Beirut (AsiaNews) - At sunset tomorrow, when the first crescent of the new moon is visible, Ramadan will begin for much of the Muslim world. During the holy month, people will fast, pray, perform works of charity, and forgive.
The start of Ramadan is not the same everywhere. It depends on the crescent moon on the first day of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and will end with the new moon on 27 July.
This year's holy month will also be the toughest in 30 years because daytime abstinence from food and water will last almost 16 hours.
At Ramadan, Muslims commemorate Allah's revelation of the first verses of the Qur'an to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel.
Every person above puberty who is mentally and physically fit must fast. However, when preparing food for sundown, people can taste the food to see if they are correctly salted or spiced.
In the villages and the cities, fasting begins when the muezzin calls on the faithful to perform the dawn (Al-Fajr) prayer. It ends when he calls for the sunset (al-Magrib) prayer, which also announces the iftar dinner that is shared with the whole family.
According to tradition, the daily fasting begins when white and black threads can be distinguishes. During the day, streets and shops as well as restaurants are almost empty, at sunset they fill up.
However, in today's consumer culture, the month of fasting is preceded by hoarding. A columnist for the Kuwait Times complained that "unfortunately, Ramadan has become an excuse for excessive consumption".
In fact, "Nearly all supermarkets and cooperatives are running Ramadan promotions." What is more, "It is a common sight to see shoppers pushing carts groaning under the weight of foodstuff that may never be eaten."
Indeed, retail giant Lulu Hypermarkets has launched a high-profile mega promotion offering customers the opportunity to win five BMW sedan cars, 25 new-look Samsung tablets, high-quality 50 LED televisions and 25 cell phones.
At the same time in Jeddah, residents are stocking up on dates ahead of Ramadan in anticipation of price rise during the busy season.
For the vast majority of Muslims, fasting is one of the crucial aspects of Ramadan and is one of the five pillars (duties) of Islam.
Its establishment dates from the second year of 'hijra' (622 AD). The period corresponds to the flight of Mohammed from Makkah to the oasis of Yathrib renamed Madinah (Madinat al Nabi, the city of the messenger), to escape the hostility of the tribes who saw the leader and his followers a threat to their interests.
He instituted the fast among his followers to nourish their spirit and morale, and remind them of those who have nothing to eat. For this reason, during Ramadan, in addition to fasting and prayer, the people carry out acts of charity towards the poor and the sick.
People with psychological problems, children under the age of puberty, the elderly, the sick, travellers, pregnant women, nursing mothers, or women who have just begun the menstrual cycle are exempt from fasting. However, as an exercise, many parents make their children observe a mini-fast (half day).
In an act of forgiveness, the authorities in the Emirates plan to release 147 prisoners jailed for various offenses. The holy month is a time to do good deeds and avoid doing anything that displeases God; a time to purify the soul and ask for forgiveness to those one wronged.
During the month of Ramadan, the gates of Jannah (Paradise) are open and the gates of Jahannum (Hell) are shut. It is a time to thank Allah for his blessings and give charity to the less fortunate.
For this reason, many Muslims travel to Makkah for Umrah, the pilgrimage. This year, work at the Grand Mosque is almost complete.
The House of God, known as the "mataf," will be open for pilgrims during Ramadan. Its capacity is expected to increase from 50,000 pilgrims per hour to 130,000 pilgrims when the expansion is fully completed.
A state-of-the-art technology system will also allow smartphone users to download the Qur'an software inside the Grand Mosque in the language of choice. The Qur'an itself will be available in 72 different foreign languages.
Ramadan is not going to spare social media either. A study has shown that during this month, the use of Facebook and Twitter increases by one third, with many of the messages having a spiritual content.