For the next 30 days, Tarannum Mansouri will arise at 3 a.m. at her home in Vadodara, India, being careful not to awaken her toddler son. She will bathe and then join the other women in her family in the kitchen to prepare the morning meal.
A filling breakfast of homemade bread, vegetables, perhaps a chicken curry and fruit will be washed down with tea by 4:30 a.m., before the break of day.
So begins the holy month of Ramadan for more than 1.6 billion Muslims around the world.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, when Muslims believe the holy Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel in the seventh century. It is a month of fasting, prayer and reflection for Muslims. It is a time when practicing Muslims refrain from all food, drink, smoking and sex from sunrise to sunset.
"It is a holy month," says Hibo Wardere of London. A month "that you are dedicating to God."
The last 10 days of Ramadan are considered the most holy. "That is when the seven steps to heaven are open," Wardere adds. The most important is Laylat al-Qadr, or the "Night of Power," believed to be the holiest night of the year.
"It is a night everybody stays awake" and prays, she says. "It means all your prayers will be heard, it means all your sins will be forgiven, it means you will get what you dreamed of."
Islam takes into account that not everyone is able or willing to fast during Ramadan. Children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are exempt from fasting.
Others who are old or ill can also forego fasting, but they must feed one poor person for each day of a missed fast. The practice is called fidya and how much it costs depends on where one lives.
In the U.S., "it comes out to $10 per day or $300 for the month," says Minhaj Hassan of the nonprofit charity Islamic Relief USA. In Britain, Islamic Relief UK has set the daily rate of fidya at 5 pounds or 150 pounds for the month.
On the other hand, "kaffarah is paid by individuals who miss a fast for no good reason," says Hassan. "The amount is $600 a day, or feeding 60 people in need (the Arabic term is miskeen)." In Britain, the price is 300 pounds per day.
One can also atone for a missed or deliberately broken fast by fasting for 60 straight days.
Observance in non-Muslim countries
Fasting during Ramadan is "a million times more difficult" in a non-Muslim country "than back home," says Wardere, who is from Somalia but has lived in London for most of her life.
In the U.S., an estimated 3.2 million Muslims will fast during Ramadan, a small number compared to the 327 million population. By contrast, a 2013 Pew Research Center study shows 94% of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa fast for the month.
"The practice of fasting in Muslim nations is presumably much more common during Ramadan, since there are likely to be more practicing Muslims," says Hassan. "And fasting is a part of the daily culture during this month. Thus, if people you know are fasting, you're likely to do the same."
Most Muslim countries also make it easier for people to fast. Across the Middle East, Ramadan must be observed in public. Which means, even non-Muslims must refrain from eating, drinking and smoking in public. In most of these countries, religious police patrol the streets and violators are usually punished. Most cafes, restaurants and clubs are closed during the day although some hotels serve food in screened-in areas or through room service.
Most public offices and schools are closed and private businesses are encouraged to cut back their hours to accommodate the fasters.
"Being part of an environment or community where fasting is encouraged and accommodated can increase the likelihood of people fasting successfully," Hassan says. "In some Muslim countries, accommodations are provided for fasting, which may not always be the case in the West" or in other non-Muslim nations.
"Observing Ramadan as a minority has its challenges. But it is not significant enough to make it impossible to fast," says Naeem Baig of the Islamic Circle of North America. He says it is made easier because "people from other faiths generally are respectful and supportive towards their Muslim colleagues or neighbors."
Mansouri, in India, will have to accommodate her fasting while spending weekdays at her job as a teacher in a Hindu school. She says she will try to keep herself busy so as not to think of food when teachers and children take their lunch break.
Similarly, Baig says, "We encourage Muslim parents to inform the schools their children attend and let the teachers know that their children will not be going for lunch break. In most public schools, Muslim children of fasting age can go to the library during lunch and are exempt from PE (physical education)."
Organizations such as the nonprofit Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding work with businesses to help them accommodate the needs of those observing Ramadan.
"Muslim employees observing Ramadan may be fasting during this period. Some may request scheduling accommodations and your company may find that more employees require space for prayer during this time," writes the group's deputy CEO, Mark Fowler, on its website.
He encourages his clients to avail themselves to the group's fact sheet regarding scheduling, dietary restriction, and greetings during Ramadan.
Muslims in the West, Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, and much of the Middle East, including Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, will begin observing Ramadan on Monday. But millions in India, Pakistan and Iran will likely be marking the start of the lunar month on Tuesday, based on moon sightings there.
Ramadan will end on June 3 or June 4, depending on when it started.
After 30 days, Ramadan ends with a three-day celebration known as Eid al-Fitr, when families and friends get together, exchange gifts and feast.
Source: Voice of America