Ramadan begins this week and Muslims around the world will be taking part in ritual fasting and abstinence for 30 days.
Here is all you need to know about Ramadan 2018, and how it is commemorated around the world.
When is Ramadan?
The date on which Ramadan begins changes each year. It is determined by the first confirmed sighting of the new moon – but there is often controversy about when it starts, with different countries observing it on different days. In the UK, Ramadan this year begins on 15 May and finishes on 14 June.
How is Ramadan observed?
Fasting is the most well-known and important part of the month. Practicing Muslims are not allowed to eat between sunrise and sunset to help teach “self-discipline, self-restraint and generosity”, the BBC says. It’s common to have one meal, the suhoor, just before sunrise and another known as the iftar directly after sunset.
Non-Muslims, young children, the sick, people with mental health illnesses, travellers, the elderly and women who are menstruating, pregnant, breast-feeding or have recently given birth do not have to fast, says Al Jazeera.
The government’s Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service has a page for helping employers support Muslim employees during Ramadan, and warns that “fasting may affect people in different ways (for example some people may understandably become a little irritable or slightly tired at times) and some understanding from managers and colleagues can be helpful”.
While it is illegal for employers to have policies that particularly disadvantage religious workers, sensitivity to employees’ religious needs also makes good business sense, says Acas. This includes making provisions for flexible working and time off during religious festivals.
Are there any tips for fasting?
On its website, the NHS gives a variety of tips for staying healthy during Ramadan. It suggests eating at least two meals a day – the suhoor and iftar – and packing them with complex carbohydrates such as wheat, oats, lentils and basmati rice that release energy slowly.
High-fat and high-sugar foods are not recommended and fasters should instead eat baked samosas, boiled dumplings, grilled meat and milk-based puddings.
Dr Razeen Mahroof, a consultant from Oxford, says: “Ramadan isn’t always thought of as being an opportunity to lose weight because the spiritual aspect is emphasised more generally than the health aspect. However, it’s a great chance to get the physical benefits as well.”
Despite this, he adds, a balanced diet with the right proportion of carbs, fat and protein is needed to see any benefits.
When is sunrise and sunset?
Knowing the exact times of sunrise and sunset is important during Ramadan, but this can be complicated as this differs around the world and sometimes even in a country. Apps such as Muslim Pro tell when to begin fasting and what time followers can eat again.
Time and Date also gives the exact sunrise and sunset times for any location around the world.
Why is the month so significant?
Ramadan marks the month when Allah revealed the Koran to the Prophet Muhammad.
Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam – a verse in the Koran prescribes it for all mature and healthy Muslims, Al Jazeera writes. Muslims fast as an act of worship, a chance to get closer to Allah and a way to become more compassionate to those in need.
What is the Night of Power?
On the 27th day of Ramadan, Muslims mark Lailat al Qadr – the “Night of Power”. This is Islam’s holiest night and commemorates the day the Koran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. It involves spending the night praying, studying and reciting the holy text.
However, the exact day of Lailat al Qadr falls was never actually specified by the Prophet Muhammad and some Muslims choose to commemorate all the last ten days of Ramadan as if they were Lailat al Qadr.
What happens when Ramadan ends?
To mark the end of fasting, Muslims celebrate the Eid ul-Fitr festival, beginning with early morning prayers and then a day of feasting with friends and family.
Many Muslims don their best clothes to celebrate eating their first daylight meal in a month and give thanks to Allah for giving them strength and self-control. They also exchange gifts and decorate their homes for the celebrations.
Why do the dates of Ramadan change each year?
Ramadan is based on a lunar calendar, which is determined by the position of the moon in the sky. This means each year the fasting begins around 11 days earlier than the previous year.
Next year, it begins on 5 May, then it moves to April in 2020. By 2023, it will have hit March and by 2026, Ramadan will be in February.
The change means keeping Ramadan is slightly easier when the days are short, but summer months, when the days are long, make the fast more difficult – especially for those living in countries in the far north, where the sun can remain in the sky almost all day.
To counter this, some scholars suggest only using Mecca time to measure the fast, but the idea is controversial, leaving many believers fasting for up to 19 hours at a time.
Are there any health dangers of prolonged fasting?
While the health impact of fasting is – on the whole – minimal and short-term, there are some more potentially serious longer-term consequences which have been flagged by medical experts and community leaders.
One of these is the risk of irreversible sight loss from Muslims with glaucoma who stop taking their medication during Ramadan.
Glaucoma is a condition where the optic nerve is damaged by a build-up of fluid in the front of the eye which increases pressure inside the eyeball. It is a common condition that can be treated with regular application of eye drops but, according to the International Glaucoma Association (IGA), some Muslims stop taking their eye drops during Ramadan because it is possible for liquid to travel from the eye to the back of the throat via tear ducts.
This has led the association to join the Muslim Council of Britain to warn that patients who stop taking their medication risk irreversible loss of vision.
The IGA “has offered advice on how to press a finger against the corner of the eye to close the tear duct and said Muslims can still take the medication outside daylight hours, when food and drink can be consumed”, says The Times.
What are the rules in Muslim countries during Ramadan?
In many Muslim countries, visitors are expected to abide by the restrictions of Ramadan, at least in public, meaning no eating, drinking, chewing gum or smoking during the day.
The UK Foreign Office says non-Muslims should show respect to those who are fasting and pay attention so as not to offend Islamic values. It also warns that in some countries “if you demonstrate culturally insensitive behaviour that offends, you could be arrested”.
Loud music and dancing is considered disrespectful during Ramadan and some restaurants will close or amend their opening hours. Travellers are advised to stock up on food in their hotel room, unless they want to rise early for a big pre-dawn breakfast and stay up late to break the fast.
The Foreign Office even warns that driving “may be more erratic than usual, particularly during the later afternoon and early evening”, and tells travellers to be patient and show tolerance during this time.
“Take extra care about your clothing during the holy month,” it adds. “Ensure you dress modestly as standards may be policed even more carefully than usual.”
What’s Vimto got to do with it?
Somewhat surprisingly, the annual fasting month seems to have a positive impact on the sales of Vimto. For decades, Ramadan has coincided with a major spike in sales of the quintessentially British drink, with more than half of overall sales taking place during the holy month.
In the Middle East, 35 million bottles are sold each year, with the region now home to the world’s most enthusiastic guzzlers outside the UK, The Guardian reports. Saudi Arabia is the biggest non-domestic market for Nichols, Vimto’s Warrington-based manufacturer, followed by Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
The company’s John Nichols has previously said there are parts of the Middle East where the drink “is better known than parts of Britain”. The Vimto sold in the Gulf is likely to provide a much-needed boost as it is sweeter than the version you’ll find in Britain, The Daily Telegraph reports. The tonic is made of a blend of blackcurrant, raspberry and a secret mix of 29 herbs and spices.