Sawm is the required fasting during the Islamic month of Ramadan. During this lunar month, nothing may be eaten nor drunk from the break of dawn until sunset. Other prohibitions include no sexual activity nor any smoking. Sawm is the opposite of all the other pillars: with shahadah, salat, zakat and hajj, there is an activity to be performed; with sawm, no activity is done. Instead, while fasting during Ramadan, Muslims focus their day around spiritual matters, using the empty feeling in their stomachs to concentrate their minds.
The month of Ramadan has always been an important month for Muslims. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), before the first revelation, would retreat to a cave high up on a mountain near Makkah now known as Jabal an-Nur, the Mountain of Light, for prayer and contemplation. It was during the last third of the month of Ramadan that the Angel Jibril (Gabriel) came to Muhammad (pbuh) and revealed the first verses of the Qur'an on the Night of Power:
Read: In the name of thy Lord who createth, -
Createth man from a clot. -
Read: And thy Lord is the Most Bounteous, -
Who teacheth by the pen, -
Teacheth man that which he knew not. - (96:1-5)
While fasting was encouraged in the early Muslim community (and became a necessity during the Makkahn boycott of the Hashemites, when many Muslims went without food because the non-Muslims of Makkah wouldn't trade with the Banu Hashim clan), fasting during the month of Ramadan did not become obligatory until 2 A.H., the second year after the Muslims had moved to Madinah and the fourteenth year of the Prophet's (pbuh) mission:
O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint,- (2:183)
Now, one of the unique features about Ramadan is that the month is not set to any particular season of the year. The Islamic calendar is a true lunar calendar in which no intercalary days or months are included to make the lunar calendar keep in time with the solar calendar. (Leap Day, February 29th, is an example of an intercalary day. Lunisolar calendars include intercalary days; examples include the Jewish, Chinese and Hindu calendars.) Thus, the Islamic calendar is about eleven days shorter than the solar year, making the Islamic calendar roll "forward." For example, my first Ramadan, back in 2000, began just after Thanksgiving and ended just after Christmas. This year, Ramadan begins on July 9th and ends on August 7th. In roughly 33 years, the Islamic calendar will reach the same point in a solar year.
Likewise, because the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, this means the length of the month may be either 29 or 30 days. In most countries Ramadan starts and finishes based upon the sighting of the crescent moon after a new moon. Once the moon has been sighted, the month will start on the next day. (In a few countries, including Singapore, a calculation method is used. This method is controversial and stirs up debate among Muslims every year; however, in tropical climates, where sighting the moon can be problematic due to cloud cover, the calculation method works well.)
Moreover, because the Islamic calendar adjusts in comparison to the solar calendar, the length of the day in which a Muslim fasts also changes. This is partly due to the latitude at which a person lives and also due to the season. For myself, because I live very near the equator, the amount of time I fast daily is roughly 13 hours per day, regardless of the season. However, as the Islamic calendar moves closer to the summer solstice, Muslims at higher northern latitudes will face longer and longer hours (theoretically up to 24 hours if they lived above the Arctic Circle) and shorter and shorter hours if they live at the higher southern latitudes.
The time at which the fast ends daily is fairly straightforward: at sunset. However, when fasts should begin in the morning is not quite as clean cut. Especially here in Southeast Asia, we actually begin fasting ten minutes prior to the official start time, but what is the official start time? Most Muslims say that it is the break of dawn, meaning when the faintest glow of sunlight first appears in the morning sky. As the Qur'anic verse reads:
Permitted to you, on the night of the fasts, is the approach to your wives. They are your garments and ye are their garments. Allah knoweth what ye used to do secretly among yourselves; but He turned to you and forgave you; so now associate with them, and seek what Allah Hath ordained for you, and eat and drink, until the white thread of dawn appear to you distinct from its black thread; then complete your fast Till the night appears; but do not associate with your wives while ye are in retreat in the mosques. Those are Limits (set by) Allah: Approach not nigh thereto. Thus doth Allah make clear His Signs to men: that they may learn self-restraint. (2:187)
Should the highlighted section of the verse be taken literally or figuratively? Some of the earliest Muslims took the verse literally; however, it really should be taken figuratively:
When the verses were revealed, 'Until the white thread appears to you, distinct from the black thread,' I took two (hair) strings, one black and the other white, and kept them under my pillow and went on looking at them throughout the night but could not make anything out of it. So, the next morning I went to Allah's Apostle and told him the whole story. He explained to me, "That verse means the darkness of the night and the whiteness of the dawn." (Sahih Bukhari; Chapter 31, Fasting, No. 140)
Not everyone is required to fast during Ramadan; there are a number of exemptions. For example, women who are undergoing their menses are exempt. Young children are also exempt, although they must begin fasting by the time they reach puberty. (Actually, many children begin fasting during Ramadan much earlier than that; it's not uncommon for six and seven year olds to try to fast at least until lunch time.) Those who are ill or traveling a significant distance in a day (commuting doesn't count here) are also exempt, although all of these groups with the exception of the children must make up any days they miss fasting later in the year, up through the next Ramadan. For those who can fast but would only be able to do so "with difficulty" (2:184), i.e, women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, or the elderly, they are given the option of either fasting or to feed an indigent person; if they feed the indigent then they are not required to fast. However, for everyone else, fasting is an obligation.
During Ramadan, prayers play a more prominent role during the month than they do the rest of the year. Not only do Muslims pray the five daily prayers (and their associated sunnah prayers), but there are also the nightly tarawih prayers. Tarawih prayers are like regular salat, the formal prayers, except that, instead of a maximum of four raka'at as performed in normal salat, tarawih prayers may be up to eight, twelve or twenty raka'at long. They are also frequently well-attended; in Singapore, tarawih is not only performed at mosques, but also in public spaces (known as void decks) in order to alleviate overcrowding. Tarawih prayers may also include a khutbah (sermon) and the reading of a juz of the Qur'an. (The Qur'an has been split up into 30 juz so that, having recited one juz every night, the entire Qur'an will have been recited during the month of Ramadan.)
Near the end of the month, Muslims are also required to pay a special type of zakat, known as Zakat al-Fitr. This is a small amount of money (frequently about $5 per person) that is collected so that the poorer members of the community may also be to celebrate Eid ul-Fitr. Zakat al-Fitr is obligatory on all Muslims (excepting those who would otherwise be recipients); however, it is not uncommon for the heads of households to pay the zakat on behalf of everyone in that household.
During Ramadan, Muslim communities often celebrate the month with various festivities. Middle Eastern countries are known for their soap operas that play each night during the month. In Singapore, we have an enormous bazaar that springs up in the Geylang Serai neighborhood. This bazaar will have on the order of 1000-1500 merchants setting up booths that sell a wide variety of products to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Most booths sell one of three basic types of products: food (for breaking the fast that evening), household products (to spruce up the home for the Eid visits to come; "spring cleaning" is normally done during Ramadan in Muslim homes), and clothing for Eid. While this is the commercial side of the month, it doesn't compare to the Christmas shopping season, especially in the US, as gift-giving is not normally done during Eid.
On the first day of the month after Ramadan (Shawwal 1), Muslims worldwide celebrate Eid ul-Fitr. This is one of the few days throughout the Islamic year where fasting is expressly prohibited. In the morning, many Muslims will attend Eid prayers. Because so many people turn out for these prayers, facilities other than mosques may be used to accommodate the turnout. For example, one year in Phoenix, I went to Eid prayers at the convention center; another time in Singapore Eid prayers for the neighborhood was held in the middle of a soccer field.
Once the Eid prayer is finished, people begin going to various homes to celebrate. In Singapore, the custom is go to the home of the most elderly relative first. Families normally wear a color-coordinated outfit, which makes for very colorful celebrations. At each home, various sweets will be served and possibly a meal (many will beg off on the meal if they've already eaten at someone else's home). This type of celebration will go on not only through the day of Eid, but for the remainder of the entire month of Shawwal, particularly on weekends. Considering the number of aunts, uncles and cousins my wife has, it's difficult to meet everyone (and have our own celebrations) within one month's time.
Although Ramadan is the only time during the Islamic year where fasting is required, many Muslims fast at other times of the year as well. After Eid ul-Fitr has passed, Muslims may encourage each other to fast an additional six days during the month of Shawwal (the six days do not need to be consecutive, as they are during Ramadan). Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar, is also a non-obligatory day of fasting; actually, Muslims normally fast two days at that time: either the 9th and 10th days of Muharram or the 10th and 11th. Finally, many Muslims fast two days of every week during the year, normally on Mondays and Thursdays.
For another diary I've written about Sawm, please see One Day in Ramadan.