A Muslim man attends an evening prayer to mark the beginning of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, in Cairo (Amr Dalsh / Reuters)

Monday, August 1 marks the first day of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. This month, Muslims in the Middle East and around the world will gather together to fast, pray, connect with family and friends, and re-evaluate their lives in light of Islamic guidance.

During the Holy Month of Ramadan, believers are expected to follow Sharia law, with fasting from sun up to sun down for 30 days. This fast is intended to help instill patience, self-sacrifice, spiritual cleansing, enlightenment and submissiveness to God. Ramadan is an especially important month in the Islamic calendar as it is believed to be the month when the first verses of the Qur'an were revealed to the prophet Muhammad, thus bestowing the revelations of God on mankind.

Ramadan begins on Hil?l (the crescent), which usually falls a day after the new moon. As the Islamic calendar is lunar, Ramadan is not celebrated during the same time every year. the holiday will move backwards in the year so that within 36 years, it will be celebrated on every day of the year. After the sun has risen on the first day, practitioners use the daylight as a chance to purify the soul, refocus attention on God, and practice humility and control. This control extends beyond fasting- Muslims must refrain from spreading gossip or lies, looking at unholy things, visiting obscene places, thinking irreligious thoughts and doing unkind things to anyone. Sexual intercourse is also prohibited during the month as this is also thought of as a way to resist temptation. The aim of fasting is to redirect the mind and spirit away from worldly activities and focus on cleansing the soul while paying homage to God.


Muslim woman attend mass prayer session "Tarawih", which marks the beginning of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, at Al Akbar mosque in Surabaya (Stringer Indonesia / Reuters)

Muslims usually begin fasting around the time of puberty, though younger children often try to complete the fast along with their parents. Once they have reached an acceptable age, everyone with the exception of the elderly, chronically ill, mentally ill, pregnant and nursing women, and those traveling more than 14 miles a day, are expected to observe the holiday. Those who are unable to participate must give charity to the poor or make up the missed days later in the year. As the entire 2011 festival falls in August (traditionally the hottest month of the year), countries like Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria ,Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq will be baking in long hot days without water in a herculean test of religious fidelity.

In addition to fasting, Muslims are encouraged to read the entire Qur'an. During the month, Muslims usually worship at the mosque every day in addition to their five-daily prayers. At the mosque, special prayers called Tarawih are recited; each prayer is a section of the Qur'an so that by the end of the fast, the entire Qur'an is recited.

In predominantly Muslim cities and towns, most shops and businesses close for the daytime, but reopen after sunset. During this time, believers often make special foods or buy gifts for family and friends. They also give to the poor and needy who cannot afford clothes, shoes, food or other necessities to teach them empathy for the poor and generosity in giving. Ramadan is a particularly charitable month, as the spiritual reward for giving is 70 times greater than any other time of the year.


Muslims listen a sermon before breaking their fast on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan at the main Istiqlal mosque in Jakarta. (REUTERS/Enny Nuraheni)

At sunset, families and friends gather together to break the fast and enjoy Iftar. Following Muhammad, the meal starts by eating a date, then the recitation of the Maghrib prayer, and at last the meal is served. Over time, Iftar has grown into large banquet festivals where whole neighborhoods can gather together to celebrate Ramadan and the Islamic Religion. Ramadan is over on Eid ul-Fitr- the first day of the next religious calendar month.

Communities all around the world are celebrating Ramadan this month. Some of the biggest outside of the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia include Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, France, Russia and, in the United States, New York, Michigan, and California (which all have large Muslim populations).

For those tech-savy worshipers, or those who can't attend services, Apple now has a Qur'an app for the iPhone so you can have the text with you at all times. You can also download the Salah Clock to make sure you observe the calls to prayer throughout the day.

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