"O BELIEVERS, prescribed for you is the Fast, even as it was prescribed for those that were before you... The month of Ramadan, wherein the Koran was sent down to be a guidance to the people, and as clear signs of the Guidance and Salvation. So let those of you, who are present at the month, fast it; and if any of you be sick, or if he be on a journey, then a number of other days... And eat and drink, until the white thread shows clearly to you from the black thread at dawn; then complete the Fast until the night."
—Surah II: 183-187
So, in the Koran, God ordained the Fast of Ramadan, one of the most exacting acts of worship in Islam and the month each year when, as one writer put it, faithful Muslims assert that "man has larger needs than bread."
The practice of fasting as a spiritual discipline is both ancient and widespread. It antedates Islam, even among the Arabs, and from time immemorial has been observed in various ways by Judaism, Christianity and other religions. The Prophet himself, according to tradition, observed the fast of 'Ashura,' a custom derived from the Jewish Day of Atonement, and even prior to his Revelations, his own tribe, the Quraysh, had placed special religious significance on the ninth month of the year—i.e. Ramadan—and had even associated penance with it. Tribesmen who desired to do penance were accustomed to go to Mt. Hira near Mecca upon the beginning of Ramadan, where they performed their tahannuth (religious devotions and penance). The exercises lasted the entire month and at their conclusion the devout made their way to the Ka'ba in Mecca, circled it seven times and then returned home to resume normal life.
The Prophet himself observed the same custom and in fact it was during one of those vigils of devotion and penance in Ramadan that he received his first divine revelation from God—thus linking the month of Ramadan forever with the custom of fasting.
Ramadan usually begins with the sighting of the new moon by a trustworthy witness and the subsequent thunder of cannon, the calling of the muezzins and, in modern times, excited announcements over the radio. If atmospheric conditions make the actual sighting of the new moon impossible, then the length of the preceding month, Sha'ban, normally 29 days, is extended to 30 days, at the end of which the fast becomes obligatory. It began about December 23 and will end whenever the January full moon is sighted. Each year of course the date changes.
While fasting, believers must abstain from all food and drink and must observe strict continence from the break of dawn to sunset. Food is eaten only during the hours of darkness, or, as expressed by the Koran, "until the white thread can be clearly distinguished from the black thread at dawn." Any Muslim breaking the Fast, with or without an excuse, is expected to make amends (qada') for the days of fasting omitted. Even pregnant or nursing women who do not fast because of the children are required to make amends and to give in expiation a bushel of wheat to the poor for the days on which they could not fast.
Each day, as the shadows lengthen and sun is about to set behind the horizon, muezzins in all Muslim countries climb minarets to call the fasting believers to the evening prayer and to the breaking of the Fast. The call is punctuated by the boom of cannon—an innovation of the Ottoman Empire—fired at the exact moment the sun sinks behind the horizon. In recent times the radio has been employed to announce the end of the daily fast too.
Hearing the signal, the devout quickly offer prayer and proceed to break their fast, first quenching their thirst with water or, in some areas, thick apricot syrup prepared from thin round wafers of dried apricots, or eating a few dates. This step is avoided by many, who begin their meals immediately. The strict among the faithful, however, partake sparingly and avoid indulgence.
Upon breaking the fast and partaking of food and drink, the believer repeats an appropriate prayer of thanksgiving, sometimes the prayer said by the Prophet himself after every breaking of the fast: "Lord. In Thy (name) we fasted; with Thy gifts we broke our fast; accept, therefore, (this our act of worship). Thou art the all-hearing, the all-knowing."
During Ramadan, night becomes day and day becomes night. Streets which are usually thronged in the daytime and empty at night are now deserted during most of the day and alive with activity at night. The activity usually begins in the afternoon as women file into the marketplace to buy food in time for the iftar, the first meal after sunset. Toward sunset the pace quickens as the faithful, hungry and thirsty after more than 13 hours of abstinence, head homeward or flock into restaurants and cafes to order their meals so that with the sound of the cannon they can begin to eat at once.
From that point on, each evening, cities and towns in Muslim countries take on a faintly festive air. Thousands of people pour into the mosques for the isha, the fifth prayer of the day, and the al-tarawih, a special prayer for Ramadan. People stroll the streets leisurely or visit friends or shop, often throughout the night or at least until 3 a.m. when the cannon fires again, this time to signal the sahur, a meal generally consisting of leftovers from the iftar feast. The sahur is eaten immediately before resumption of the fast at dawn and has given rise to the musahhir, a sort of town crier who roves the streets rapping on doors with a stick, beating a drum to rouse the sleepy faithful, and crying out in a loud voice, "Awake, sleepers! It is time for sahur and prayers!" For particularly heavy sleepers the musahhir often waits beneath the window until they acknowledge his call, usually with a sleepy, "Thank you, brother. May God compensate you with His grace and benevolence."
The disciplines of Ramadan are the first and the lowest of three grades of fasting: sawm al-'umum, the fasting of the general public, sawm al-khusus, the fasting of the select few and sawm khusus al-khusus, the fasting of the elite. The fasting of the general public involves refraining from food, beverages, smoking and sex and a deliberate, expressed intent (niyya), which must be renewed each night of Ramadan, to observe the fast.
The fasting of the select few requires that all the organs of sense—ears, nose, eyes, tongue, and hands— abstain from sin. And the fasting of the elite is "the fast of the heart"—an avoidance of mean thoughts and worldly worries and an exclusive concentration on God. This last fast, since it can be broken by a mere thought of anything other than God or by a hint of concern for the affairs of this world, demands tremendous concentration.
Following the example of the Prophet, many devout believers also go to the mosque after the late evening prayer—salat al-'isha—in order to spend the rest of the night in the highly meritorious intermittent prayer called salat al-tarawih, consisting usually of twenty prostrations with a short interval or pause (tarwihah) after every four. Those who observe the salat al-tarawih out of faith and fear will have their sins forgiven them.
Perhaps the most important observance during the sacred month of fasting is that of the Laylat al-Qadr, the "Night of Power," on which God granted the Prophet the first revelation. It is celebrated on the 27th of the month, but its original date has never been pinpointed with certainty. The Prophet himself, in fact, was vague as to the precise date and therefore admonished believers to observe the day during the last ten days of the month, more specifically on the fifth, seventh, or ninth night before the end of Ramadan. The Prophet often spent those last ten days at the mosque in vigil (i'tikaf) and prayer throughout the night, in expectation of partaking of the blessings of the holy night.
The end of Ramadan is determined by the appearance of the new moon of the month of Shawwal. As at the beginning, at least two reliable witnesses must testify that they have seen the moon and if atmospheric conditions make it impossible to see the new moon, Ramadan simply ends on the thirtieth day of fasting. Whichever way it ends, for the true believers it is a moment when the gates of heaven open and the favor of God descends upon them, because, as the Prophet said, of all the acts of worship in Islam, the sacrifice of Ramadan is the one which God alone sees and God alone rewards, and, as the Koran states, "Verily the patient shall be repaid: their reward shall not be by measure."
Nabih Amin Faris, chairman of the History Department and director of Arab studies at the American University of Beirut, holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University and is the author of 21 books and numerous articles. His work has appeared in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Life, and most of the major newspapers and periodicals in the Middle East.