All about Ramadan, a time of self-control and surrender to God

Ramadan. Every year, more than one billion people around the globe battle basic human desires for food, drink and sex by abstaining from these from sunrise till sunset, in a practice known as fasting. For Muslims, it is the time of year for reflection, devotion to God and self-control.

Ramadan is a holy month in the Islamic calendar and the fast of Ramadan is a central experience in the Islamic religion. As history goes, it is the month in which God (Allah) contacted Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) to give him the first verses of the holy book, or the Qura'an.

Fasting is one of the five pillars - fundamental beliefs - of Islam, and thus, an obligation for all Muslim men and women. It is compulsory for those who are mentally and physically fit, past the age of puberty, in a settled situation (not travelling), and are certain that fasting is unlikely to cause real physical or mental injury.

Those who cannot fast during Ramadan, due to health reasons for instance, may fast in other months of the same Islamic calendar year, or contribute to the poor.

"What a lot of people don't realise though, is that merely abstinence from food and drink does not complete your fast. There's much more to the month of Ramadan," says Riyaz Ansary, teacher and translator at the New Muslim Centre, Sharjah.

"A simple example is that a true believer does not lie - under any circumstances, and not just during the month of Ramadan. The telling of a lie can destroy the good that is acquired through the fast. So does slander, backbiting, a false oath, greed, covetousness or any other vice that the religion has prohibited."

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Because Islam uses the lunar calendar, Ramadan begins and ends at a different time each year. The start is based on the sighting of the new moon, and the end is determined in the same way.

Why fast during the month of Ramadan?

"Simply because that's the month Allah ordained His servants to fast. Perhaps the revelation of the Holy Qura'an during the month has some link to it," says Ansary.

The revelations from God to the Prophet Mohammad that would eventually be compiled as the Holy Qura'an began during Ramadan in the year 610, but the fast of Ramadan did not become a religious obligation for Muslims until the year 624.

One of the most important aspects of the Ramadan fast is the intention to fast. Muslims must not simply or accidentally abstain from food; they must intend in their hearts that the fast be meant to be worship for Allah alone.

In much of the Islamic world, including in the UAE, most restaurants are closed during the day. Working and school hours are cut short, and non-Muslims are encouraged to respect the people who fast by not consuming food and drink in public during the daytime.

For the Muslim, the fast begins at dawn. Families wake up before the sun rises, and eat a light meal called Suhoor. After the sun sets, the fast is broken with a meal called Iftar.

Iftar universally begins with eating dates and drinking water following the practice of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). The meal that follows differs with each nationality - from simple salads to a filling biryani.

Charity and doing good deeds are an integral part of Ramadan. The month will often consist of Muslims helping to feed the poor and making contributions to their mosques. In Islam there's a strong encouragement in the form of reward for people who provide food for others to break their fast.

Muslims also gather and pray together during Ramadan. The nightly prayer, called Tarawih is an important element of the rituals of this month.

During this month, believers try to read as much of the Holy Qura'an as they can. Some spend part of their day listening to the recitation of the Holy Qura'an in a mosque. The last 10 days of Ramadan are a time of even greater devotion, with some spending the entire time in a mosque.

Why fast?

Many religions encourage some kind of fasting for religious purposes. For instance, Catholics give up meat for Lent. For Muslims, fasting is an important component of Islam.

"Fasting is 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," says Ansary.

"Also, the fast serves to remind Muslims of the suffering of the poor. This idea enhances generosity, hospitality, giving, and reinforces feelings of unity and brotherhood among Muslims. It is a way that we learn thankfulness and appreciation for what we have.

"And fasting gives Muslims an opportunity to cleanse the body and mind; it enforces patience and determination and promotes the principle of sincerity by keeping the individual away from arrogance and showing off.

"It also encourages the individual to do away with bad habits and change his or her circumstances for the better and instills orderliness and observance of the value of time," says Ansary.

"And perhaps the greatest practical benefit is the yearly lesson in self-restraint and discipline that can carry forward to other aspects of a person's life such as work and education."

Finally, after a month of battle against human desires, the festival of Eid Al Fitr is celebrated, and Muslims open their houses and provide visitors - friends, families, even strangers - with hospitality, food and drink.

Fast facts
* Pre-pubescent children, people who are mentally incapacitated or not responsible for their actions, the elderly, the sick, travellers, soldiers on the battle field, menstruating women, pregnant women and nursing mothers are exempted from fasting. Those who are temporarily unable to fast must make up the missed days at another time, or feed the poor.

* The first verse of the Holy Qura'an was revealed through the angel Jibreal (Gabriel) in this month.

* Smoking (including sheesha) is prohibited during this month.

* Ramadan begins on a different day each year because the Islamic calendar is based on lunar months. Therefore Ramadan begins about 11 days earlier each year. Throughout a Muslim's lifetime, Ramadan will fall both during winter months, when the days are short, and summer months, when the days are long and the fast is more difficult. In this way, the difficulty of the fast is evenly distributed between Muslims living in the northern and southern hemispheres.

* People living in a place where there is constant daylight or night, break their fast according to the nearest locality with clearly defined day and night.