For the next 30 days, Tarannum Mansouri will arise at 3 a.m. at her home in Vadodara, India, being careful not to awaken her toddler son. She will bathe and then join the other women in her family in the kitchen to prepare the morning meal.
A filling breakfast of homemade bread, vegetables, perhaps a chicken curry and fruit will be washed down with tea by 4:30 a.m., before the break of day. So begins the holy month of Ramadan for more than 1.6 billion Muslims around the world.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, when Muslims believe the holy Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel in the seventh century. It is a month of fasting, prayer and reflection for Muslims. It is a time when practicing Muslims refrain from all food, drink, smoking and sex from sunrise to sunset.
"It is a holy month," says Hibo Wardere of London. A month "that you are dedicating to God." The last 10 days of Ramadan are considered the most holy. "That is when the seven steps to heaven are open," Wardere adds. The most important is Laylat al-Qadr, or the "Night of Power," believed to be the holiest night of the year.
"It is a night everybody stays awake" and prays, she says. "It means all your prayers will be heard, it means all your sins will be forgiven, it means you will get what you dreamed of." Islam takes into account that not everyone is able or willing to fast during Ramadan. Children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are exempt from fasting.
Others who are old or ill can also forego fasting, but they must feed one poor person for each day of a missed fast. The practice is called fidya and how much it costs depends on where one lives.
In the U.S., "it comes out to $10 per day or $300 for the month," says Minhaj Hassan of the nonprofit charity Islamic Relief USA. In Britain, Islamic Relief UK has set the daily rate of fidya at 5 pounds or 150 pounds for the month.
On the other hand, "kaffarah is paid by individuals who miss a fast for no good reason," says Hassan. "The amount is $600 a day, or feeding 60 people in need (the Arabic term is miskeen)." In Britain, the price is 300 pounds per day. One can also atone for a missed or deliberately broken fast by fasting for 60 straight days.
Observance in non-Muslim countries
Fasting during Ramadan is "a million times more difficult" in a non-Muslim country "than back home," says Wardere, who is from Somalia but has lived in London for most of her life.
In the U.S., an estimated 3.2 million Muslims will fast during Ramadan, a small number compared to the 327 million population. By contrast, a 2013 Pew Research Center study shows 94% of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa fast for the month.