This year Ramadan, a sacred period of spiritual reflection for Muslim communities, is observed March 11 through April 11. During this time, common greetings to those who participate in the observance include “Ramadan Mubarak” (Blessed Ramadan) or “Ramadan Kareem” (May Ramadan be generous to you).

The Pew Research Center estimates as of 2020 there are 1.9 billion Muslims worldwide, making it the second-largest largest major religious group. And while Islam is widely practiced, many people still may not be familiar with what Ramadan is.

Here Cyrus Zargar, Endowed Al-Ghazali Distinguished Professor in Islamic studies, director of the program and an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy, shares some insight on the meaning and practices of this multifaceted celebration. And the Office of Institutional Equity reminds the campus community of guidelines for respecting religious observances.

What is the significance of Ramadan?

The Quran tells Muslims that it is the month in which the Quran was revealed, and so it is thought to have great blessings in it. It is a time to draw closer to God and to work on oneself ethically and spiritually, investing in social justice, helping the poor, and committing oneself to service. Because of a Quranic commandment to fast in this month, fasting has a been a practice of the Muslim community since the time of Muhammad.

When does the month of Ramadan occur?

It is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, which is a lunar calendar. The calendar that has become commonly used internationally is a solar calendar. The difference between them is a lunar month will always be 29 days or 30 days, and that adds up at the end of the year to a year that is 11 days shorter than a solar year. This results in the month of Ramadan’s shifting 11 days every year relative to the Gregorian calendar.

What is included in the fast and are there exceptions to who must fast?

The fast involves abstaining from food, drink, and conjugal relations from dawn until sunset. Those who should not fast include travelers, the sick, and the elderly.

How can non-Muslim individuals be more respectful or considerate of Muslim individuals partaking in Ramadan?

The most important thing a person can do in the month of Ramadan is to be aware that it is the month of Ramadan. Be cognizant that, if someone is fasting, their energy levels might be lower. They might appear drowsy at times, or yawn more often, but that should not be misinterpreted as a lack of effort or interest.

As an expression of etiquette and interfaith empathy, I would say to avoid expecting a fasting person to be present at lunch meetings, if possible. Even if a person says that he or she is happy to attend, it would be thoughtful to accommodate a fasting person by being aware of their fatigue, hunger, and thirst, as much as possible.

What are the daily meals for breaking or preparing for fasting?

Iftar is the breaking of the fast meal. That is very often a time for communities to get together. The month of Ramadan is a month-long celebration and a very happy time. People will often break the fast together. Since a person would not want to fast on an empty stomach, there is also the pre-dawn meal called suhur or suhoor.

Are there any special foods that are eaten during Ramadan?

Because Islam is so widely practiced it is culturally diverse, so special foods people have depend on where they might be from. That being said, there is one food I would associate with the month of Ramadan: dates. It is known that the Prophet Muhammad would break his fast with dates, so it has become quite common for many Muslims of various cultural origins to break their fast with dates.

How does Ramadan emphasize a joyous sense of community?

I think the month of Ramadan can seem austere to those who have never fasted. In fact, though, fasting and breaking the fast are communal activities, and there is a sense of great joy associated with these practices. There is a kind of jubilation that sets in and is shared when everyone breaks the fast, an energy that carries people through the night. On one hand, people might be involved in prayer and reciting the Quran together. On the other hand, though, many will socialize at night. They might stay up, watch TV, snack, talk and engage in other fun social activities. That’s why the month of Ramadan during the pandemic has been an especially trying time, because it has limited the ways in which people can celebrate together.

What prayer practices are applied during Ramadan?

There are five required daily prayers practiced year-round, but many will engage in extra prayers during this month. One of the most observed forms of supererogatory prayer during the month of Ramadan is taraweeh, a communal prayer that is held in many mosques.

We often use the word “prayer” as a translation for Muslim modes of worship, but prayer can actually mean different things. Very often, for non-Muslim English-speakers the word “prayer” means to speak to God, in the form of a request or supplication. This is one type of prayer in Islam that is practiced quite a lot in this month. The prayer we are talking about, with taraweeh, is a more formal prayer. Certain formulae are mentioned at certain times, along with certain positions, such as bowing or prostrating with one’s head on the ground.

The recitation of the Quran is also a common practice. Many Muslims will try to read the entire Quran in the month of Ramadan. In fact, one way the Quran is divided is into 30 parts, so a person can read one of those 30 parts every night, completing the Quran during Ramadan.

What is Laylat al-Qadr or the Night of Destiny?

The Quran describes Laylat al-Qadr, or the Night of Destiny, as the night in which the Quran was revealed, a night that is better than 1,000 months. It has been reported in the sayings of Muhammad that this night is one of the last 10 odd nights in the month of Ramadan. Because these odd nights might be that special night when the Quran was first revealed, acts of worship and spiritual exercises have more value during this time. Some will stay up all night trying to benefit from it. Mosques will often be open throughout the night, and people will be involved in prayer, as a way to realize the special significance of that night.

How are acts of charity an important element of Ramadan?

Daily acts of charity in this month might include feeding the poor or feeding other fasting Muslims. Very often there will be sponsors for big iftars at mosques and elsewhere who will feed the community. There are also food drives along with all sorts charity events during this month, because people will feel hunger in the day, which creates a sense of empathy for those who have less. There is also one important act of giving that is an obligation upon Muslims called Zakat al-Fitr, an alms paid on Eid al-Fitr.

What is Eid al-Fitr?

Eid al-Fitr is the first day following the month of Ramadan, so the first day of the 10th month of the Islamic calendar, Shawwal. For some people Eid al-Fitr celebrations will last up to three days. It is much like what you’d expect a feast day to be. People gather for a formal prayer that includes two sermons. Families and friends visit one another, eat, talk, and socialize. Often people will wear new clothes and sometimes exchange gifts. It is a very happy time.

The Muslim Student Association at UCF will be hosting a Ramadan interfaith dinner April 8 in the Pegasus Ballroom. Doors open at 6:15 p.m. and all students, faculty and staff are welcome to attend. For more details, follow @MSA_UCF on Instagram.

Cyrus Zargar completed his bachelor’s in English literature with a minor in Latin at UCLA. It was there that he developed an interest in Sufi poetry and comparative literature that led him to Islamic studies, which he explored in graduate school. He earned a master’s and doctorate in Near East studies from the University of California, Berkeley.