Arabia. The precedent was set by the Prophet’s encouragement of his followers to share food with growing numbers of poor new followers.
For this reason, the month of Ramadan is closely associated with charitable donations; another annual obligation under the Five Pillars of Islam known as zakat, under which Muslims must donate 2.5 per cent of their annual income as alms to the needy and those “expending on the way of Allah”.
The sacredness of the month of Ramadan is further enhanced, because, according to tradition, it was in this same month that the Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation in 610, during the so-called Laylat al-Qadr or Night of Power. The exact day is disputed.
When is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic Hijri calendar. This is dated to the hijra, or migration of the first Muslims from Mecca to Medina, in 622 (Gregorian calendar).
The Hijri calendar orders the religious activity of Muslims, but because of globalisation and trade, Muslim-majority countries apply the Gregorian calendar for much of their civic life. Planes, trains and investment deals are arranged by the same calendar as Britain, France, the United States and pretty much every country.
Since the calendar of devotional practices in Islam is organised according to the lunar cycle, it is not in sync with the Gregorian calendar. Therefore, the months do not fall at a fixed time every year. Therefore Ramadan’s dates in the Gregorian calendar move about year to year.
The event that marks the beginning of Ramadan is the sighting of the new moon, which mark the beginning of the month in the lunar-based calendar. The preference for physical sightings of the moon over almanacs and astronomical calculations is a matter of some dispute among Muslims. Adherents to certain traditions insist on following their own trusted source, and, again because of globalisation, this can mean that Muslims in the diaspora mark Ramadan at different times. Communities within Glasgow, Leicester or Cardiff may begin their fast the day after or the day before, depending on whose observations they follow.
The institution of fasting began in a region closer to the equator, with less differentiation of sunrise and sunset over the course of the year. For Muslims living in more extreme northern and southern latitudes, the length of the day can vary widely. Ramadan’s occurrence in June and July of 2016 meant exceptionally long fasts, especially for Muslims in the north of Scotland.
What kind of fast is it?
Muslims are religiously obliged to fast during daylight hours in Ramadan. This means no food or drink, including water, no sexual activity and no smoking.
The tradition includes some exemptions. Children are not obliged to fast, nor are the elderly and frail. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are exempt, as are women when they are menstruating. The ill are permitted to break the fast when they need to. Travellers are also exempt from fasting. In some of these cases, it is expected that Muslims will make up the missed fast days later, when it is not harmful or burdensome.
Though fasting is considered an obligation, it is also a choice that Muslims make. The sanctions described are religious — between the Muslim and God. The religious tradition is made up of people, however, and Muslims may feel social sanctions from members of their community as a consequence of not fasting. Journalists should avoid automatic assumptions about whether Muslims are or are not fasting, but it can be impolite to ask: “Are you fasting?”
Muslims begin their fast each day with a pre-dawn meal called suhur (also spelt suhoor and sehri). This is often in the early hours, and thus Ramadan usually disrupts normal sleeping patterns for an entire month.
Muslims break their fast each day at sundown. This meal is called iftar, and it is often eaten with others — family, or community members. The Prophet Muhammad was known to break his fast with dates, so many Muslims will start their iftar with a date. Mosques sometimes organise public iftars, and occasionally politicians and other civic leaders will turn up. These can be occasions for other activity, such as collecting charitable donations or gathering publicly for prayer. During Ramadan, Muslims include a lengthy additional prayer called tarawih. In the summer, this can continue until after midnight.
What are the issues or controversies around Ramadan?
Stories concerning Ramadan tend to fixate on the harmful effects of depriving the body. Fasting (sawm, in Arabic) is no longer typical behaviour in wider British society, and so the effects on the body and on the community from those who do deprive themselves is a deviation from the norm. Much scholarly research has been made into the health effects of fasting in Ramadan, the suggested link between fasting and violence, and public safety issues, such as traffic accidents.
Economics and British culture see this focus especially concerning professional sports. Muslim footballers are sometimes highlighted during Ramadan: will they fast, and will their fast damage their team’s fortunes? A cluster of studies also surfaced around the 2012 London Olympics, using the runner Mo Farah as a model for discussing Ramadan’s impact on elite athletic performance. Results of these studies are inconclusive, but it is worth keeping in mind that interpreting any results will probably depend on your attachment to the successful outcome of that team or individual.
Stories that emerge in the news media also focus on the impact of workplace dynamics and classroom performance during Ramadan fasting. When Ramadan occurs at the same times as A-level exams, for example, some groups demand guidance that balances religious obligations with the importance of doing well in these tests. What is important to remember in all of these studies is how Muslims interviewed about their fasting during Ramadan point to it as an obligation they are willing to manage.
We should avoid focusing exclusively on the mechanics of sawm. For Muslims, it’s not simply about giving up food and drink but slowing down their lives and focusing on spiritual matters — their relationship with God and with others. Muslims resolve to improve their actions and deepen their prayer life during Ramadan, with the hope of carrying those improvements forward through the year.
Ramadan is also marked by a concentration of charitable giving. Many Muslims choose to make their zakat, charitable donations, during Ramadan. Local, national and global charities will often set up specific Ramadan campaigns, capitalising on the spirit of giving that marks the season.
Dr Michael B Munnik is a lecturer in social science, theories and methods at the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK, Cardiff University. He says: “My thanks to colleagues at Cardiff University, whose comments helped improve this factsheet. I especially wish to acknowledge Laura Jones, a Jameel PhD scholar.”
Dr Carool Kersten is a reader in the study of Islam & the Muslim World at King’s College London.
Dr Carool Kersten, King’s College London
Dr Michael Munnik, Cardiff University
Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed, Cardiff University
Plessner, M., “Ramadan”, in: Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, Edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W. P. Heinric
C.C. Berg-[Ed.], “Ṣawm”, in: Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, Edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W. P. Heinrichs
“Ramadan in a day”, BBC My Ramadan webpage