Hossein Kamaly is a professor at Barnard College who specializes in Islamic studies and Middle Eastern history. In an interview, he explained the basic tenets of Ramadan, the holiest month of the Muslim calendar, which begins on Monday for most of the world’s Muslims. The interview has been edited and condensed.
What is the significance of Ramadan? What is the event being observed?
All days may be equal on a secular calendar, but on religious calendars they are not: Some are more equal than others.
On the Muslim calendar, the entire month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Arabic lunar calendar, marks the most special of all occasions. It is a celebration of the descent of the word of God, the Quran, from heaven to the earth.
During Ramadan, the gates of heaven are open wider than ever. Just as the word of God has come down, the word of supplicants goes up to God, more efficaciously than any other time.
Fasting during Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Why is abstaining from food and drink, and from other bodily pleasures, a crucial element of the observation? What is the spiritual significance of the fasting?
To partake in the blessings of the month of Ramadan, able-bodied women and men, also girls and boys who have reached the age of religious observance, are required to fast for the duration of this month.
As prescribed in the Quran, the daily fast starts before sunrise and ends at sunset.
Those who cannot abandon eating and drinking, because of old age, illness or other reasons, are exempted from fasting, but they still may partake in the blessings of this month.
In addition to fasting, what are some of the other most common ways the month is honored by believers?
Ramadan is more than abstinence from food and drink during the hours of daylight. It is a time for contemplation, devotion and remembrance of God, especially through the reading or recitation of the Quran.
Tending to the welfare of the less fortunate members of the community, giving to the poor — especially at the end of the month — is also important.
Intensive self-reflection and increased God-consciousness during the month of Ramadan is meant to subdue and suppress familiar misdeeds, such as backbiting, holding grudges and telling lies.
One of the most significant hallmarks of the month of Ramadan is known as the Night of Destiny, Night of Measure or Night of Value: Lailat al Qadr, in Arabic. The Quran says that on this special night, angels descend from heaven — most important, the archangel Gabriel — bringing peace and divine presence into the world. It is not specified exactly which night of the month of Ramadan may be the Night of Destiny; therefore, each and every night should be treated as a possible candidate.
Are there any significant variations in the way Ramadan is observed?
Observances of the month of Ramadan may vary in form and content from one community to the next. For example, Shiite Muslims wait until the signs of dusk dissipate on the horizon before breaking their fast, or iftar in Arabic, which may be a few minutes after most Sunni Muslims. An important development, especially in the United States, is to welcome non-Muslims to ifṭars. – The New York Times