metromania: Ramadan is...

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The Independent Culture
Ramadan, which has just begun, is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, when it is a requirement for all able-bodied, healthy Muslims to fast. The fast, called sawm in Arabic, is one of the five obligatory acts every Muslim must carry out. The other four are belief in One God and Mohamed as the last prophet, prayer (salah), paying an annual tax on capital to the needy (zakah), and pilgrimage toMecca (haj) at least once for those who are able to make the journey.

Muslims who fast are required to abstain from food, drink and sex during daylight hours. It is compulsory for the mentally and physically fit and, with discretion, for pregnant women and suckling mothers. Travellers, children, the sick and menstruating women are exempt. The general rule is not to fast when there is a risk of physical and mental harm,but these missed fasts have to be made up before the following Ramadan.

A day during Ramadan begins with a pre-dawn breakfast and ends with a meal at sunset. The day's fast is ended, as the sun begins to set, with a date and some water, following the practice of the Prophet. As the lunar calendar is 10 days shorter than the solar calendar, Ramadan revolves through the seasons about every 35 years. As a result, a day of fasting can be as long as 18 hours in the summer and as short as eight hours in winter. In February it is about 12 hours long.

Muslims believe the fast revives spirituality by breaking habits, by turning life upside down and the self inside out. It instills self-discipline through the denial of what is basic to human life. Ramadan is also a month of prayer and reflection which, together with the exercise of self-denial, is intended to strengthen the qualities of patience and perseverance. Furthermore, it acts as a leveller, in that it allows people of means to undergo the privations of the poor. It is also a month of charity and sharing.

For Muslims, the whole of the month of fasting is a celebration, as families and communities gather each night for a meal and prayers. The act of individual denial thus becomes a commitment to the group.

The month ends with the feast of Id al Fitr. This is a day of joy, especially for children, who are given gifts and new clothes. The day, however, cannot begin without each adult individual extending charity to the poor.