What Is Ramadan? The History And Tradition Behind Muslim Fasting During Islam's Holy Month

Ramadan Mubarak. Ramadan Kareem.

What Is Holy Month Of Ramadan & Eid al-Fitr — The Muslim Spiritual Practice Of Fasting getty

Muslims all over the world participate in the spiritual practice of 30-days of prayer and daily fasts during the holy month of Ramadan, which is one of only two recognized holy days determined by Islamic law.

When is Ramadan?

Ramadan takes place during a lunar cycle, which is why it is 30-days long. So, the dates for Ramadan change each year, but it is always during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The day and time of the first Ramadan fast are determined based upon when the moon is sighted. 


This year, Ramadan began April 23, 2020 and ends on the evening of May 23, 2020.

RELATED: How To Use These 7 Spiritual Practices To Improve All Relationships

According to the Quran, the archangel Jabril (known as Gabriel in the English Bible) came to the Prophet Muhammad to reveal the God's word to him, in an early form of the Qur'an.


The revelation of the Qur'an is called, Laylat Al Qadar aka the “Night of Power”. The holiest month in Islam takes place during the month in which Laylat Al Qadar occurred.

Ramadan is observed as part of the fourth pillar of Islam (of which there are five total pillars), called Sawm. According to the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV), "every Muslim must endeavor to observe or fulfill" these pillars.

The ICV explains that the others pillars are:

I. Shahadah – declaration of faith;
II. Salat – the five daily prayes;
III. Zakat – Purification of wealth by the charitable donation of 2.5% of annual savings;
V. Hajj – Pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, obligatory once in a lifetime for those who are physically and financially able."


What happens during Ramadan?

According to a BBC online resource, "During the month of Ramadan, Muslims won't eat or drink between dawn and sunset. This is called fasting. Fasting is important during Ramadan as it allows Muslims to devote themselves to their faith and come closer to Allah, or God."

They wake up early, before sunrise, to eat breakfast called suhoor. At the end of the day, after the sun sets, the fast ends and Maghrib prayers ("sunset prayers") start. For many Muslims, the fast-breaking meal begins with eating dates. 

This year, with the coronavirus pandemic, imams (Muslim leadership and those who lead prayers) and health officials are imploring Muslims to make some changes to how Ramadan is observed. 

Al Jezeera reports, "Breaking of the fast is usually a communal affair. It is common for mosques to host large iftars, especially for the poor.


Because of the pandemic, which has spread to 185 nations, many countries this year have advised citizens to avoid large gatherings and have suhoor and iftar individually or with family at home. In Egypt, all Ramadan activities, including group iftars and charity tables, are banned."

Why do people fast during Ramadan? 

Spiritual fasting is practiced across many religions, such as during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Different sects of Christianity also fast, including Catholic observance of Good Friday and Ash Wednesday. Mormons are asked to fast one Sunday every month to help draw members closer to God.

For Muslims, fasting during Ramadan is similarly designed to bring people closer to God (Allah) and to remind Muslims of the suffering of those less fortunate. There is also an element of fasting that is designed to help purify the body and soul for holy prayers and meditation. 

Muslims fast during other times in the year, but all Muslims are required to participate in the global fasting during the holiest of months.


How does Ramadan prayer and fasting work?

There are specific foods eaten before fasting starts each morning.

The pre-fasting and post-fasting meal includes fruit, vegetables, halal meats, cheese, bread, and even bakery-type foods.

Some Muslims advise eating high-protein foods to keep energy levels up during the pre-fast meal, and once the daylight arrives and morning prayers are said, no more food is allowed to be eaten, or else it invalidates the fast for the day.

Spiritual fasting involves more than just food.

Fasting during Ramadan also involves fasting from consensual sexual relations, purposeful vomiting, and even menstrual or post-partum bleeding. If, for any reason, your fast is voided because of one of these things, the fast can be made up later. 


When the sun rises, a fast for the day starts, and nothing is eaten and no beverages are consumed until the sunsets. There are, however, exceptions to this when human life is at stake, such as during a heat wave, or if a drink or food is taken by accident. 

If a person misses or invalidates their Ramadan fast, they have to still honor the spiritual practice in other ways.

What prayers are done during the period of fasting?

The prayer times are at dawn, noon, mid-day, evening, sunset, and at night, usually before bedtime. Muslims recite the 'sura' which is found in the Qur'an.

How do Muslims break their Ramadan fast?

When the sun sets, Muslims are allowed to eat a meal that consists of high protein and quality carb-rich food items, similar to what is eaten during suhoor. Many Muslims break fast in the evening by eating dates before their meal. 


RELATED: I'm Christian, My Husband's Muslim. Here's How We Make It Work

Do all Muslims practice Ramadan?

All Muslims are supposed to practice Ramadan and Eid, but only those who are ill or too young are exempt from spiritual fasting.

How do non-Muslims greet Muslim friends during Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr?

If you're not Muslim, you can still honor your friends by saying, "Ramadan Mubarak' or 'Ramadan Kareem'.

These greetings are inviting them to have a blessed fast during the month of Ramadan.

After Ramadan, the festival of Eid al-Fitr is celebrated, when one might wish someone "Happy Eid" or "Eid Mubarak"

RELATED: 5 Spiritual Practices That Are Good For Your Mind, Body, And Spirit


What invalidates prayer and fasting during Ramadan?

There are two ways a person breaks a Ramadan fast — intentionally or unintentionally.

Violations include eating, having sexual relations, drinking anything during daylight hours, which can be made up for when a person fasts for 60-days after Ramadan is over, similar to how the prayer and fasting are done during the holy holiday.

In ancient times, the release of a slave could also be a remedy for breaking the spiritual fast.

If you are pregnant or sick and could not fast, then fidyah — a donation made when a fast is missed — is paid, and this can be done by feeding a person times each day the fast was missed.


If you miss fast intentionally, then you make a donation called kaffarah, to feed 60 people who are homeless or in dire need is also a way to make up for breaking the fast.

RELATED: I'm A Modern Muslim Woman Who Enjoys Dating — And That's OK

Aria Gmitter, M.S, M.F.A., is YourTango's Senior Editor of Horoscopes and Spirituality. She studies with the Midwestern School of Astrology and is a member of the South Florida Astrological Association.