As the Muslim population in the U.S. has grown, the Islamic holy month of Ramadan has become a fixture on the nation’s religious calendar. But most non-Muslims remain unfamiliar with Ramadan’s meaning and practices. Here's a primer.

As the Muslim population in the U.S. has grown, the Islamic holy month of Ramadan has become a fixture on the nation’s religious calendar. But most non-Muslims remain unfamiliar with Ramadan’s meaning and practices. With Ramadan about to begin – it starts Saturday – local Muslims explain the observance in their own words.


The Quran on Ramadan


“Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down the Quran, as a guide to mankind, also clear (signs) for guidance and judgment (between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting, but if anyone is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (should be made up) by days later. Allah intends every facility for you; He does not want to put to difficulties. (He wants you) to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you; and perchance ye shall be grateful.”


-- Sura 2:185, Yusuf Ali translation (Islamicity.com)


What is Ramadan?


It’s the ninth and holiest month in the Muslim calendar. Fasting and other practices are commanded by the Quran. The name is taken from Arabic word for intense heat and sun-scorched ground – a poetic image for the discipline of fasting.


It’s one of the five pillars of Islam. The five pillars are:



Profession of faith in Allah and the prophet Muhammad
Daily prayers
Alms giving for the poor
Ramadan fasting
Pilgrimage to Mecca

Muslims are required to abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and having sex during the daylight hours of this month.


When is it?


This year the 30-day observance begins on Saturday, Aug. 22, and ends on Sunday, Sept. 20. The last 10 days are considered a more deeply spiritual time, especially the Night of Power. The three-day celebration that ends Ramadan is called Eid al-Fitr (which means “Feast of Fast-Breaking.”)


Muslims follow a lunar calendar, so Ramadan is calculated by the times of sunset and moonrise in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Islam’s holiest city.


Daily activities



Fast from sunrise to sunset (from about 4:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.)
Quran reading and recitation
Nightly prayer services
Iftar dinners, breaking the daily fast

Iftar: Breaking the fast


After sunset every evening of Ramadan, families and congregations gather for an iftar dinner to celebrate the end of the day’s fast.


The dinner always begins with dates and water or milk, followed by dishes that reflect the cuisines and traditions of those who’ve gathered for the meal – from Mediterranean baba ganoush and baklava to the curried lamb and chicken of Pakistan and Bangladesh.


Amina Yusuf enjoys anything she is served at the iftars hosted by the Islamic Center in Quincy, Mass.


“It means I don’t have to cook for 30 nights,” she said.


Non-Muslims are welcome to the table, too.


“I would love to see them come,” Imam Khalid Nasr said.


The night of power


Similar to Christian Easter and Jewish Passover in its importance to the faith, the Night of Power commemorates the revelation of the first verses of the Quran to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel.


As an observance that’s “better than a thousand months,” as the Quran says, it is a time for prolonged prayer and Quran study, which may last all night. Most Muslims believe their fate for the following year is decided on this night.


By tradition it falls on the 27th night of Ramadan, though the date is not specified in the Quran. Scholars say the Night of Power appears to have been adopted from the pre-Islamic date of the Arab new year.


What do Muslims gain from Ramadan fasting?


More than anything else about Ramadan, many Muslims say that non-Muslims don’t understand the practice of daily fasting. Here, a number of local Muslims explain to Patriot Ledger reporter Lane Lambert what it means to them and why they do it.


“It’s a time to renew our relationship with God and one another.


“I’ve known Muslims who aren’t observant the other 11 months, but they get religion during Ramadan. They really want to do what they’re supposed to do.” -- Imam Talal Eid, Quincy, Islamic Institute of Boston


“It’s not a painful test. You feel the hunger not because God wants to punish you but because other people (who are poor) are already feeling it.” -- Imam Khalid Nasr, Islamic Center of New England, Quincy


“Unless you feel the hunger yourself, how can you put yourself in other people’s shoes?” -- Dr. Zulfi Mir, Quincy, Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates


“What you also get is the feeling of community. Everybody is doing this with you.” -- Amani Yusuf, Boston, Islamic Center member and teacher


“The first day is difficult, but after that it’s not so hard. People (who aren’t Muslim) think we’re starving, but spiritually, you’re at the top.” -- Sana, Islamic Center member


“The point is to be cheerful. It’s a meaningful trial. There’s a great spiritual reward and benefit to it. You’re training your will. You learn self-restraint. ... You don’t want to come to Ramadan half-hearted. You want to be ready to do it.” -- Ahmad Abdul-Rahim, Brookline, Islamic Center member and teacher


“It’s a spiritual fast, too. It’s a recharging for the entire year.” -- Imam Khalid Nasr


“And you end up being a healthier person. Medical studies have shown this.” -- Dr. Zulfi Mir


What to eat after the fast


“You want to eat things that will take you to midday. Then you start feeling the hunger.” -- Imam Khalid Nasr


“Things with fiber like vegetables, fruit and juice are recommended by Islamic medicine. Those take longer to digest, so you don’t notice as soon that you’re getting hungry.” -- Imam Talal Eid


“Nothing too heavy. Fruits and vegetables.” -- Ahmad Abdul-Rahim


“The usual – eggs, sausage, pancakes.” -- Amani Yusuf


“You don’t change your activities. You work and do what you would usually do every day.” -- Dr. Zulfi Mir


The Patriot Ledger