In many religions, followers observe holidays that, while including joyful celebrations, also require self-discipline. Yom Kippur, for example, is one of the holiest days in Judaism. During this time, many practicing Jewish people don’t eat or drink anything for 25 hours. Catholics observe Lent, a season of prayer and fasting, for 40 days in preparation for Easter. In many sects of Buddhism and in Hinduism, people avoid eating during certain times of the day or on certain days of the month that coincide with moon phases.
Similarly, people who practice Islam celebrate a monthlong holiday called Ramadan. To observant Muslims, Ramadan is the holiest month of the year. It’s a period that Muslims believe coincides with the time long ago when an angel revealed Allah’s, or God’s, first verses of the Quran, Islam’s sacred religious text, to Muhammad, a prophet and messenger who later delivered these words to the people.
One of the most common Ramadan traditions involves fasting from sunrise to sunset throughout the holy month, with the goal of drawing closer to Allah and cultivating self-discipline. However, Ramadan is also a joyful time when people gather with friends and family, host delicious feasts and focus on charitable giving. Learn more about the origins of this important holiday and the key celebrations that make Ramadan one of the most sacred yet festive months of the year in Islam.
The Night of Destiny and the Origins of Ramadan
Ramadan celebrates the revelation of the Quran — when the words of this scripture were first revealed to Muhammad. Muhammad was born sometime around 570 A.D. in present-day Saudi Arabia and spent much of his young-adult life working as a merchant. He was deeply religious and frequently made pilgrimages to worship at sacred sites around Mecca, the holiest city in Islam and Muhammad’s birthplace. One evening, when he was around 40 years old, he was meditating in a cave at Mt. Hira, a site near Mecca. It was during this time that Muslims believe the angel Jibril appeared to Muhammad and spoke Allah’s words, which were the basis for the Quran. This night is called Laylat ul-Qadr, or the Night of Destiny.
Today, the Night of Destiny is one of the most important days of Ramadan. It typically occurs within the last 10 days of the holiday and is a time when Muslims believe Allah will decide their fates for the coming year. It’s also a day of repentance and prayer during which many Muslims ask for forgiveness for sins and reflect on the lessons of the previous year. They’re encouraged to study the Quran, recite verses and seek to fully understand its teachings on the Night of Destiny.
Although the Night of Destiny is particularly meaningful, Ramadan lasts for about a month. The dates vary each year and occur during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, beginning when one crescent moon is observed in the sky and ending when people see the next crescent moon. The entire month serves to commemorate Muhammad’s initial encounter with Jibril and the revelation of Allah’s word, which forms the foundation of the religion of Islam itself.
One of the essential ways people observe Ramadan is by fasting. Each day during the holy month, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and having sexual intercourse between sunrise and sunset. Instead of engaging in these activities, people use the time to focus on self-improvement, self-discipline, worship and reflection while being reminded of their blessings, including having enough to eat. Fasting also teaches patience and compassion.
During Ramadan, people typically eat a morning meal called “suhoor” before the sun rises. This provides energy to last until “iftar,” which is the evening meal that breaks people’s fast after the sun sets. Iftar meals are exciting events where families and communities come together to eat and celebrate. These feasts often include numerous courses of salads, stews, stuffed vegetables and a variety of delicious side dishes.
In addition to fasting, people also focus on charitable giving during Ramadan. Fasting is a reminder that not everyone shares the same access to food and other resources, and the month serves as a time to help those who don’t have as much. Many Muslims donate a portion of their income to charity during this time. Gift-giving is common during Ramadan, too, and some people donate to charity on others’ behalf in lieu of exchanging physical gifts.
The month of Ramadan concludes with another holiday called Eid al-Fitr, or the Breaking of the Fast. This celebration lasts for between one and three days and is marked by the recitation of special morning prayers and a large feast that features plenty of desserts. During Eid al-Fitr, people also visit older relatives to show respect and donate a little extra money to charity.
Important Ramadan Symbols
Several motifs and symbols are commonly used to represent Ramadan. You might see these symbols at Ramadan feasts or decorating Muslim communities and celebrations throughout the month. Each one reflects an important principle or tradition of the holiday.
- Lanterns: Elaborate metal and glass lamps called “fanoos” are often hung along streets and in homes at night during Ramadan. During the ninth century, a famous Muslim prayer leader made his way into Egypt on a night of Ramadan. The Egyptians welcomed him with glowing candles, which sparked the tradition of hanging lanterns during the holy month. Today, the lanterns represent a “welcoming in” of Ramadan and the spiritual guidance people hope to achieve throughout the month.
- Dates: These sweet pitted fruits that grow on palm trees are staples of Middle Eastern and Muslim cuisines, and they’re even more commonly eaten during Ramadan. It’s said that Prophet Muhammad fasted frequently, and each time he broke his fast, he did so with a single date. Throughout Ramadan, dates are a reminder to focus on simplicity. Many Muslims also break their fasts by eating dates as a first course during the iftar meal.
- Drums: To ensure people don’t sleep through their suhoor breakfast, Ramadan drummers walk through villages while playing drums and reciting poetry in an effort to wake everyone up and remind them to eat. Many families anticipate their neighborhood drummer’s arrival and gather outside to hear the poetry and songs.
Although these symbols represent important concepts associated with Ramadan, people’s actions are what are most important in this month. Ramadan is a time to reflect on the previous year and cultivate a renewed focus on prayer, togetherness, forgiveness and charitable giving — a personal transformation that can help make one’s community a better place.