During Ramadan - the month when the Quran was first revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad through the archangel Gabriel - Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and sexual relations from before dawn to after sunset.
Muslim scholars describe the holy month as an exacting act of worship during which Muslims seek a higher level of God-consciousness.
Imam Zaid Shakir, an Islamic teacher at the Zaytuna Institute in California, told Aljazeera.net that Ramadan teaches Muslims self-discipline, self-restraint and generosity.
Virtuous character emanates from good habits, and good habits emanate from resisting negative temptations, he said.
Therefore, Ramadan is an ideal training period for filtering out bad habits and developing these traits.
Fasting redirects hearts away from worldly activities towards the Divine.
Fasting and observing the month of Ramadan is obligatory for all Muslims and comprises one of the five pillars of Islam.
The Holy Quran was first revealed
Allah (God) commands in the Quran: "O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may [learn] self-restraint...
"Ramadan is the [month] in which was sent down the Quran as a guide to mankind, and also as a clear [sign] for guidance and judgment [between right and wrong].
"So every one of you who is present [at his home] during that month should spend it in fasting."
Physical and spiritual
There are two components to the Muslim fast – physical and spiritual.
In addition to refraining from food, drink and sex, the fast requires abstention from chewing gum and smoking tobacco.
"Read in the Name of your Lord Who created;
Created man out of a clot (of congealed blood);
Read and your Lord is the Most Generous; Who taught by the Pen; Taught man that which he knew not"
First Quranic revelation given to Prophet Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel in 610 CE
A Muslim must also refrain from gossiping, lying, slandering and all traits of bad character.
Obscene and irreligious sights and sounds are to be avoided because purity of thought and action is paramount.
Ramadan is a time when charity and the plight of the dispossessed should be foremost in the minds of the community.
It is a time for spiritual reflection, prayer, doing good deeds and spending time with family and friends.
Shaikh Abd al-Hakim Murad, a lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cambridge University, says Ramadan involves withdrawing from the world to a certain extent.
Ramadan is a time for family and
community to come together
"Ramadan is about restraining yourself and fighting your lower desires," he told Aljazeera.net.
"We now live in societies where we crave instant gratification and that inevitably distracts us from the contemplation of higher things.
"So Ramadan is about detachment from the world. It teaches patience and patience is half of the faith."
For his part, Imam Shakir says Ramadan emphasises the spirituality of Islam, which is often associated in many people's minds with politics and violence.
"Ramadan is a good opportunity for non-Muslims to learn what Islam is really all about - namely, worshipping Allah.
"And worshipping Allah is not about terrorism or pushing a certain political agenda at all costs no matter what the consequences are."
Imam Shakir adds that the Muslim fast is also noted for its moderation.
"It is not a strict fast," he said. "In other religions like Buddhism the fast is so exacting that the believer is forced to put aside all his worldly duties.
"But Ramadan allows the Muslim to pay attention to whatever he has to do but with a greater consciousness that what he is doing is for the sake of Allah."
- Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar
- The name of the month comes from an Arabic root word which implies the burning away of sins
- If a Muslim is sick or travelling he/she is excused from the fast
- If a Muslim woman is pregnant, nursing or on her menstrual period she is excused from fasting
Both scholars agree that Ramadan has practical benefits that non-Muslims can learn from.
"The fast is good for the health,” said Shaikh Murad.
"A major problem in the world today is obesity caused by gluttony, so I think non-Muslims can learn from the proven health benefits to fasting."
A virtual festival?
However, some Islamic scholars are concerned that the true spirit of Ramadan has been eroded over time.
Critics suggest many Muslims have turned Ramadan into a virtual festival by eating copiously after dusk and displaying an all too temporary religiosity.
- Muslims believe in one God and that Muhammad was His messenger
- They believe the Quran is the word of God
- Makka is the birthplace of Prophet Muhammad and the holiest place in the Muslim world
- Muslims believe the Messiah Jesus is a prophet of Islam
Shaikh Murad acknowledges these concerns but adds we should not be too quick to condemn.
Imam Shakir agrees.
"I think nowadays we probably have lost the spirit of Ramadan to a certain extent, but it is not for me to judge people.
"The fact is that Ramadan is a wonderful opportunity for Muslims to refresh their faith and we must remember that many people do exactly that."