Ramadan: Important Dates, Traditions and Fasting

In April 2021 Muslims around the world will be observing Ramadan. Find out when Ramadan 2021 is and read about its traditions

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There are approximately 2 billion Muslims in the world, and almost 3.5 million of them live in the United States. Countries with the largest Muslim populations are Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Egypt, Iran and Turkey. 

In April 2021, Muslims all over the world will be observing Ramadan. What’s Ramadan? It’s a time—a whole month, to be exact—for widespread spiritual reflection. It is believed that the word “Ramadan” stems from the Arabic root “ar-ramad,” which means scorching heat. Muslims believe that in A.D. 610, the Prophet Muhammad received revelations from Allah via the Angel Gabriel. The revelations were collected into the Quran, the holy book of Islam. 

If you’re looking to learn more about the traditions, practices of fasting and other important dates surrounding Ramadan, you’re in luck. We’ve compiled all that for you here in a handy guide!

What Is Ramadan?

A mosque at night

Ramadan is the most sacred month in the Islamic faith. It falls on the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is observed by Muslims across the globe as a commemoration of Allah giving the prophet Muhammad the first chapters of the Quran. During Ramadan, Muslims fast, abstain from pleasures, pray, serve their community and spend time with their families. 

Sawn, or the practice of fasting during Ramadan, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam along with Shahada (faith), Salat (prayer), Zakat (supporting the less fortunate) and Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca).   

How Sunni and Shia Muslims Observe Ramadan  

The two main branches of modern Islam are Sunni and Shia. These two sects agree on most of the fundamental beliefs and practices of Islam: they believe in Allah as their one true God, and in the Quran as their holy text. 

Sunnis make up almost 90% of the global Muslim population. The majority of Muslims in Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, China, Syria and Saudi Arabia are Sunnis. 

The majority of Shia Muslims live in Iran, southern Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Azerbaijan and Yemen. Shia communities can also be found in Afghanistan, UAE, India, Pakistan, Kuwait, Qatar, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. 

Both branches observe Ramadan, but there are some slight differences in how they do so. Sunni Muslims break their fast at sunset, when the sun is no longer visible, but there is still some light in the sky. Shia Muslims wait until all light has gone before they break their fast. Shiites also celebrate Ali, a cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, on the 19th, 20th and 21st days of Ramadan, in memory of the caliph. 

When Is Ramadan? The Important Dates

The notable dates of Ramadan change every year. Muslims follow a lunar calendar, which is 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar.

Ramadan 2021 will begin on the evening of April 12th and end on the evening of May 12th. Observances traditionally begin the morning after the crescent moon is visible over Mecca, marking the beginning of the ninth month. In some countries, Ramadan does not begin until religious leaders confirm that they have personally sighted the new moon. 

At the end of the 29- or 30-day fast (depending on the length of the lunar cycle), Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr to mark the end of Ramadan. Eid al-Fitr 2021 in the U.S. will begin on the evening of Wednesday, May 12th and end on the evening of Thursday, May 13th. Depending on the country, Eid can be a two- or a three-day celebration.

Today, since Muslims live all over the world, tracking the moon over Mecca can get confusing and challenging. Some Muslims use mobile apps to track moon phases and even log their fasting and meals. Some of the more popular apps used for this purpose include Muslim Pro and Sun n Moon.  

Ramadan Traditions, Do’s & Don’ts

An infographic about Ramadan

Muslims fast for the whole month of Ramadan, from sunrise to sunset. No food or water can be consumed during this time. Muslims believe that fasting cleanses the body, making one’s relationship with God—or Allah—stronger. It has also traditionally reminded more fortunate families of the suffering of the poor. 

Muslims start fasting once they reach puberty, usually around the age of 12 or 14, though sometimes younger children express the desire to participate in the fast. Some people are exempt from fasting: folks like travelers, the elderly and the ill, as well as pregnant, breastfeeding and menstruating women. 

Fasting at certain points of life can be challenging, but practicing Muslims have the opportunity to make up lost days at a later point in the year. If they aren’t able to, they’re encouraged to feed a less fortunate person or family instead. This practice, known as fidyah, also ties back to one of the Five Pillars of Islam.

One of the most important aspects of the Ramadan fast is called niyyah, which means “intention.” Niyyah is the intention one has in their heart to perform an act in order to worship Allah. So, to properly fast, one needs to fully understand why they’re doing it.  

Apart from abstaining from food and drink, Muslims also refrain from sex and smoking, as well as unkind thoughts and/or words (i.e., swearing or gossip) and actions (i.e., lying or arguing with loved ones). 

It’s important to remember that the holy month of Ramadan isn’t solely about the fasting. It is also a time for reflection, prayer, charity, volunteering and reconnecting with family, friends and neighbors. 

Ramadan Foods: Suhoor, Iftar and Eid al-Fitr

Dates on a plate

During Ramadan, Muslims wake up before dawn to eat the first meal of the day, sahūr or suhoor. Suhoor traditionally includes high-protein and high-fiber foods and a lot of liquids, especially water. The dishes consumed at suhoor may include eggs, fish, halal chicken, grains (i.e., oats), nuts, fruit and more. Then at dawn, the morning prayer is performed. Some people choose to go back to bed for a little while before waking up again and going about their day.

The next meal only happens after sunset, and it is called iftar. For iftar, it’s customary to break the fast by first eating dates or drinking water, as the Prophet Muhammad did. Foods traditionally served at iftar vary from country to country. In Afghanistan, onion-based curries, kebabs, soups and rice are commonly consumed. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, traditional meals can include meat curries, paratha bread, eggplant beguni, jalebis and fruit salads. In Morocco, people enjoy Harira, a traditional soup made with tomato, lentils and chickpeas, as well as stuffed dates and pancakes (meloui or msemen). In the Middle East, a vegetable-rich fattoush salad is common. And in many countries from India to the Middle East, shorba is a traditional Ramadan soup. 

Both the suhoor and iftar meals tend to contain fruit, veggies, breads, halal meats and sweet treats.

Kourabiethes (Almond Biscuits) with powdered sugar

Ramadan ends with the three-day feast of Eid al-Fitr, which directly translates to “the feast of breaking the fast.” During Eid, Muslims are encouraged to forgive and seek forgiveness. Sweet dishes are prepared and gifts are given to children and people and families in need. Eid al-Fitr is also known as “Sweet Eid” (as opposed to Salty Eid, or Eid al-Adha, which happens later in the year) because of the amount of sweet treats Muslims consume on this occasion. 

How Non-Muslims Can Support Muslims During Ramadan 

In some countries, it is illegal to consume food in public between sunrise and sunset, even for non-Muslims. This is not the case in the U.S., but you should still be sensitive toward your Muslim friends, colleagues and neighbors as they observe Ramadan in their own ways.

Here are some of the ways non-Muslims can support Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan: 

  1. Learn about the history and traditions of Ramadan. You may even try fasting for a day to better understand the experience. 
  2. Don’t compare fasting during Ramadan to diets, and don’t ask your Muslim friends if they lose weight during Ramadan. This is simply not what Ramadan is about. 
  3. Do wish your friends and colleagues a Happy Ramadan!
  4. Try not to eat, drink or smoke in front of your friends or coworkers who are fasting. 
  5. If you’re hosting a dinner or a party and you want to invite your Muslim friends or colleagues, try to schedule it after sunset so they can eat. Remember that many Muslims don’t drink alcohol or eat pork.
  6. Be patient. It is possible that, due to fasting, your Muslim coworkers or classmates will be a little more tired or a little less productive than they usually are. 
  7. If you’re invited to iftar, bring gifts—for example, dates—to the hosts. This will be seen as a warm and respectful gesture during a time when community and kindness are especially celebrated.
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