DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Muslims in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, and much of the Middle East, including Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, will fast on Monday for the start of the month of Ramadan.
Millions more, however, in India, Pakistan and Iran, will likely be marking the start of the lunar month on Tuesday based on moon sightings there.
Muslims follow a lunar calendar, and a moon-sighting methodology can lead to different countries declaring the start of Ramadan a day or two apart. Traditionally, countries announce if their moon-sighting council spots the Ramadan crescent the evening before fasting begins.
Across the world, Muslims fast each day for the entire month of Ramadan, abstaining from food and drink from dawn to dusk. That means around 15 hours without food, water, cigarettes or caffeine.
Fasting is aimed at drawing worshippers closer to God through self-control, remembrance and humility. The challenge of fasting for many is also a chance to reset spiritually and physically, kick bad habits and purify the heart.
During the day, Muslims must also abstain from sex, gossip and cursing, and are encouraged to focus on meditative acts like prayer, reading the Quran and charity.
It’s common practice across many Muslim-majority nations for liquor stores and hotels to curb the sale of alcohol during Ramadan. Often, restaurants shutter their doors during the day.
Those exempt from fasting include children, the elderly, the sick, women who are pregnant, nursing or menstruating, and people travelling.
The Ramadan fast begins with a pre-dawn meal called “suhoor” to prepare hungry stomachs for the long day ahead. A typical suhoor often includes bread, vegetables, fruits, yogurt, tea, as well as lentils and beans.
At sunset, when it’s time to mark the end of the daylong fast, families and friends gather for an evening meal known as “iftar.”
Muslims typically break their fast as the Prophet Muhammad did some 1,400 years ago, by eating sweet dates and drinking water, followed by a sunset prayer. Then, the iftar meals are enjoyed. These are often lavish affairs of home-cooked platters of rice, stews and meat, as well as spreads of desserts and other sweets.
Once the start of the holy month is declared, Muslims share holiday greetings such as “Ramadan Mubarak,” or “blessed Ramadan,” via text messages, calls and emails to family and friends.
Another hallmark of Ramadan is nightly prayer at the mosque among Sunni Muslims called “taraweeh.”
Egyptians follow the tradition of the “fanoos,” a Ramadan lantern that is often the centerpiece at an iftar table or seen hanging in shop windows and from balconies.
Increasingly common are Ramadan tents in five-star hotels that offer lavish and pricey meals throughout the evening. While Ramadan is a boon for retailers in the Middle East and South Asia, critics say the holy month is increasingly becoming commercialized.
Scholars have also been disturbed by the proliferation of evening television shows during Ramadan. In the Arab world, month-long soap operas rake in millions of dollars in advertising.
The end of Ramadan is marked by intense worship as Muslims ask to have their prayers answered during “Laylat al-Qadr” or “the Night of Destiny.” Muslims believe that on this occasion, which is usually observed on the 27th day of Ramadan, God sent the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad and revealed the first verses of the Quran.
After these intense nights of prayer, the end of Ramadan is met with a holiday called Eid al-Fitr. Children often receive new clothes, gifts and cash.
Muslims attend early morning Eid prayers the day after Ramadan. Families typically spend the day at parks, eating in the sunshine for the first time in a month.