Muslims use various calendars, including one that is unique to Iran, as well as, very commonly, the Gregorian calendar so familiar in the West.
However, for religious purposes, they use the so-called “hijri” calendar, which is based upon a lunar year consisting of 12 29- or 30-day months. The first year of the Islamic or “hijri” calendar is AD 622 (in the Gregorian reckoning), the year of Muhammad’s “emigration,” his “hijra” (hence the name of the calendar) from Mecca to Medina, and, thus, the birth year of the first Islamic state. (For further information on the life of the Muslim prophet, Daniel Peterson’s book “Muhammad: Prophet of God” is, perhaps, not altogether the worst possible starting point.)
The ninth month of the “hijri” calendar, the holy month of Ramadan, begins Saturday evening.
Ramadan is the month of the annual Islamic fast. From sunrise until sunset through the entire month, devout Muslims worldwide abstain — if they’re beyond the age of puberty and free of physical or mental disability — not only from food and drink but from smoking, sexual relations and, ideally, even swearing.
Ramadan is a time for spiritual reflection and deepened devotion, as well as for special concern for the poor. Many Muslims devote exceptional attention during the month to prayer and charity and to reading and reciting the Quran, which is conveniently divided into 30 portions for precisely this purpose.
Because Muslim cultures have historically been quite adept at astronomical observation and record-keeping, it has always been possible to calculate the appearance of the new moon and, thus, the beginning of Ramadan, in advance. Some schools of Muslim thought, however, insist that the new moon must be visually confirmed before the month officially begins. This requirement can occasionally create ambiguity, but, in the arid and relatively cloudless Near East, it rarely poses a significant problem.
The name of the month, Ramadan, comes from an Arabic word meaning “dryness” or “scorching heat,” which reveals something significant about its origin. Before Islam removed the intercalary days that kept its 360-day year in sync with the earth’s 365-day revolution around the sun, Ramadan always occurred during the summer. In the absence of those days, however, it moves continually through all the seasons of the year. Which means, practically speaking, that the length of the daytime fast can vary considerably, depending on the season in which Ramadan occurs. (And, given the global spread of Islam away from temperate zones near the equator, it can become very long indeed during, say, a Scandinavian summer.)
Why is Ramadan sacred to Muslims? The Quran, Islam’s sacred text, explains:
“The month of Ramadan is that in which the Qur’an was revealed as a guidance for the people and as proofs of guidance and discernment. So let whoever sights the month fast during it. And whoever is ill or on a journey, (let him fast) for a number of other days. God wishes to make things easy for you, not to cause you hardship, and that you complete the count of days and glorify God for that to which he has guided you. Thus, perhaps, you may be grateful” (Quran 2:185).
The most sacred night in this most sacred of Islamic months is the “laylat al-qadr,” “the night of power” or “night of the decree.” It was on the original “laylat al-qadr,” according to Muslim tradition, that the very first revelation of what would eventually become collectively known as the Quran was received by Muhammad. That first revelation is typically believed to have been given on one of the odd-numbered nights during the last 10 days of the month of Ramadan, but opinions differ as to exactly which of those nights it is.
“Indeed, we sent (the revelation) down during the night of power. And what can make you understand what the night of power is? The night of power is better than a thousand months. The angels and the Spirit descend in it, by God’s leave, with regard to every matter. It is peace, until the break of dawn” (Quran 97:1-5).
The evening meal that ends the daily fast is known as the Iftar, and it often becomes a family or even community celebration. Sometimes, indeed, non-Muslims are invited to participate in such meals, and these are wonderful opportunities that shouldn’t be missed when they’re available.
The desire to be closer to God and to fellow believers is shared across all Abrahamic faiths.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.