No food, no water, no sex: What we need to know about Ramadan

MANILA, Philippines – Can you go about your daily chores without eating and drinking anything, not even water, from sunrise to sunset? And can you do this repeatedly for a period of 29 to 30 days?

It’s unthinkable for many, but for the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, this is what it means to observe the fasting month of Ramadan.

This year, Ramadan begins on Friday, April 24. Muslims are set to hold time-tested rituals during this fasting month – but with unprecedented adjustments, at least this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has hit more than two million people and killed tens of thousands worldwide.

Here’s what we need to know about Ramadan.

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is a month of fasting from food, water, and sexual intercourse, among other things, from sunrise to sunset each day. 

During this month, Muslims are also expected to read the whole Quran and pray to Allah during their fasting periods, said Dr Dimapuno Datu-Ramos Jr, spokesperson of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF), in an interview with Rappler. He said Muslims are also supposed to abstain from vices such as smoking, and to avoid “actions that will not promote peace, such as getting angry, shouting, and all immoral activities.”

Ramadan is among the 5 Pillars of Islam, and is the most sacred month for Muslims around the world. 

This month is significant because it commemorates the time when Allah revealed the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. Datu-Ramos said the revelation of the Quran is commemorated on the 27th night of Ramadan, called the Night of Power.

“Our Muslim brothers are obligated to pray on the Lailatul Qadr, what we call the Night of Power, because God grants whatever we ask for,” he explained in Filipino.

When is the month of Ramadan?

Ramadan is held in the 9th month of the Islamic or Hijri calendar. 

The Hijri calendar is different from the Gregorian calendar, commonly used around the world, which begins with the year Jesus Christ was born. The Hijri calendar starts from the year that the Prophet Muhammad fled persecution from Mecca to Medina in Saudi Arabia – an act remembered by Muslims as the Hijrah.

The Hijri calendar begins in the year 622 of the Gregorian calendar, but one cannot simply subtract years from the latter to arrive at Islamic calendar years. This is because the Hijri calendar is lunar or based on sightings of the new moon, so the number of days per month varies. Each year, in fact, can have 354 or 355 days in the Hijri calendar, unlike the standard 365 days of the Gregorian calendar. 

Ramadan this year is being held in the year 1441 of the Hijri calendar. 

How do Muslims determine the date of Ramadan?

Datu-Ramos said Ramadan begins and ends with the appearance of the hilal or new moon, which is determined by moon-sighting committees.

On the evening of Wednesday, April 22, for example, the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) and the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) deployed moon-sighting committees to check the night sky for the new moon.

Had the new moon been sighted on Wednesday evening, Ramadan would have started on Thursday, April 23. But because the new moon was not seen that night, the NCMF announced that Ramadan would begin on Friday, April 24.

Ramadan is completed in 29 or 30 days depending on the sighting of the shawwal moon that marks the 10th month of the lunar calendar. The Islamic fasting month ends with the feast of Eid’l Fitr, which means the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast. 

Why do Muslims fast during Ramadan?

The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, known by its acronym MUIS, explained that Ramadan “has been selected by Allah to be a month for believers to train and control their desires, and to enhance their spirituality.”

Fasting is one way to achieve these objectives. “By abstaining from eating, drinking and following one’s desires, a Muslim will be able to have control over himself or herself. The ability to control oneself is critical in discharging our duty as the vicegerents of God on this earth,” according to an explainer by MUIS.

“Secondly, fasting inculcates in us the value of compassion towards others. Only when we feel hungry and thirsty can we truly empathize with the poor and needy, who may have very little food to consume in their lives. Feeling such will encourage us to assist and contribute to their well-being, and ensuring the social justice that Islam wants to be established among Mankind,” MUIS said.

What rituals are associated with Ramadan?

Every night of Ramadan, Muslims traditionally hold tarawih prayers in their mosques. A hafiz or memorizer of the Quran leads the tarawih, according to the Regional Darul-Ifta’ (RDI) of BARMM. The hafiz “recites the Quran in small portions in proper sequence every night, and completes the recitation of the whole Quran before the end of the month of Ramadan.” Muslims who regularly attend the tarawih can complete listening to the Quran within a month.

Another ritual associated with Ramadan is the iftar, the breaking of the fast after each sunset during Ramadan. The iftar is commonly done with families or communities.

Are there exemptions from fasting?

According to the RDI of BARMM, Allah in the Quran “has clearly mentioned that sick people and travelers are exempted from fasting during Ramadan.”

Likewise exempted from fasting are children who haven’t reached puberty, old people (if fasting will negatively affect their health), and women with menstruation, as well as those who are pregnant and breastfeeding, said the RDI, citing Islamic scholars. 

How has COVID-19 changed Ramadan this year?

Datu-Ramos said one major change is that the NCMF has suspended tarawih prayers in Philippine mosques. He said that Muslims, however, can hold their tarawih prayers at home, as confirmed by Islamic authorities. 

The breaking of the fast, called iftar, also cannot be done in big gatherings this year due to physical distancing rules. (READ: Ramadan under a quarantine: Finding meaning even with distancing)

The same Ramadan restrictions have been imposed even in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh was among those who had decreed that Ramadan prayers be made at home, even as Islamic authorities in a few countries remained bullheaded about performing the tarawih in mosques. (READ: [OPINION] Islamic lessons on quarantine during coronavirus crisis)

The pandemic may have changed the way Ramadan is observed, at least in 2020, but the virtues of Ramadan continue to ring true: self-control and empathy for those who need it the most.

Ramadan Mubarak! – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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