What is Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr?

What is Ramadan?
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Ramadan is the holiest month of the Islamic calendar and commemorates the handing down of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed.

It takes place in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and lasts between 29 and 30 days, depending on the sighting of the crescent moon which governs the beginning and the end of the holy month.

Western Sydney University senior lecturer in Islam and modernity, Dr Jan Ali, told SBS World News that Muslims believed the Quran was handed down on the night of power, also known as Laylatul Qadr.

"What it means is, according to Islamic scripture, according to Muslim belief, the Quran was brought down from a place called lahul mafuz, where the Quran was placed, or it existed in the preserved tablet – lahul mafuz is the preserved tablet – and Allah instructed Gabrielle, according to Islamic teaching, to bring that revelation down to the lowest heaven, Bayt al Izzah, that is the name of the lowest heaven, on the night of power, Laylatul Qadr," he said.

"It was revealed from Bayt al Izzah to Prophet Mohammed and the revelation was undertaken by Archangel Gabrielle and that took place over a 23-year period.

"But on the night of power, the Quran was brought down from lahul mafuz, all the way down to the lowest heaven."

Dr Ali said Ramadan was a month of fasting during which Muslims did not eat or drink between dawn and sunset.

"As far as the everyday living is concerned nothing changes except the eating aspect of it," he said.

"The idea of not eating during that time is associated with the idea of spiritual as well as psychological as well as physical purification.

"Mentally it helps people rejuvenate, get clarity, because in the month of Ramadan people are particularly being counselled by the scripture - both Quran as well as hadith, the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed - to restrain from usual behaviour and restrain from certain speech such as back-biting, cursing, lying – I mean, they shouldn’t be doing that anyway, but definitely and particularly restrain doing so particularly in the month of Ramadan.

"For one month these restrictions kind of rejuvenate the mental process, makes people take a step back and think about things and develop a new or better moral compass, develop a greater sense of spirituality.

"The month of Ramadan is associated with mental, physical and spiritual purity.”

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Fasting during Ramadan
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There is also a developing tradition of having a feast each day when the sun sets, but Dr Ali said this was not strictly in line with the purpose of the fast.

"The idea is not to feast, actually, the idea is to eat in moderation for the 30 days and that is basically to inculcate in oneself the ability to refrain from excessive eating, excessive talking, excessive material activities and engaging in materialism and relinking yourself to your creator, so this is the whole idea," he said.

"Fasting is not supposed to be about gorging yourself it is supposed to be about restraining yourself."

Dr Ali said fasting was one of the five pillars of Islam and was obligatory for practicing Muslims.

"Fasting is, by the way, is not a joy in the sense that it’s a struggle and that’s the whole idea," he said.

"The whole idea is to struggle; it’s a sacrifice a believer makes in the month of Ramadan and then therefore the rewards are huge when a Muslim fasts according to Islamic teaching the rewards, both in this world and hereafter is huge, so that is why you actually fast or that is why Muslims believe they ought to fast."

Ramadan appears at a different time each year because the Islamic calendar operates slightly differently to the Western calendar.

This means that the period of fasting may arrive in the colder months and be short, as it is in Australia this year, or it may appear in the warmer months and be longer.

But Dr Ali said, if a Muslim believed in fasting, this was simply something they would have to deal with.

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Is anyone exempted from fasting?
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There are some exceptions to the obligatory fasting, Dr Ali said.

Those who are ill or travelling, the elderly and pregnant, breastfeeding and menstruating women are all excused from taking part in the Ramadan fasting.

"People who suffer from some illness, whether that is a long-term illness or a short-term illness, if they are ill in the period of Ramadan then they are excused as well as travellers, but then they have the make it up when they have recovered from the illness or if they have completed their travelling," he said.

"Women who have their menstruation, they don’t have to fast, but then they have to make it up when their menses is over and that could be even outside the month of Ramadan, obviously it has to be, and they can make up those missed days anytime until next Ramadan."

He said the elderly could "feed the people" during Ramadan instead of fasting.

"You calculate it’s going to cost you $10 per day to feed yourself so the equivalent amount should be given to the poor so that he or she is fed for the 30 days," he said.

Dr Ali said there was some debate as to whether pregnant and breastfeeding women should be excused or whether they should have to feed the people, but often they were excused.

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Prayer during Ramadan
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There is a special prayer said each evening at the breaking of the fast called the tarawih.

Dr Ali said the tarawih took slightly different forms depending on the different teachings a Muslim followed.

"Particularly in hanafi school of thought, the prayer is a 20-unit prayer, which takes about an hour and the vast majority of members of the hanafi school of thought are actually also trying to finish the recitation of the Quran in that 30 days as well," he said.

"In each unit they recite long verses or long chapters of the Quran so that they can finish in 30 days.

"But in other schools of thought... some schools do it eight units, some do 10, but I do know the hanafi school of thought subscribe to 20 units."

During Ramadan Muslims continue to complete their five daily fajr prayers and attend Friday prayers as well.

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How many people celebrate Ramadan?
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Dr Ali said there was no hard and fast number of Islamic followers who took part in the Ramadan fast each year.

"I read somewhere some while back that about 10-20 per cent of people in each Abrahamic tradition – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – pray regularly, perhaps more so in Islam than in the other two religions," he said.

"If we take this formula, let’s say 30 per cent of Muslims pray five times a day regularly, you could say about the same amount fast in the month of Ramadan.

"If that is according to peer report in 2010 or 2011 we had 1.6 billion Muslims, so you do the calculation and that gives you a bit of a figure, but again it’s a very disputable figure, I’m saying that with a lot of grains of salt."

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What is Eid al-Fitr?
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Ramadan culminates in the celebration of Eid al-Fitr, which sees the end of the fasting period.

"This is the end of Ramadan and it is a time of celebration, a time of fanfare, a time of visiting, a time of generosity and also a time of goodwill when Muslims visit their relatives, neighbours, friends, they invite them to their places, and it is opposite to Ramadan in the sense that it is all about eating," Dr Ali said.

"And in doing so you have to basically enjoy the hard work you have done during the month of Ramadan."

Eid al-Fitr begins with a special prayer where Muslims turn out en masse, Dr Ali said.

"On the morning of Eid al-Fitr Muslims go to mosques or prayer halls, or even to the parks, or in Sydney a lot of Muslims you will find doing their Eid al-Fitr prayer in Olympic Park for example, in local suburban parks," he said.

"That starts the beginning of the celebration, after the prayer and that is how Ramadan ends."

Dr Ali said all Muslim cultures had their own special foods to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, but there were often plenty of sweets.

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