Fasting is the fourth pillar of Islam, the rest of which also testify to the oneness of God: the prescribed daily prayers, almsgiving and pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.
The fasting month of Ramadan, an Arabic word for intense heat and scorched ground, is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar (Hijri) calendar, established in 638 by the second caliph of the Prophet Mohammed, Omar. The month of Ramadan is considered the most venerated, blessed and spiritually-beneficial month of the Islamic year. During this month prayers, fasting, charity and self-accountability are particularly emphasized and all obligatory religious observances are further encouraged at this time as this month was called by the Prophet, “the month of my people, [Ummah].”
The importance of this month and fasting is stressed in certain verses in the Holy Koran and in innumerous traditions of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him. The verses regarding fasting and the month of Ramadan are in the second chapter of the Koran:
“O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may learn self-restraint (183).
Fasting for a fixed number of days; but if any of you is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed number should be made up from days later. For those who can do it with hardship, is a ransom, the feeding of one that is indigent. But he that will give more, of his own free will -- it is better for him. And it is better for you that you fast, if you only knew (184).
Ramadan is the month in which was sent down the Koran, 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 any one 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 you shall be grateful (185).”
In the lunar calendar, months begin when the first crescent of a new moon is sighted. Since the Islamic lunar calendar year is 11 to 12 days shorter than the solar year, Ramadan migrates throughout the seasons.
The most prominent event of this month is the fasting practiced by most Muslims around the world. Every day during the month of Ramadan, Muslims around the world stop eating about one hour before the sun comes up and break their fast when the fourth prayer of the day, maghrib, is due.
During this holy month, Muslims are also expected to put more efforts into refraining from anger, envy, greed, lust, sarcastic retorts, backbiting and gossip; and encouraged to read the entire Koran. The fast is intended to be an exacting act of deep personal worship in which Muslims seek a heightened level of closeness to God. The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose being to cleanse the inner soul (nafs) and free it from all evil qualities disliked by God. Properly observing the fast is supposed to induce a comfortable feeling of peace and calm. It also allows Muslims to practice self-discipline, sacrifice, as well as sympathy for those less fortunate, intending to make Muslims more generous and charitable.
Muslims celebrate this month also by means of a 20-cycle supererogatory prayer called terawih, held in the mosques every night of the month. Terawih is an Arabic term whose spiritual meaning is “that which puts the soul at comfort.” This prayer takes place after the night prayer and it is encouraged to be performed in congregation. All these extra acts of worship are done partly in remembrance of the fact that the revelation of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed had begun on the 17th day of this month in 610.
The Prophet, through divine inspiration, divided this month into three sections each consisting of 10 days, the first of which is called “rahma,” the mercy of God, the second called “magfirah,” the forgiveness of God, and the last 10 days are called, “nejat,” the salvation from hellfire.