What is Ramadan about?
Under Pakistan's Ehtram-e-Ramazan Ordinance, 1981, it is illegal for Muslims to eat or drink in public during daylight hours in Ramadan, though the heatstroke crisis in which 309 people lost their lives, prompted some clerics to advise people they should stop fasting if their health is at risk.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The term Ramadan literally means scorching in Arabic - because it falls in the middle of summer. It was established as a Holy Month for Muslims after the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in 610 CE on the occasion known as Laylat al-Qadr, frequently translated as “the Night of Power.
Because the cycle of the lunar calendar does not match the solar calendar, the dates of Ramadan shifts by approximately 11 days each year.
This year it will begin the evening of Friday, May 26 and end Saturday, June 24. In Britain, it falls during the same time as the General Election. It's dictated by the lunar cycle, particularly the crescent moon.
The ending of Ramadan is marked by the holiday of Eid ul-Fitr, which takes place either 29 or 30 days after the beginning of the month. On Eid ul-Fitr, morning prayers are followed by feasting and celebration among family and friends.
During the month of Ramadan, most Muslims fast from dawn to sunset with no food or water. Before sunrise many Muslims have the Suhur or predawn meal. At sunset families and friends gather for Iftar which is the meal eaten by Muslims to break the fast. Many Muslims begin the meal by eating dates as the Prophet used to do.
This ritual fast known as, Sawm, is one of the five pillars of Islam, and requires that individuals abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual intercourse.
Muslims believe that during this month the gates of hell close — meaning the devil is unable to tempt them during a month of discipline, charity and self-control. The objective of the fast, which also prohibits participating in "sensual pleasures" such as smoking and even listening to music during daylight hours, is to diminish believers' dependence on material goods, purify their hearts and establish solidarity with the poor to encourage charitable works during the year. It's as much a period of self-growth as of self-denial: Muhammad reportedly said, "He who does not abandon falsehood in word and action in accordance with fasting, God has no need that he should abandon his food and drink."
A typical day starts as early as 3 a.m. with the predawn meal called the sahur, usually rich in protein and carbohydrates to get the faster through the long, foodless day. The rest of the day is spent reciting prayers, abstaining from bad deeds and reading the Koran.
Fasters are expected to read the entire holy book within the month, and many mosques have taken to splitting it into 30 even portions recited in daily sermons. The fast lasts until sundown — or until it's too dark to "distinguish a white thread from a black thread," according to the Koran — and is broken with a small meal called an iftar which is followed by the Magrib prayer before the fasters join their families and invite the poor for a larger celebratory meal.
The breaking of the fast is often a decadent affair in wealthier Gulf countries like the United Arab Emirates, where well-to-do Muslims gather in air-conditioned tents, cruise ships or five-star hotels to feast on meals with multiple courses.
In some countries, the fast carries the force of law: in Algeria, six people were jailed in 2008 for failing to observe the fast, while in Iran authorities have shut down restaurants for not closing during the day. Other places have their own unique requirements: when Ramadan falls during the summer months, Muslims living in northern countries face fasting through as many as 19 hours of daylight; Muslim scholars have suggested that worshippers in these climes follow the daylight hours of the nearest Muslim-majority nation.