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A lantern known as a 'fanoos' in front of a crescent moon

Everything you need to know about Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month

For followers of Islam, Ramadan is a time of heightened worship, reflection, charitable donations and fasting. It culminates in the full-on festivities of Eid-al-Fitr, an official holiday which can last up to three days.


The holy month of Ramadan is a time of contemplation, celebration and spiritual renewal for Muslims around the globe. Here’s everything you need to know about the event and what it means to more than a quarter of the world’s population.

Ramadan commemorates a divine revelation

Muslims believe that it was during the month of Ramadan that the Prophet Muhammad received the first verses of the Quran, the central text of Islam. This monumental event took place in the year 610 CE in the cave of Hira – a small hollow within a mountain called Jabal al-Nour in today’s Saudi Arabia.

It was while he was engaged in deep contemplation within this isolated place that Muhammad was visited by the Angel Jibril (known as Gabriel in Christian tradition), who revealed the words of the Quran to the prophet for the first time.

The exact date of this event – which is known as ‘Laylat al-Qadr', or the ‘Night of Power’ – isn’t known for sure, but it is believed to have been one of the odd-numbered nights of the last 10 days of Ramadan. Many Muslims believe the 27th to be the Night of Power, but the ambiguity and uncertainty mean that all 10 days and nights are especially revered.

Ramadan moves each year

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, but you may have noticed that it commences on a different date each year. That’s because the Islamic calendar, which is based on lunar cycles, is around 11 days shorter than the solar-based Gregorian calendar.

As a result, Ramadan begins a little earlier each year, eventually covering all dates on the calendar. While the approximate date of Ramadan’s commencement is always known, its precise start is determined by the sighting of the new moon. However, this can be a matter of some debate and controversy.

Different individuals and communities follow their own protocols when it comes to determining when the new moon is officially ‘there’. Some may go by scientific, astronomical calculations, while others may wait for the decrees of local imams or various moon-sighting committees around the world. It can be the case that members of the same community, or even the same family, abide by different start dates, depending on whose authority they follow.

Fasting is a core component of Ramadan

Ramadan is a time of heightened worship, reflection, charitable donations and abstinence from sexual activities. It’s also, most famously, a period of fasting.

Some Muslims are not obliged to fast – for example, pre-pubescent children, the elderly, the sick, those who are pregnant, breast-feeding or menstruating, and those who are travelling. However, the vast majority of the faithful will eat and drink absolutely nothing from dawn to dusk, in order to emphasise self-control and discipline, feel empathy for the less fortunate, and have a heightened sense of connection with the divine.

During Ramadan, Muslims will wake up just before dawn to have a meal known as ‘suhoor’. This is the food that will sustain the fasting person for the entire day, so it’s generally recommended that the suhoor should contain slow-release carbohydrates and protein.

Nothing is then consumed until ‘iftar’, the meal which breaks the fast at sunset. Each iftar is often a big and bustling event – a chance to gather with friends, family, and members of the local community.

Some Ramadans are easier than others

It takes just over three decades for Ramadan to cycle through an entire solar year, encompassing every season along the way. As you can imagine, observing Ramadan can be a very different experience depending on what time of year it is.

Fasting tends to be particularly challenging when Ramadan falls in the height of summer, with the protracted daylight hours meaning that Muslims must go without food and drink for that much longer (plus, not being able to sip water on hot, sticky days can be tough). By contrast, a Ramadan taking place in the depths of winter is an easier proposition, with shorter fasts and less wastage of precious bodily moisture through perspiration.

What about Muslim communities in polar regions, where hours of daylight and darkness can sprawl right around the clock? They will typically adhere to the fasting times of the nearest feasible city with a Muslim population, or follow the times which apply in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. To take just one example, many Muslims living in the subarctic Canadian city of Yellowknife follow the timetable of Edmonton, Alberta.

It culminates in a major celebration

Ramadan is a time of serious spiritual contemplation, but it’s also a lot of fun. The nightly iftar feasts can be parties in their own right, while the whole period of Ramadan culminates in the full-on festivities of Eid-al-Fitr, an official holiday which can last up to three days.

All the restraint of the Ramadan period gives way to sheer indulgence during the Eid celebrations. Those with the means will wear brand-new clothes, homes are festooned with decorations, and there is much feasting, gift-giving and merry-making.

Unsurprisingly, Eid-al-Fitr is often described as the Islamic equivalent of Christmas, and the two iconic holidays will coincide in 2033. This may be a way off yet, but this ultimate crossover event is already generating memes and excited comments on social media. It’ll certainly be a party season to remember.