The History of Ramadan and Its Traditions

From eating dates to nightly prayers, the holy period is full of meaningful traditions.

family celebrating ramadan sharing food
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Ramadan is a holy time for those of the Islamic faith. This period, which is steeped in rituals and full of meaningful traditions, is considered a sacred time during the Islamic calendar and falls during the ninth month of the lunar year, says Haroon Imtiaz, communications coordinator for the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). For those of the Islamic faith, an important part of Ramadan is fasting from sunrise to sunset, but there's so much more to this holy time than just that. From dawn until dusk during the month, practitioners of the faith abstain from several regular activities and focus on relationships and piety, while learning and reading from the Qu'ran, the Islamic religious text.

What is Ramadan?

"It is the month in which the Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation from the Holy Qur'an, and it is a time of joy, fasting, and devotion for Muslims around the world," says Imtiaz. "All Muslims who are healthy and have reached the age of puberty are required to undertake a full month (29, sometimes 30 days) of fasting," Imtiaz says. The Qur'an specifies this obligation in chapter two, verse 183. "In a typical day, a pre-dawn meal is consumed and followed by a full day of fasting, which includes abstinence from food, drink, and sexual activity. The fast concludes at sunset with iftaar—the meal that ends the fast."

To learn more about Ramadan, one must take a deeper look at Islam. The religion is based on five pillars, the fourth of which is Sawm, or "to fast," according to the Mosque Foundation. The fasting aspect of Ramadan helps Muslims achieve this important pillar. The reason for fasting, according to the Mosque Foundation, is also that it's an order from Allah, which means it's seen as an act of worship. It's also said that it can help erase sins and teach patience.

What are some traditions associated with Ramadan?

"Opening one's fast at sunset is usually done with dates or water, as was the practice of the Prophet Muhammad," explains Imtiaz. In addition to gaining a stronger awareness of yourself, God, and others, the goal is also to practice generosity—another pillar of Islam."Families often break their fast with friends, enjoying their own cultural cuisine, while providing food to those who are less fortunate." Imtiaz notes, however, that communal iftaars have largely been avoided due to the pandemic.

Another tradition is the practice of voluntary evening prayers, known as Taraweeh. "These are usually performed in mosques and are performed every night. Over the course of the month, Muslims also attempt to complete an entire reading of the Qur'an, as was the practice of Muslims of the past," Imtiaz explains. The month concludes with a celebration known as Eid al-Fitr—the Festival of Breaking the Fast. "On this day, Muslims attend a sermon in the mosque, pray together, and celebrate with family and friends," says Imtiaz. "Children are given treats and gifts, while the less fortunate are given charity."

What does "Ramadan Mubarak" mean?

Mubarak comes from the Arabic word barakah, which translates to "blessing." Imtiaz says, "It literally means 'Blessed Ramadan' and it is used in conversation to wish someone a joyous Ramadan. The Prophet Muhammad referred to Ramadan as a blessed month, so Muslims have taken it as a call to wish others a blessed Ramadan." Another way to greet someone during the holy month is by saying "Ramadan Kareem," which translates to "generous Ramadan."

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