Explainer: What is Ramadan?

For a month every year, Muslims in New Zealand join others worldwide in observing the rituals of Ramadan. Here are some things you may not have known about the holiest month in the Islamic calendar.

1. It’s a time of reflection and empathy

Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection, when Muslims contemplate their relationship with God, carry out compassionate sacrifices, build community and help those in need, says Ikhlaq Kashkari, president of the New Zealand Muslim Association.

Muslims observe Ramadan in three main ways:

  • Devout prayer: In addition to the usual daily prayers, Muslims say an extra prayer known as Taraveeh, which can last for up to 90 minutes. 
  • Charity: As Ramadan is a month of giving, Muslims are extra generous towards the less fortunate. They also contribute Zakat (alms) and Fitrana (a donation to ensure all Muslims have means to celebrate Eid, the event that marks the end of Ramadan).
  • Fasting: This aspect of Ramadan is the most well known, whereby Muslims abstain from food and drink as well as other physical desires (such as smoking, sex, or alcohol) during daylight hours, in empathy of the poor and less fortunate. Only healthy adults are required to observe the fast – people who are unwell; women who are pregnant, nursing or menstruating; and children and the elderly are exempt from fasting. 

Think of the occasion as a month-long spiritual detox.

2. It begins when the moon is visible

Ramadan moon sky Islam calendar STORY

Ramadan, the name of the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar, begins when the moon is sighted. 

As weather conditions can impede the visibility of the moon, the beginning of Ramadan may differ from country to country.

In 2017 for instance, Muslims in the United Kingdom started observing Ramadan on Friday, 26 May, but as the moon was not sighted in New Zealand then, Ramadan began on 28 May here.

The lunar calendar is 10 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar, so Ramadan falls about 10 days earlier each year.

3. It’s part of the five pillars of Islam

These are the five tenets of Islam:

  • Declaration of faith: The reciting of a set statement, usually in Arabic, that professes a Muslim’s faith to God. 
  • Prayer: Five daily prayers, which occur at dawn, midday, the afternoon, evening and at night.
  • Charity: Alms-giving to ease the economic hardship of others.
  • Fasting: Ritual fasting during Ramadan for able-bodied, healthy adults.
  • Pilgrimage: Taking the Hajj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, at least once.
Mecca Saudi Arabia

Some 2 million Muslims worldwide take the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca each year.

4. What happens before and after a fast?

Muslims get up early for Suhoor, the meal before sunrise. The meal taken after sundown is known as Iftar.

Traditionally, people break their fast by consuming sweet dates. 

As Ramadan doesn’t fall on the same time each year, the fasting duration can vary significantly.

In New Zealand, where it is currently approaching winter, fasts are relatively short given the early sundown.

5. Muslims do fast outside of Ramadan

While it isn’t compulsory, there are instances when some Muslims voluntarily fast outside of Ramadan. These include:

  • On the 9th and 10th day in Muharram (1st month in the Islamic calendar).
  • Any day in the month of Rajab (7th month).
  • Six days in the month of Shawwal (10th month).
  • The first nine days in the month of Zulhijjah (12th month).

6. How to support your Muslim colleague during Ramadan

While Muslims do not expect any special favours, there are some things Kiwi workplaces could consider doing during Ramadan to acknowledge the occasion, says Ikhlaq Kashkari. These include: 

  • Greeting Muslim employees with “Ramadan Mubarak” (Happy Ramadan).
  • Scheduling business or team meetings without a meal, where possible.
  • Making some concessions if a Muslim person has to carry out strenuous labour.
  • Allowing flexible work hours so Muslim employees can return home earlier to break fast with family.

7. Ramadan ends in joyful splendour

Eid al fitri feast Ramadan STORY

Ramadan ends with Eid al-Fitr (“festival of the breaking of the fast”), which marks the first day of Shawwal (10th month).

Muslims dress in a splash of colour, decorate their homes, and prepare delicious, elaborate feasts for Eid. Gifts are also exchanged as they gather with family, friends, and the community in celebration.

Eid is locally known by other names in different countries, such as Hari Raya Aidilfitri in Singapore and Malaysia, or Lebaran in Indonesia.

8. Muslims in New Zealand

The Muslim community in Aotearoa has grown since a small group of Muslim-Chinese gold miners landed on our shores in the 1870s.

About 46,150 people in New Zealand identified as Muslim in the 2013 census – a 27.9 percent increase from 2006 figures.

A quarter of the Muslim population were New Zealand-born, census data showed. People of Asian descent formed the bulk of the Muslim community, at 61 percent (28,497 people). Some 12,240 Muslims belonged to the Middle Eastern/Latin American/African ethnic group, and 2,619 were from the Māori/Pasifika community. About 4,400 people from the NZ-European/Pākehā community identified as Muslim.

Islam is estimated to be the fastest-growing religion for Māori.

This article was first published in May 2018. Interview by Francine Chen. Special thanks to Ikhlaq Kashkari, president of the New Zealand Muslim Association, for his contribution towards this story.

– Asia Media Centre