How over 1.5 billion Muslims commemorate a shared history and come together in community.
Near the start of the ninth month on the Islamic calendar each year, eyes begin to scan the night skies with anticipation. Just as generations have done before, many search for a sign of something momentous: the pale sliver of a new crescent moon. The emergence of this moon will mark the start of Ramadan, a holy month steeped in cultural history and traditions around fasting, reflection, spirituality, and community. Fluctuating each year with the lunar cycles, it’s predicted that Ramadan 2023 will begin around March 22, and end on April 21.
With over a billion people observing Ramadan, some aspects look different between unique communities and families. In Turkey, for instance, drummers march through the streets to announce the morning’s pre-dawn meal (suhoor); canons fire for the evening meal (iftar) in Syria; in the UAE, Haq Al Laila is beloved by children in the month leading up to Ramadan, where they dress up and collect sweets in their community while singing songs. What ties many of these traditions together are shared cultural roots, and a spiritually meaningful history that’s been commemorated for over a thousand years.
The Meaning Behind the New Moon
Like many great origin stories, Ramadan can be traced back to seemingly simple beginnings. It all began with the Cave of Hira one night in 610 CE, where the Prophet Muhammad was meditating. The angel Jibreel appeared to him and revealed the earliest known passages of what would become known as the holy Qur’an, and told him he was sent by Allah to spread His teachings. After the angel imparted the words of Allah, another miraculous thing happened—Muhammad was able to recite back what he had heard, without even having been able to read or write any of it down.
Ramadan Global Celebration, Video Credit: ClickView
But why celebrate at this specific time of year? This month is believed to be when the events of this story—known as Laylat al-Qadr or The Night of Power—occurred, and each month in the Islamic lunar calendar is marked by the sighting of a new moon. Laylat al-Qadr falls during the last 10 days of Ramadan and is considered the holiest night, where sins may be forgiven and blessings are especially abundant.
Ramadan Fasting Traditions
To commemorate the revelation of the Qur’an, Muslims who are able to observe by fasting (sawm) abstain from food and drink during daylight hours to come closer to “God-consciousness” (taqwa) and find spiritual renewal during Ramadan. The fasting period is used to help practice self-discipline, pray, read the Qur’an, and reflect on faith and those who are less fortunate. Sawm is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith, but Ramadan, in particular, emphasizes its importance to mark meaningful elements of each day. For instance, sunset ends the day's fast and marks the beginning of Maghrib prayers. Among other widely upheld traditions, it’s considered sunnah—the way of the Prophet Muhammad—to break one’s fast by eating dates before the evening meal (iftar) with loved ones, and to start each day with a pre-dawn meal (suhoor).
Bringing People Together
As much as Ramadan is about self-reflection, it also focuses on bringing loved ones and communities closer together and having more empathy for those around us. Many will perform acts of charity and kindness during Ramadan, such as raising money to give back to communities or hosting communal iftar meals. Closer to home, those who observe this special time have especially warm recollections of quality time spent with family. Some of the memories that seem to stand out the most can be found in kitchens and around meals, breaking fast together:
“The preparation for iftar in my family started with making a light and delicious soup such as my favorite creamy chicken and oat soup. We would also make or buy some zoolbia bamieh, which is fried dough coated in saffron syrup. Dates and walnuts would always be on our table to break the fast alongside some warm water … While these days many love walnut and date balls (also known as energy balls) we would turn this combination into ranginak (my favorite date treat!) which is a classic date and walnut dessert popular in the southern regions of Iran …
Ramadan is about community and sharing. At the right time, many Muslims gather and share meals for iftar. We would host friends and family for iftar, and sometimes we would make iftar packages with a sandwich, something sweet, fruit juice and fruit to share with the disadvantaged … In Istanbul, one even sees iftars hosted in public places, usually around mosques, and anyone who passes by is welcome to the tables. That sense of community and sharing is what I love the most about Ramadan. Regardless of whether you choose to fast, you’re always welcome to an iftar table.” - Shadi Hasanzadenemati
“My best memory would be when I was a teenager and my father would wake me in the early mornings of Ramadan to have suhoor with my mother and three brothers. Those moments always felt very special.” - Faiza Bouguessa
In the communal spirit of Ramadan, we invite you to gather with your loved ones and start a conversation around traditions and memories that make this time of year special to you. Explore our Conversation Tool, where you can find questions and thought-provoking prompts for the whole family.
What are your favourite Ramadan memories? Share in the comments below!
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