In Depth

When does Ramadan start in 2020?

The holiest month in the Islamic calendar sees Muslims undertake a 30-day fast

Ramadan, the most significant event in the Islamic calendar, is set to begin this week, with millions of observers gearing up for fasting under lockdown.

Starting on Thursday, the 30-day period of ritual fasting and abstinence marked by Muslims around the world will join the list of religious festivals affected by coronavirus lockdown measures, with the restrictions likely to present extra challenges this year.

Here is all you need to know about Ramadan 2020 and how it might be commemorated in this highly unusual year.

When does Ramadan start and end?

Although Ramadan is always on the same day of the Islamic calendar, its date on the Gregorian calendar varies from year to year, since the latter is a solar calendar and the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar.

As a result, Ramadan moves in the Gregorian calendar approximately 11 days every year, and may also vary from country to country depending on whether the moon has been sighted or not - an issue that often causes controversy between observers in different nations.

In the UK, Ramadan is due to begin on Thursday 23 April and finish on Saturday 23 May.

How is Ramadan usually observed?

Fasting is the most well-known and important part of a normal Ramadan festival, although drinking, smoking, sex or any “sinful behaviour” is also forbidden between dawn and sunset over the entire 30-day period.

Practicing Muslims abstain from food and drink during the day to help teach “self-discipline, self-restraint and generosity”, the BBC says. It’s common to have one meal, suhoor, just before sunrise and another known as iftar directly after sunset.

Knowing the exact times of sunrise and sunset is important during Ramadan, but this can be complicated as this differs around the world and sometimes even in a country. Apps such as Muslim Pro advise when to begin fasting and what time followers can eat again.

Physically or mentally ill people, young children, travellers, the elderly and women who are menstruating, pregnant, breast-feeding or have recently given birth do not have to fast, says Arab News.

The UK government’s Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) has advice for helping employers support Muslim employees during Ramadan, and warns that “fasting may affect people in different ways (for example some people may understandably become a little irritable or slightly tired at times) and some understanding from managers and colleagues can be helpful”.

Why is the month so significant?

Ramadan marks the month when Allah revealed the Koran to the Prophet Muhammad.

Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam – a verse in the Koran prescribes it for all mature and healthy Muslims, says Al Jazeera. Muslims fast as an act of worship, a chance to get closer to Allah and a way to become more compassionate to those in need.

The term “Ramadan” comes from the Arabic word ramiḍa or ar-ramaḍ which means scorching heat or dryness, as “it normally falls in a hot time of year”, says the Manchester Evening News.

What is the Night of Power?

On the 27th day of Ramadan, Muslims mark Lailat al Qadr – the “Night of Power”. This is Islam’s holiest night and commemorates the day the Koran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. It involves spending the night praying, studying and reciting the holy text. 

However, the exact day of Lailat al Qadr falls was never actually specified by the Prophet Muhammad and some Muslims choose to commemorate all the last ten days of Ramadan as if they were Lailat al Qadr.

To mark the end of fasting, Muslims celebrate the Eid ul-Fitr festival, beginning with early morning prayers and then a day of feasting with friends and family.

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How will coronavirus affect Ramadan?

The BBC notes that traditionally during Ramadan, “every evening when the sun has set, families and friends get together for the Iftar meal to break the fast”, adding that “many people go to the mosque to pray”.

However, under current guidelines on social distancing in place around the world, this is not permitted everywhere. The Observer reports that in the UK, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) called for the suspension of all congregational activities at mosques and Islamic centres on 16 March, a week before the government announced all places of worship must close under the lockdown order.

This means Muslims need to find other ways to celebrate the festival. The BBC says that in the UK, for example, a “group of young Muslims is trying to use the new reality as an opportunity”. For example, the Ramadan Tent Project - which “usually holds an event called Open Iftar, where they put up a tent in an iconic location like London's Trafalgar Square” - is holding a virtual Iftar instead.

Further afield, The Observer adds, mosques overseas are also shut and gatherings forbidden; the holy sites of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia are currently under curfew.

Furthermore, the al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s Old City are closed and prayers suspended. According to Al Jazeera, the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, the Jordan-appointed council that oversees Islamic sites on the sacred compound, called the decision “painful” in a statement, but added that Muslims should "perform prayers in their homes during the month of Ramadan, to preserve their safety".

The Muslim call to prayer will still take place five times daily at the site during Ramadan, and religious workers will still be allowed entry, the statement added.

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