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Ramadan or Ramadhan is the ninth month in the Islamic year. Siyam or Saum is the fourth of the Five Pillars of Islam and involves fasting during Ramadan.

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The timing of Ramadan

The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, and months begin when the first crescent of a new moon is sighted. While many Muslim sects insist on the physical sighting of the moon, there is no such requirement in the Quran, and some Muslims allow that the start of the month can be determined by astronomical calculations. Because the Islamic calendar has no correction for the fact that the lunar year is 11 to 12 days shorter than the solar year, Ramadan migrates throughout the seasons.

The observance of Ramadan

Siyam or Saum is the name for the fourth pillar of Islam and places a number of restrictions on the activities of Muslims during Ramadan.

Who observes Ramadan?

There are a number of groups of people who do not need to observe Ramadan, though they may if they wish:

  • Children before the onset of puberty
  • Soldiers on the battlefield
  • Travellers in the desert
  • Weak or elderly people
  • Pregnant women, if they feel it might endanger their child
  • Menstruating women
  • non-Muslims, in particular people of the Book such as Jews and Christians

Sick people, travellers, and menstruating women are expected to make up any days they miss during another period of the same year.

What is Prohibited?

The prohibitions only extend during daylight hours. Traditionally this begins in the morning from the moment a white thread can be distinguished from a black thread. The night consequently is a time of pleasure and indulgence.

The following things are forbidden during daylight hours:

  • Eating and drinking. There is a dispute as to whether the swallowing of saliva is forbidden.
  • Sexual intercourse or touching someone of the opposite sex
  • Playing games of chance
  • Smoking

What is Encouraged?

The usual practice is to have a pre-fast meal (suhoor) before dawn and a post-fast meal (iftar) after sunset.

During the month, Muslims try to read as much of the Qur'an as they can. Some spend part of their day listening to the recitation of the Quran in a mosque or meeting for Quranic studies or for congregational prayers. Believers are admonished not to swear or utter vulgarities during the month of Ramadhan.

The last ten days of Ramadan are a time of even greater devotion; some Muslims spend the entire time in a mosque. The night on which the Quran was revealed to the Prophet, known as the Night of Power (Lailat ul-Qadr), is generally taken to be the 27th night of the month. Many Muslims spend that entire night in prayer.

The celebration of Eid ul-Fitr, the feast at the end of the month to break the fast, is a traditional practice rather than a religious one.

What is the purpose?

The Siyam is intended to teach the believers patience and self-control, and to remind them of the less fortunate in the world. The fast is also seen as a debt owed by the believer to God. Faithful observance of the Siyam is believed to atone for personal faults and misdeeds, at least in part, and to help earn a place in paradise. It is also believed to be beneficial for personal conduct, that is, to help control passions and temper. The fast is also meant to provide time for meditation and to strengthen one's faith.

Military Operations

Non-Muslims are sometimes sensitive about not giving offence during Ramadan -- for example, by conducting military operations. Numerous examples indicate that this sensitivity is unnecessary: Muhammad himself fought during Ramadan in 624. In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel during Ramadan, which happened that year to coincide with the Jewish Yom Kippur. In 1982, Iran launched an attack on Iraq that they explicitly called "Operation Ramadan." Muslims have rarely shown any reluctance to wage war during Ramadan.

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