The history of Ramadan

The Crescent Moon
The start of Ramadan is signalled by a glimpse of the crescent moon

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. While it is synonymous, in the minds of non-Muslims, with the practice of fasting from daybreak to sunset, the period also calls for spiritual contemplation, acts of charity and self-reflection among the billions of Muslims across the globe. The faithful believe that it was during this month that the Qu’ran was first revealed to the Prophet Mohammed, laying the foundations of one of the world’s great monotheistic religions.

The Islamic calendar is a lunar one, unlike the solar Gregorian calendar. And, as it’s based on cycles of the moon, Ramadan commences around eleven days earlier every year. The name comes from an Arabic root word that refers to intense, scorching heat. While the first Ramadan is believed to have taken place at a hot time of the year, some Islamic authorities suggest that the name refers to the purifying effects of virtuous deeds on people’s sinful lives.

By linking religious observation to the marking of time in the year, Ramadan serves to anchor sacred practices in the ordinary lives of Muslims worldwide. For this reason, despite the physical demands of this period, it has traditionally seen as a time of joy and renewal. While the daytime is given to fasting, friends and family come together at sundown to celebrate iftar, the first meal of the day, in a celebratory atmosphere. The fast, or sawm, is one of the Five Pillars of the Muslim faith, the others being prayer, social responsibility, testifying to the faith, and the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

The roots of this annual observance go back to 610, when the Prophet Muhammad went into seclusion in the Hira Cave on Mount Jabal al-Nour, near Mecca. Here, he was visited by the archangel Jibril, known as Gabriel in Judeo-Christian traditions.

The first night of revelation is known as Laylat al-Qadr, which is variously translated as the Night of Power and Night of Destiny. This is when God’s message was first revealed to the Prophet through Jibril. The revelation marked out Mohammed as the Messenger of Allah, as he was entrusted with communicating God’s words to the people. It is believed to have taken place on one of the final ten days of Ramadan. Consequently, these final ten days are considered to be especially blessed and holy.

As Islam gained in popularity and influence, those who were opposed to the fledgling religion turned to violence, eventually causing Muhammad and his followers to flee from persecution in Mecca to the city of Medina in 622. It was in the second year after the move to Medina that observance of Ramadan became a central tenet of the Muslim faith.

The decisive Battle of Badr helped to establish the new religion, and it took place in 624, on the 17th day of the month of Ramadan. Badr is located some miles from Medina, near the Saudi Arabian coast, and it was here that Muhammad’s Muslim troops found themselves outnumbered three to one by their enemies, an Arab tribe called the Quraysh. As the Qu’ran has it, heavenly forces in the form of thousands of angels came to their aid. Following his victory, the Prophet was merciful to his Qurayshi prisoners of war, sparing their lives.

A number of other famous military adventures would take place during the month of Ramadan. Six years after the Prophet’s triumph at Badr, Muhammad and thousands of his followers entered the city of Mecca, conquering it and destroying the pagan idols that they found there. This marked the culmination of the conflict against the Quraysh, and was a seminal moment in the early era of Islam.

Many centuries after the Prophet’s death in 632, Muslim forces led by the legendary sultan and military genius Saladin overcame Christian Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin during the month of Ramadan in 1187. His overwhelming victory paved the way for the toppling of Crusader power in the region, and the Muslim re-taking of Jerusalem. Another landmark moment in the history of Ramadan came in the form of the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260. This saw Mamluk forces led by Sultan Saif Al-Din Qutuz finally able to beat back the advance of the Mongol Empire across the Middle East.

Nowadays, Ramadan is again a time of peace, with the rigors of the fasting period culminating in the unbridled joy of Eid Al-Fitr, a celebratory period where Muslims visit family and friends, exchange gifts and indulge in delicious sweet treats. Eid Al-Fitr is signalled by the sighting of the new moon, just as the start of Ramadan is signalled by a glimpse of the crescent moon. As the Sufi mystic Rumi once wrote, 'O moon-faced Beloved, the month of Ramadan has arrived. Cover the table and open the path of praise.'