Ramadan: Five things you may not know

Left to right; two men break eat together, a gridlocked street in Dubai, a street vendor sells dates

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One of the five pillars of Islam, Ramadan is a religious obligation for all healthy adult Muslims who are able to fast from sunrise to sunset.

Muslims believe that the Koran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad during Ramadan. To mark this sacred occasion, they go without food and liquids, smoking and having sex during daylight hours for a month.

But what are some of the lesser known facts about one of the biggest festivals in the Muslim calendar?

The fasting lapse

There are over one and a half billion Muslims in the world, and those adults who are healthy look to Ramadan as a time to honour Allah by fasting. But there was a time in recent history when Ramadan and other Muslim practices were not strictly observed.

Dr Carool Kersten, senior lecturer in the study of Islam and the Muslim world at King's College London, explains:

"A number of large Muslim countries were secular or secularizing through the 1930s to the 1960s, with ideas of pan-Arabism and socialism taking a foothold."

Initially, this was the result of decolonisation and globalisation; later, it was because the communist-led USSR was sponsoring countries from Syria to Egypt and Iraq.

In line with Marxist ideology, the Soviet Union expected people to be atheists so, according to Dr Kersten, it is not surprising that this resulted in a weakening of religious observance. Such external influences gave rise to an era when Muslims experimented with Western ideologies.

This perspective changed again in the 1970s. The Iranian revolution broke in 1979, while further east in Afghanistan various mujahideen groups started fighting the Soviets, re-shaping the Muslim world once more. Dr Kersten, who spent a number of years living in the Middle East, says:

"From the late 1970s there is a sort of pious behaviour, I would call it. Of course with dress code it is clearly obvious. But with respect to fasting and abstaining from alcohol, people would sort of drop that into conversation."

What was happening politically had a direct impact on the social scene of the Muslim world and how Muslims themselves wanted to be perceived.

'Ramadan rush hour'

In many Islamic states the time on the roads before breaking the daily fast is known as 'Ramadan rush hour'. After a long day of fasting, typical daily activities such as driving or commuting home can be become very taxing.

This year in the United Arab Emirates, Road Safety UAE has launched a set of guidelines to encourage public safety on the roads during Ramadan. Their tips include:

  • Always wear your seat belt - Ramadan is a good time to finally start this habit!
  • Watch out for other traffic participants potentially under the same effects.
  • Motorists should try to anticipate sudden movements by others, including cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians.

Dubai's police force will increase the number of street patrols during 'Ramadan rush hour' in an effort to combat aggressive driving.

World Cup dilemmas

French national player Karim Benzema French player Karim Benzema

This is the first time in 28 years that the World Cup has coincided with Ramadan.

European teams progressing past the group stages that include Muslim players are France, the Netherlands and Germany. Players such as Germany's Mesut Ozil, France's Karim Benzema and Belgium's Morouane Fellaini will have to make a decision as to whether to adhere to fasting or to wait until their World Cup campaign is over.

Algeria and Nigeria, where Muslims make up respectively 99% and 50% of the population, are the only African countries to qualify for the knockout stage.

During the 2012 Olympics in London the United Arab Emirates football team was granted an exemption from fasting, as Ramadan clashed with the games. This meant the players could begin their fasting when the tournament was over for them.

But if the Muslim players in the World Cup decide to fast for Ramadan, it will be with the added challenges of playing in a subtropical climate in the middle of the day.

Ramadan is big business

Although Ramadan is about self-control, it is also a time to be charitable. Muslims believe their charitable actions during the holy month have a longer lasting effect and the gates of hell are closed, so Satan's influence cannot reach them.

Ramadan sales take place in shopping centres in Dubai, but rather than slash prices, stores prefer to offer customers small gifts in exchange for spending money on their brands.

Shoppers also spend their money on Arab sweets and dates to break the fast when the sun sets. Other retail lovers use the time to buy new clothes for Eid al-Fitr, the time to celebrate the end of the fasting period.

At Eid al-Fitr Muslims are not only celebrating the end of fasting, but also thanking Allah for the help and strength he gave them to fast.

I name this child

Ramadan may be the ninth month in the Muslim calendar, but it also gained some popularity as a first name for Muslim boys in the USA in the 1990s.

This may seem unusual if compared with Christian naming traditions: children are often named after saints and virtues, but Easter is yet to make an appearance on naming popularity polls.

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