By Kamakshi Ayyar
May 6, 2019

This week marks the start of Ramadan for more than a billion Muslims around the world.

The month-long observance — which starts on either May 6 or May 7 this year — will see Muslims fasting from dawn to sunset, reciting verses from the Quran and attending prayer sessions. For many of those observing Ramadan, it is a time to become closer to God. It is also a time of joy and for spending time with one’s family, and giving to charity and those in need.

Here’s what you need to know about Ramadan, which is known as the holiest month in Islam.

When is Ramadan?

Ramadan begins during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar when the new crescent moon is first sighted. The exact start date of Ramadan is confirmed when the moon is spotted by a sighting committee, often made up of government officials and religious scholars.

Some countries like Jordan, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia will begin observing Ramadan on May 6 while others like Oman will mark the holy month on May 7.

The end of Ramadan is also marked with the sighting of the crescent moon, marking Eid-al-Fitr, which should be in the first week of June.

What is Ramadan and how is it observed?

Ramadan is observed by Muslims to commemorate when God revealed the first chapters of the Quran, Islam’s sacred text, to the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims believe that during this period, the gates of heaven are open and the gates of hell are closed.

Muslims mark the holy month by fasting — considered to be one of the five pillars of Islam — during sunlight hours. The pre-dawn meal is called the suhoor, while the fast is broken at dusk with the iftar, starting with a few sips of water and some dates.

Abstinence during Ramadan isn’t just restricted to food and water, though. It extends to refraining from sexual activity, smoking, and even to jealousy, anger or other negative thoughts. Muslims believe that following these practices during Ramadan will lead to self-purification, self-control and bring them closer to Allah. Many Muslims also attend special prayer services, read verses of the Quran and engage in charity.

During Ramadan, offices and schools in Islamic countries shut early. For instance, schools in Dubai will shut by 1:30 p.m. Abu Dhabi has waived public parking fees during certain times on certain days.

How do you wish someone a Happy Ramadan?

You can exchange Ramadan greetings by saying “Ramadan Kareem,” which translates into “Have a generous Ramadan,” or “Ramadan Mubarak,” which roughly translates into “Happy Ramadan.”

On the last day of Ramadan, which is Eid-al-fitr, the greeting changes to “Eid Mubarak.”

Does everyone have to fast?

Not everyone must fast. Islam prescribes that all able-bodied Muslims should fast during Ramadan but exempts young children, expecting and breast-feeding mothers, women who are menstruating, the elderly, and those with health conditions.

Non-Muslims visiting an Islamic nation are not expected to fast, but they are expected to refrain from eating and drinking in public spaces to respect those around them.

Write to Kamakshi Ayyar at kamakshi.ayyar@time.com.

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