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Explainer: Ramadan starts today - here's what happens during the Muslim holy month

The holy month will be particularly hard this year for many Muslims in the northern hemisphere.

Image: Shutterstock

MORE THAN A billion Muslims around the world marked the start of Ramadan today, embarking on a month of fasting and prayer to commemorate the divine revelations received by Islam’s Prophet Mohammed.

But what happens during the holy month? Who is required to fast? And what happens at the end of each day?

Here’s a quick guide…

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the ninth and holiest month in the Islamic calendar, marked by Muslims as a month of piety, charity and thriftiness.

Observing the Ramadan fast is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith, alongside the profession of faith, the five daily prayers, the giving of alms and the pilgrimage to Mecca.

How is it observed?

During the 29 or 30 days of Ramadan, observant Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex between sunrise and sunset.

The fast is seen as a spiritual struggle against the temptations of earthly pleasures.

It is also a chance to renew family and social bonds. Families gather at sundown for iftar, the breaking of the fast, while many mosques serve free communal meals to the poor.

After the fast, many Muslims gather at mosques for special Ramadan prayers known as tarawih.

The spiritual climax of the month is Laylat Al-Qadr (the night of power), which commemorates the moment the angel Gabriel first appeared to Mohammed and began revealing the Koran.

The final day of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr (the festival of fast-breaking), is a major family event marked by feasting and celebration.

eid Eid celebrations in Crumlin, Dublin, last summer. Source: Daragh Brophy

Who is required to fast?

The fast is considered obligatory for all Muslims over the age of puberty. Although children are exempt, parents are encouraged to gradually get them used to it.

Pregnant or breastfeeding women, the sick and travellers are allowed to delay their fast, but must resume it as soon as they have the chance.

Ramadan will be particularly hard this year for many Muslims in the northern hemisphere, coming in summer with its long days and hot temperatures across much of the Muslim world.

shutterstock_287937806 Source: Shutterstock/muratart

How is the date set for the start of Ramadan?

Ramadan is the ninth month of Islam’s hijri calendar, a lunar system that sets the dates for Islamic religious festivals.

The hijri calender has 11 days fewer than the solar Gregorian calendar, meaning that the start of Ramadan shifts back every year.

The beginning of the fast is announced when the first quarter of the new moon is visible with the naked eye. Religious scholars meet every year to determine the exact date, which can vary from country to country.

- © AFP, 2016 with reporting from Daragh Brophy. 

Last year: “There are some days, it is tough”: Irish Muslims reflect after a long mid-summer Ramadan

Read: Ramadan begins today – but it’s not as straightforward as simply fasting

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