A brief history of Ramadan and its traditions

Ramadan is the month in which the Quran was revealed as a guide for humanity with clear proofs of guidance and the standard, reads an excerpt from the Islamic holy book

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, has been observed by Muslims worldwide for more than 14 centuries as a time of fasting, prayer, reflection and community.

During this holy month, Muslims abstain from food and drink during daylight hours, as a means of reflecting on their faith.

Stemming from the Arabic root “ar-ramad”, Ramadan means scorching heat. Just like the blazing sun evaporates water from the surface of the ground, Ramadan burns away one's sins.

Ramadan is not tied to a particular season—it begins and ends with the appearance of the crescent moon. As the Muslim calendar year is shorter than the Gregorian one, Ramadan begins 10-12 days earlier each year.

According to Islamic beliefs, in the year 610, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was visited by the angel Jibrīl, known as Gabriel in English, who revealed to him the beginnings of what would later be known as the Quran, the Islamic holy book. The Prophet (pbuh) had at the time been meditating in the cave of Hira, located in the Jabal an-Nour mountain close to Makkah.

Muslim devotees offer Friday prayers during Islam's Holy month of Ramadan at the Jamma Masjid mosque in New Delhi on April 8, 2022 AFP

The revelation occurred during Ramadan, on “Laylat al-Qadr”, or the Night of Power, which is commemorated on one of the last 10 nights of Ramadan.

An excerpt from the Quran verse 2:185 states: “Ramadan is the month in which the Quran was revealed as a guide for humanity with clear proofs of guidance and the standard [to distinguish between right and wrong]. So whoever is present this month, let them fast.”

Abu Hurayrah (RA) reported the Prophet (pbuh) as saying: “When Ramadan enters, the gates of Paradise are opened, the gates of Hellfire are closed and the devils are chained.” (Bukhari and Muslim)

Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, meaning that to fast during the month of Ramadan is mandatory for all able Muslims. The Quran verse 2:183 says: “O believers! Fasting is prescribed for you—as it was for those before you—so perhaps you will become mindful [of Allah].”

It is traditional for Muslims to break their fast by eating dates. This is a custom that goes back to the very first observance of Ramadan. It was narrated that Anas ibn Maalik (RA) said: "The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) used to break his fast with fresh dates before praying. If there were no fresh dates, then with dried dates, and if there were no dried dates, then with a few sips of water."

A Syrian man reads the Quran as he sits next to a child, at the Kabsh camp for the displaced people in the countryside near Syria's northern city of Raqa during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on April 7, 2022 AFP

It is also a requirement that all Muslims with food in excess of their means make a charitable payment called Fitrana. Historically, people would measure whether they had food beyond their means in a unit called ‘Sa. This is the equivalent of around 3kg of basic staple foods like wheat. This dates back to the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) right at the start of the history of Ramadan, with those who had food beyond their means donating to those who did not.

In modern times, most Muslims pay their Fitrana as a monetary donation. Whilst this differs slightly from the original history of Ramadan, it still follows the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) by giving to those less fortunate.

The celebration of Eid-ul-Fitr, or the feast of breaking the fast, marks the end of Ramadan. After a month of abstinence and devotion to God, the festival allows Muslims to reward themselves with what they previously gave up for faith.