This week, Muslims around the world mark the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, the most significant Islamic holiday. Muslims believe that Ramadan -- the ninth month of the Islamic year, as determined by the lunar calendar -- represents the time when the Koran was sent down from heaven as "a guidance unto men, a declaration of direction, and a means of salvation." During this month, Muslims observe the fast of Ramadan and other Islamic traditions.
Prague, 5 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- "We are at your doorstep, singing the Ramadan song/May God give a boy to your cradle. This Fast is only a 30-day guest/He, who is not fasting, is the one upset."
This is the song sung by children of all ages, and in dozens of languages, in Muslim countries and communities around the world. It is the song heard between sunset and midnight during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The song, carried from home to home by the singing children, bears a message of wishes for a long life, happiness, faith, and prosperity, a message that is repeated in prayer throughout the month. The children receive cookies, coins, and other gifts at each of the houses they visit.
The official beginning of Ramadan varies from year to year. Renowned Islamic scholar Mufti Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf explained how the date is determined according to both Islamic rules and the lunar calendar. "Muslims should start and end the fast of Ramadan according to Shariat [Islamic law] and the Prophet's hadith [narrative], which says: "Start fasting when you see a new crescent moon and finish it after the next new crescent appears.
"When Ramadan approaches, on the 29th day of the month of Sha'ban, Muslims should gather in an open place and look toward the sunset, where a new crescent moon may appear shortly. If it is seen, the next day the start of the fast of Ramadan should be announced. If the weather is cloudy or if it is impossible to see a crescent, then the current month should be ended in 30 days and the day after next should be the start of the fast," Yusuf said.
This year, the start of Ramadan is expected on Wednesday, 6 November, or 7 November at the latest. During the fast of Ramadan, as always, significant restrictions are placed on the daily lives of Muslims. They are not allowed to eat or drink during daylight hours. Smoking and sexual relations are also forbidden during daytime. At the end of each day, the fast is broken with prayer and a meal called the 'iftar.' In the evening following the iftar, it is customary for Muslims to go out visiting family and friends; most of them spend their time praying and reading the Koran.
There are also certain spiritual demands that should be strictly observed during Ramadan. According to the Koran, the good effects acquired through the fast can be destroyed by five things: the telling of a lie, slander, denouncing someone behind his back, a false oath, and greed or covetousness. Mufti Muhammad Yusuf said the spirit of the holy month is quite strong and affects even those who are not strict religious observers. "An old story says that a man met his friend from another country and asked him about the situation of Islam and Muslims in his country. His friend said to him, 'Well, our Muslims are like all other Muslims in the world: When Ramadan comes, they all turn into Muslims; the rest of the year, they do whatever they want to do.' Indeed, during Holy Ramadan even the rudest people, people who sin without any hesitation, start having second thoughts before committing bad deeds. Most of them, out of respect for Holy Ramadan, stop their sinful actions. Some even fast, recite a special 'Taraweeh' [nightly Ramadan] prayer, and do some good things," Yusuf said.
Among the good deeds widely practiced during Ramadan are generosity to the poor and forgiveness toward enemies. Ramadan is widely believed to be a month of peace and reconciliation. Historically, warring troops often took suspended fighting during the holy month or called a truce. A war between rival Muslim countries or groups has almost never been declared during Ramadan.
Some Islamic scholars, however, say military actions during Ramadan are forbidden neither by the Koran nor by the Prophet's hadiths. Imran Waheed of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a fundamentalist Islamic group that aims to create a Islamic caliphate throughout the Muslim world, said history demonstrates that Ramadan cannot realistically be described as a month of peace. "Well, actually, you say that Ramadan is a month of peace, but the reality is that Ramadan was in fact a month of victory for the Muslims. It was a month in which there were many battles that the Muslims fought, both in self-defense and also to carry Islam to the world. Many of the famous battles -- the battle of Salaheddin against the Crusaders, for example -- took place in Ramadan. The first battle of the Prophet Muhammad took place in Ramadan, and the conquest of Mecca took place in Ramadan. So Ramadan is far from being a month of peace. Rather, Ramadan is a month for Muslims to be active politically and intellectually. This is what Ramadan means for Muslims," Waheed said.
Nonetheless, the decision by the United States to launch its antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan just before the start of Ramadan last year stirred a huge public debate. This year, there was much speculation about whether the United States would start a campaign against Iraq during Ramadan. Although this now seems unlikely, the topic continues to spark debate.
Waheed said that if a campaign was to be launched against Baghdad during Ramadan, Hizb ut-Tahrir and other Islamic groups around the world would step up their activities in order to defend the Muslims of Iraq and to raise awareness among Muslim communities. Mushim Ja'far, the London-based chairman of the Islamic Education Board of the World Federation of Shia Organizations, said Muslims have the right to protest openly during Ramadan. "You see, politics as such is not a matter which can be differentiated from day-to-day life. If anything happens here in the British government it affects me as a British citizen. So as a [Briton] or as a Muslim, I am entitled to have an active part in that. There is nothing wrong in that," Ja'far said.
Both Ja'far and Waheed believe that any aggressive action against Muslims during Holy Ramadan, a month of spiritual unity among all the world's Muslims, might create a bond of political unity as well.