The religious festival Eid al-Fitr, or the “Festival of Breaking the Fast,” is one of two major holidays celebrated by Muslims around the world. In the United States, Eid al-Fitr 2021 begins on the evening of Wednesday, May 12 and ends on the evening of Thursday, May 13. 

Also known as the “Lesser Eid,” Eid al-Fitr commemorates the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. An occasion for special prayers, family visits, gift-giving and charity, it takes place over one to three days, beginning on the first day of Shawwal, the 10th month in the Islamic calendar.

The Islamic Calendar

Though some Muslims observe other special days throughout the year, including the beginning of the new year according to the Islamic calendar and the day the Prophet Muhammad was born, the two Eids are the only holidays celebrated by the entire Muslim community worldwide. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the fast of Ramadan, while Eid al-Adha (“Festival of Sacrifice”) occurs at the end of the annual pilgrimage season.

The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, in which dates are calculated based on the lunar phases, and each new month begins when the waxing crescent moon appears in the sky. Because the 12-month lunar year is approximately 11 days shorter than the solar Gregorian calendar (the 365-day calendar used in the Western world), Islamic months and holidays fall in various seasons depending on the year.

Ramadan

During the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan, nearly all Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sundown and abstain from smoking, drinking (including water) and sexual activity during the daylight hours. Ramadan is the month in which the Prophet Muhammad received the teachings of the Quran, the Islamic holy book, as a guide for mankind and a means for judging between right and wrong. Fasting during Ramadan, known as Sawm, is one of the five pillars, the basic principles that are essential to the Islamic faith.

Because of the lunar calendar, Ramadan and the other months fall in different seasons depending on the year. Over the course of their lives, Muslims around the world have the opportunity to experience fasting during long summer days, short winter days and everything in between. 

As in a pilgrimage, fasting during Ramadan takes people out of their normal lifestyles and requires them to engage in solemn contemplation and examination. Experiencing hunger and thirst is supposed to heighten people's awareness of the sufferings of the poor, and gain a greater appreciation for what they have.

Eid al-Fitr

An Egyptian woman prepares traditional cookies for the three-day Eid al-Fitr festival in the village of Tanta, north of Cairo.

Importance of Eid al-Fitr

After a month of prayer, devotion and self-control, Muslims celebrate the accomplishment of their sacred duties during Ramadan with the beginning of Eid al-Fitr, or the Festival of Breaking the Fast. The festival is a national holiday in many countries with large Muslim populations. Celebrations of Eid al-Fitr typically last for three days, one day fewer than those of Eid al-Adha. For this reason, Eid al-Fitr is often called “Lesser” or “Smaller Eid.” Eid al-Adha, known as “Greater Eid,” is seen as the more important holiday of the two.

During Eid al-Fitr, Muslims take part in special morning prayers, greet each other with formal embraces and offer each other greetings of “Eid Mubarak,” or “Have a blessed Eid.” They gather with family and friends, give games and gifts to children and prepare and eat special meals, including sweet dishes like baklava or Turkish delight in Turkey, date-filled pastries and cookies in Saudi Arabia and Iraq and bint al sahn (honey cake) in Yemen.

Another of the five pillars of Islam is Zakat, or giving to those in need. Muslims often prepare for Eid al-Fitr by giving money to charity so that less fortunate families can enjoy the festivities as well. In addition to charity, Muslims are also encouraged to give and seek forgiveness during Eid al-Fitr, and look forward to the opportunity to fast again during Ramadan the following year.

Differences between Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha

The second major holiday in the Islamic calendar, Eid al-Adha, occurs at the end of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage made by millions of Muslims to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. According to the Quran, the Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) was willing to sacrifice his son to God (Allah), but God accepted the sacrifice of an animal instead. Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son for God.

Celebrations of the holiday typically last for four days, and are similar to those of Eid al-Fitr, except that Muslims celebrating Eid al-Adha traditionally acknowledge the occasion by slaughtering an animal for meat. The meat is then shared with family and friends, with a large portion given away to the less fortunate.

Sources

Ken Chitwood, “What is Eid and how do Muslims celebrate it?” The Conversation, June 3, 2019.

How is Eid al-Fitr celebrated around the world? BBC Bitesize.

Christine Huda Dodge, The Everything Understanding Islam Book (Adams Media, 2003). 

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