10 Words To Explain What Ramadan Is About

What does Ramadan mean?

During Lent, Catholics swear off meat every Friday and sacrifice something special to them for the 40 days. Jewish followers celebrate Yom Kippur by praying, repenting, and fasting 25 hours from sunset to darkness. As for Muslims, Ramadan is a month dedicated to daily fasts rigidly upheld from dawn until sunset.

This time period is used as a way to physically and spiritually purify in order to bring the faithful closer to Allah (God). Muslims don't just refrain from food during the day—practitioners are encouraged to denounce all worldly pleasures, such as smoking, gossip, and even sex between married couples during the daytime.

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Muslim year, and the word itself first made its appearance in the 1590s, deriving from the Turkish and Persian ramazan, which means "the hot month." It also bears noting that the Islamic calendar is lunar-based, so it is about 10 days shorter than the solar calendar. As a result, Ramadan passes through all of the seasons in a 33-year cycle, but was originally named in summer.

This sacred time is so much more than a generalized fast. Ancient traditional prayers, customs, and even fast-breaking foods make this holy day what it is. Here are a few more words to know related to the holiday.


While there are undoubtedly many who savor and honor every moment of fasting during Ramadan, we'd bet more than a few are happy to implement iftar. Iftar is the time of day after sunset when Muslims break their fast. Iftar is fairly literal when it comes to its meaning, translating from the Arabic for "breaking of the fast."

Typically, Muslims break their fast with dates, an oblong, fleshy fruit. Dates are the food of choice because they are the staple fruit of the Arabian region and are believed to have been eaten by the Prophet Muhammad to break his fast, according to the Qur'an.

But there are many foods that have become iftar staples for cultures across the globe as well, like samosas, variations on fruit salads (the spicier the better!), and sweet drinks flavored with rose syrup.


During Ramadan, before the sun rises and the day officially begins, fasting Muslims should indulge in a suhoor, or a light meal before the sun rises. Since practicing Muslims cannot eat or drink throughout the daylight hours, it is imperative that Muslims make good use of this pre-dawn meal.

Suhoor should include at least two hefty glasses of water and food that will help release energy throughout the day. Traditionally, dates are part of this meal plan. Eating foods that are rich in fiber, are healthy fats, and contain (or are) fruits and vegetables will make the day far more manageable.

5 Pillars (of Islam)

Islam is the religious system revealed to Prophet Muhammad. The name for the religion derives from the Arabic islam, which literally translates to "submission," implying the submission to the will of God.

The root of the word also stems from aslama, which means "he resigned, he surrendered, he submitted." In the Islamic faith, as declared in their holy book (the Qur'an), there are five pillars upon which the faith is founded.

The first pillar is shahada (profession of faith), and it is the essential belief that "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God." It is believed that one truly becomes a Muslim by reciting this phrase in Arabic with conviction.

The second pillar is salat (prayer), which is practiced five times a day, facing Mecca: at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and after dark. Prayers can be done individually or together at a mosque with a leader in prayer (imam) guiding the believers.

The third pillar, zakat (alms) is charity in accordance to Islamic law. Muslims must donate a fixed portion of their income to those in need.

The fourth pillar, and the one most relevant to Ramadan, is sawm (fasting). Fasting serves as a reminder of religious duty and the need to help anyone who is less fortunate.

The fifth and final pillar is hajj (pilgrimage). Every able-bodied and financially-stable Muslim must make one visit to the city of Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia. At the center of the Haram Mosque in Mecca, there sits a cubic structure called the Kaaba covered in black embroidered hangings. Muslims believe it is the house Prophet Abraham built for God.


Fasting isn't the only component of Ramadan. As with any traditional religion, prayer is an essential part of celebrations. And this is especially true for Muslims reciting salat, the prayers said five times a day.

Of course, these are important beyond Ramadan, as they stand as the second of the Pillars of Islam (Remember that slide you just read?). The word salat doesn't have a direct English translation, but it does have Arabic roots, derived from ṣalā, which means "prayer."

According to this Pillar of Islam, God ordered Muslims to pray to him at least five set times a day: Salat al-fajr is the prayer done at dawn, before sunrise. Salat al-zuhr is the prayer at midday, after the sun passes its highest point, while Salat al-'asr is honored during the late part of the afternoon. Salat al-maghrib is prayed just after sunset. And finally, Salat al-'isha happens between sunset and midnight.


As the third Pillar of Islam, a zakat goes far beyond the celebration of Ramadan. The noun means "religious tax," which is comprised of the percentages of personal income and is levied as an almsgiving to relieve the poor.

It is derived from the Arabic zakāh. Zakat is often distributed just before the three-day festival of Eid-ul-Fitr. Ramadan itself is a time of charity and giving, beyond the obligatory annual zakat. For example, feeding those in need is a good way to compensate for not being able to fast (e.g., for health reasons).


After a long month of fasting and sacrifice, Muslims end Ramadan with a three-day celebration called Eid-ul-Fitr. It literally means "the festival of breaking the fast."

During this time, gifts are exchanged and festive meals are enjoyed. It begins with the first sighting of the new moon—marking the end of Ramadan and the beginning of the next month—so Muslims often have to wait until the night before to verify the date. When the sighting is confirmed, Eid is declared on news outlets and in mosques so the fun can begin: coming together as a community for the Eid prayer first thing in the morning, enjoying traditional desserts, visiting families, decorating, and even celebrating at a carnival.

The best part about this holiday is that all of the celebrations are preceded by the giving of alms to the poor.


Laylatul-Qadr, better known as the Night of Power, is considered the holiest night of the year for Muslims. Traditionally, it is celebrated on the 27th day of Ramadan. The special celebration commemorates the night the Qur'an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad.

While the exact date isn't mentioned, it is noted in the Qur'an that on the Night of Power: "Therein come down the angels and the Spirit by Allah’s permission, on every errand: Peace! ... This until the rise of morn!" It is believed that the prayers you make that night will be heard and answered, so many Muslims spend the night in deep meditation and prayer.


Ramadan is a reflective holiday, but it is also a communal and celebratory one. Taraweeh prayers are practically synonymous with Ramadan and are typically performed in mosques alongside other Muslim community members. The word itself is derived from Arabic and means "to rest and relax," which is fitting because taraweeh is really a form of meditative prayer.

Taraweeh prayers involve reading the many chapters of the Qur'an over the course of the month. The prayer also involves performing many rakahscycles of movement involved in Islamic prayer—in order to accommodate the many, sometimes long, chapters being read each night. The idea is to read the entirety of the Qur'an as a community by the end of the month.


The Qur'an, a spelling variant of Koran preferred by scholars, is the holy book for Muslims that contains the foundation for the Islamic religion. It is believed that the Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in stages over a span of 23 years. The name of the book itself comes from the Arabic word qur'an which means "book, reading, or recitation," which is rooted in qara'a meaning "to read."

Parts of the Qur'an date back to the eighth or possibly seventh century, but the oldest existing copy of the full text dates to the ninth century. There are 114 chapters in it, originally written in Arabic. The holy book is divided into 30 equal parts (juz') so Muslims can read the Qur'an easily. This is especially important during the month of Ramadan.

So, get your dates ready, it's almost iftar time!