Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar when Muslims across the globe fast during the hours of daylight every single day. Ramadan is the holiest month of the year for most of the world’s two billion or so Muslims, but why is this month so revered, and why does it include fasting? Here are seven facts to explain the significance of Ramadan and its practices.

1. Ramadan was important before Islam.

Ramadan is said to have been an important and holy month for Arabs long before the advent of Islam; in this month, local feuds and warring would stop as a period of uninterrupted peace was observed during which the more pious would retreat to temples, caves and other spaces to meditate. According to Islamic tradition (known as hadiths), Ramadan was also the month when God revealed the scriptures to Abraham (Ibrahim to Muslims); the Torah to Moses (Musa); the Psalms to David (Dawud) and the Gospel to Jesus (Isa).

2. Ramadan includes 'The Night of Power.' 

Muslims believe it was during Ramadan in A.D. 610 that God first spoke to the Prophet Muhammad. According to Islamic tradition, during that Ramadan Muhammad retreated—as he often did in the month— to a small cave on the outskirts of Makkah called Hira to meditate and reflect in seclusion. Then on one of the odd nights in the last 10 days he heard a voice demanding he ‘read’ (the meaning of the word iqra) and thus began the Qur’anic revelations. The verses from that night are found in the 96th chapter of the Qur’an known as Surah al Alaq. The night the revelations began is called Lay lat ul Qadr, orThe Night of Power, and the Qur’an says it is “better than a thousand months” (97:3), which is why Muslims spend the last 10 days of Ramadan “seeking” it out in the hope they will be in a state of worship, reflection and meditation on The Night of Power.  

3. Ramadan starts and ends on different dates every year.

Ramadan moon.
mrehan/Getty Images
A new moon seen over a mosque in Istanbul, Turkey.

The start of Ramadan falls on a different date every year in the Gregorian Calendar. This is because the Islamic calendar follows the literal cycles of the moon, and each month only begins when the new moon is sighted. As a result, the exact start of Ramadan is not confirmed until the day before, though an approximate start date is calculated in advance. It is the same for the end of the month, after which Muslims across the globe celebrate the festival of Eid al-Fitr.

4. Fasting is intended to elevate the spirit.

Although popularly seen as a fast from food and drink, Muslims also abstain from all sexual activity and vulgar behaviour during their fast. Food and drink are metaphors for worldly needs and desires, and thus abstinence from them is meant to elevate the spirit. The act of fasting predates Islam and is apparent in all the major religions of the world. In that respect it is an ancient practice (and one that may also carry health benefits).

5. In addition to fasting, Ramadan includes other special practices.

Some of the special practices during Ramadan include eating a special pre-dawn meal called suhoor before starting the daily fast and then eating another post sunset meal called iftar to end the fast. During Ramadan Muslims also take part in extra worship, the most visible of which are the late night terawih prayers performed by Sunni Muslims, and the practice of i’tikaf—a form of spiritual retreat inside a mosque. Also, towards the end of Ramadan, many Muslims make a special charitable donation called zakat al-fitr which goes to the less fortunate so that they may also enjoy the festival of Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan.

6. There are differences in the way Ramadan is observed.

One key difference in the practice of Ramadan is the start and end of Ramadan; as the Islamic calendar follows the actual cycle of the moon, the start of Ramadan is dependent on the sighting of the new moon. While a large number of Sunni Muslims follow Saudi Arabia’s sighting of the moon, many go with their own local sighting. This leads to Muslims starting Ramadan and celebrating Eid al-Fitr (which concludes the month) on different days. Other differences include Shi’a Muslims celebrating the birth of the second Imam Hasan Ibn Ali (also the fifth Caliph), the grandson of the Prophet on the 15th day of Ramadan and observing a period of mourning in the last 10 days as it was in this period that the first Shi’a Imam Ali Ibn Talib (also the fourth Caliph) was murdered in A.D. 661.   

7. Important Islamic events have taken place during Ramadan.

Several other important Muslim historical events also took place during Ramadan, including the victory of the Muhammad-led Muslim army in the Battle of Badr in A.D. 624; the Prophet Muhammad going on his mystical night journey, the mi’raj (according to some traditions), and the Prophet returning to Makkah triumphant, having been expelled from his hometown by his enemies earlier in his prophethood.