Today marks the first night of the Islamic month of Ramadan. During this month, Muslims must forego food, drink and physical relationships with their spouse from first-light until sunset. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam (which are belief in the Oneness of God and that Muhammad is His Last Messenger, five daily prayers, fasting in Ramadan, the giving of a small percentage of your wealth to the poor and needy, which is known as Zakat, and performing the Hajj pilgrimage at least once your life). During this month, they are also encouraged to increase their output of virtuous deeds and refrain from committing sins or partaking in actions that are disliked by God.
Normally, Muslims are expected to wait until after sunset to see if the new moon is visible locally. Science and globalisation however have complicated this simple exercise by providing us with forecasts and news from around the world. I watched the Taraweeh prayers in the Holy City of Makkah, Saudia Arabia, on You Tube at around 7.00pm, which in Britain is still just late afternoon at this time of the year. Others took their sighting from Morocco or from their local observatory, but either way, by the Will and Grace of God, we are in the happy situation of a unanimously agreed start date for Ramadan.
It begins with the Taraweeh prayer, which is a special recommended prayer that is often performed in congregation at a mosque. The prayer takes place after the Isha (night time) prayer and consists of twenty rakats (each rakat is a unit of standing, bowing and prostrating twice, and normally performed in pairs). The prayer is led by people who have memorised the Holy Qur’an (the Holy book of Islam) and during the month, they will recite the entire Qur’an to the congregation.
Muslims around Britain will be rising at around 2.00am to begin Sehri, the meal taken before the fast. They will have until around 3.00am to eat and drink whatever takes their fancy, and brush their teeth before first light, which is the beginning time for Fajr, the morning prayer. Traditionally, people will spend some time after the morning prayer reciting from the Qur’an before going back to bed. Many people make arrangements with their employers to be able to start their working day late (lucky for students this Ramadan has fallen during Summer Holidays, so they can sleep in all they want!) and finish late too.
After spending the day observed in their normal daily activities and performing their compulsory prayers, people will congregate at their mosque just before sunset. Then when the sun disappears behind the horizon (around 9.30pm), the muezzin will give the call to prayer, which will signal the iftar, the opening of the fast. Traditionally, it is recommended to open the fast with dates and water, as the fruit helps to eliminate the gases that have built up in the stomach and eliminate excess acids. Then, after the sunset prayer, Maghrib, people will join their families at home to eat and drink.
An hour and half later, its time for the Isha prayer and the Tarweeh prayer, signalling the start of the second day of Ramadan.