Millions of Muslims around the world mark the start of Ramadan on Thursday, a month of intense prayer, dawn-to-dusk fasting and nightly feasts. Here's a look at some questions and answers about Islam's holiest month:
Why do Muslims fast?
The fast is intended to bring the faithful closer to God and to remind them of the suffering of those less fortunate. Muslims often donate to charities during the month and feed the hungry.
Fasting is an exercise in self-restraint. It's seen as a way to physically and spiritually detoxify by kicking impulses like morning coffee, smoking and midday snacking.
Ramadan is a time to detach from worldly pleasures and focus on one's prayers. Many Muslims dress more conservatively during Ramadan and spend more time at the mosque than at any other time of the year.
Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, along with the Muslim declaration of faith, daily prayer, charity, and performing the hajj pilgrimage in Mecca.
How do Muslims fast?
Observant Muslims abstain from eating and drinking from dawn to dusk for the entire month of Ramadan, with a single sip of water or a puff of a cigarette considered enough to invalidate the fast.
Muslim scholars say it's not enough to just avoid food and drinks during the day, though. Spouses must abstain from sexual intercourse during the day, and Muslims should not engage in road rage, cursing, fighting or gossiping.
Muslims are also encouraged to observe the five daily prayers on time and to use their downtime just before breaking their fast at sunset to recite Quran and intensify remembrance of God.
To prepare for the fast, Muslims eat what is commonly called "suhoor," a pre-dawn meal of power foods to get them through the day.
How do Muslims break their fast?
Muslims traditionally break their fast like the Prophet Muhammad did some 1,400 years ago, with a sip of water and some dates at sunset. That first sip of water is by far the most anticipated moment of the day.
After a sunset prayer, a large feast known as "iftar" is shared with family and friends. Iftar is a social event as much as it is a gastronomical adventure. Across the Arab world, juices made from apricots are a staple at Ramadan iftars. In South Asia and Turkey, yogurt-based drinks are popular.
Across the Muslim world, mosques and aid organizations set up tents and tables for the public to eat free iftar meals every night of Ramadan.
Can Muslims be exempted from fasting?
Yes. There are exceptions for children, the elderly, the sick, women who are pregnant or menstruating and people traveling, which could include athletes during tournaments.
Many Muslims, particularly those who live in the U.S. and Europe, are accepting and welcoming of others around them who are not observing Ramadan. They also are not expecting shorter work hours, as is the case in the public sector across much of the Arab world during Ramadan.
Meanwhile, minority Chinese Uighur Muslims complain of heavy restrictions by the Communist Party, such as bans on fasting by party members, civil servants, teachers and students during Ramadan, as well as generally enforced bans on children attending mosques, women wearing veils and young men growing beards.
Uighur rights groups say Chinese oppression of Muslims in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, a province with a large Muslim population, is on the increase, especially during Ramadan. Public servants are banned from attending Ramadan iftar meals. According to local sources, if Muslims break the rule, they face the risk of losing their jobs. Officials force Muslim-run restaurants to remain open all day during Ramadan.
"China's goal in prohibiting fasting is to forcibly move Uighurs away from their Muslim culture during Ramadan. Policies that prohibit religious fasting is a provocation and will only lead to instability and conflict," spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress, Dilxat Rexit, said, according to a news report by Cihangir Yıldırım. Exiled Uighur groups and human rights activists say the Chinese government's repressive policies in Xinjiang, including restrictions on religious practices, have provoked unrest, allegations Beijing denies, Yıldırım states.
What are some Ramadan traditions?
Typically, the start of the month is welcomed with greetings such as "Ramadan mubarak!" Another hallmark of Ramadan is nightly prayer at the mosque among Sunni Muslims called "taraweeh."
In Egypt, a common sight during Ramadan is a lantern called the "fanoos," which is often the centerpiece at an iftar table and can be seen hanging in window shops and balconies.
In the Arabian Gulf countries, wealthy sheikhs hold "majlises" where they open their doors for people to pass by all hours of the night for food, tea, coffee and conversation.
In Turkey, an important annual tradition in Ramadan is to eat the traditional soft bread called Ramadan pide. It is one of the most important aspects of the iftar, or the meal breaking the day's fast. Made by bakeries during Ramadan time, it is a special type of flatbread with a unique aroma and flavor.
During Ramadan one can see and hear drummers circulating through the streets in the middle of the night in order to wake people up for their pre-dawn meal in preparation for the long day of fasting. The drummers tend to wake people up at around 2:30 or 3:00 a.m., which is usually an hour or so before the fast begins. However this tradition dating back to Ottoman times is now in danger of dying out as many prefer using their mobile phones or alarm clocks to wake up.
Increasingly common are Ramadan tents in five-star hotels that offer lavish and pricey meals from sunset to sunrise. While Ramadan is a boon for retailers in the Middle East and South Asia, critics say the holy month is increasingly becoming commercialized.
Scholars are also disturbed by the proliferation of evening television shows during Ramadan. In Pakistan, live game shows give away gifts promoting their sponsors. In the Arab world, monthlong soap operas starring Egypt's top actors rake in millions of dollars in advertising.
How do Muslims mark the end of Ramadan?
The end of Ramadan is marked by intense worship as Muslims seek to have their prayers answered during "Laylat al-Qadr" or "the Night of Destiny." It is on this night, which falls during the last 10 nights of Ramadan, that Muslims believe that God sent the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad and revealed the first versus of the Quran.
Some devout Muslims go into reclusion those final days, spending all of their time in the mosque.
The end of Ramadan is celebrated by a three-day holiday called Eid al-Fitr. Children often receive new clothes, gifts and cash.
Muslims attend early morning Eid prayers the day after Ramadan. Families usually spend the day at parks and eating now during the day.
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