Ramadan means brisk sales for food
vendors in Kabul, Afghanistan [AFP]
Ramadan, a month of day-long fasting, spiritual reflection and sometimes night-long revelry, has begun for most of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims.

The holiest month of the Islamic calendar, the start of Ramadan is traditionally determined by the appearance of a new crescent moon. But the lunar sighting often divides Muslim communities over its exact date.

Across much of the Muslim world, Ramadan began on Thursday, although Libyans and Nigerians began the fast one day before.

During the month, Muslims are required to abstain from food, drink and sex from dawn until dusk. And in many Muslim countries, offices are required by law to reduce working hours.

Life thus slips into a lower gear during the day, and activity peaks between "iftar", the breaking of the fast at sunset, and "suhur", the last meal of the day before sunrise.

In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, Ramadan began under the shadow of an earthquake, after an 8.4 tremor struck off Sumatra island.

At least nine people were killed and dozens injured as emergency teams headed for the remote region.

Restricted hours

Meanwhile, conservative Indonesian Muslim groups have warned they will act against nightclubs and other "dens of vices" that disregard restricted opening hours for the month.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Thailand's army on Wednesday lifted a night curfew meant to pressure separatists in Muslim provinces, where people will also begin fasting on Thursday.

A shopper in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, typifies
the festive spirit of the month
[AFP]

Singapore is marking Ramadan alongside the Chinese mid-autumn festival and the Indian Deepavali festival next month.

In Bangladesh, the government has offered rice at a 20 per cent discount around the country, while also opening 100 convenience stores in capital Dhaka to sell other foods at reduced prices.

Dhiraj Malakar, secretary for food and disaster management, said: "We want poor and middle class people to have a comfortable Ramadan."

In Cairo, a shopping frenzy began weeks ago despite soaring prices. Egyptians prepared for the first day of fasting, gathering extended families to break fast traditionally on Thursday with dates and milk. 

Traffic police have been banned from taking time off during Ramadan in the teeming city of 18 million notorious for gridlock. Extra wardens have been deployed to control pre-iftar accidents as cars clamour to get home by sunset.

Public eating

Gulf countries, including Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have banned restaurants from operating during the day throughout Ramadan.

The Kuwaiti interior ministry threatened a 100 dinar ($356) fine or one month imprisonment for anyone caught eating in public or encouraging others to do so before dusk.

In Indonesia Ramadan is when many Javanese
families visit relatives' graves to pray [AFP]

Confusion about when Ramadan was starting led some people to wake up in the Afghan capital Kabul at 3am on Wednesday for a pre-dawn meal - just in case it was the first day of the month-long fast.

Once the sun was up, broadcasters said that the holy month would start on Thursday, with restaurants opening only in the evenings and government offices closing by 1pm.

The Taliban has threatened to use Ramadan to launch a new wave of attacks on government and Western military targets throughout the country.

But in Baghdad, where thousands of US troops are deployed, the US military said levels of pre-Ramadan violence were lower this year and expected the trend to continue.

In video

An Egyptian lantern maker speaks to Al Jazeera as Ramadan begins

The nightly curfew in the Iraqi capital and a vehicle curfew are to be eased during Ramadan to help families break fast together.

Baghdad's 400-year-old Shorja market has been bustling with activity with war-weary residents stocking up on spices, sugar, tea and nuts - mostly imported from Syria.

Iraq's Sunni community will begin observing Ramadan from Thursday, followed a day later by the country's Shias, religious leaders in Baghdad said.

Unity

Rival Palestinian governments in the West Bank and Gaza argued over the content of mosque sermons and collection of donations during the month, but agreed to start observance together on Thursday, nominally preserving unity during the holy period.

For Asian workers in Dubai, it is hard work
as usual during Ramadan [AFP]
Gaza residents are bracing for clashes after Fatah and other Palestinian groups called for sunset street prayers despite a Hamas ban.

Nabil al-Ali, one Gaza resident, said: "The prayers and religious practices should not be transformed into manifestations of violence and hate.

"We just want a little serenity and calm to bring us closer to God."

In a gesture of good will, Hamas announced on Wednesday plans to release on bail about 80 prisoners, including 25 Fatah supporters, Abu Obeida al-Jarrah, a Hamas commander, said.

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, is preparing to receive an expected one million pilgrims to perform Umrah, or a smaller pilgrimage, to Mecca during the month.

As generosity towards the poor peaks during the month, Kuwait is monitoring fund-raising activities by Muslim charities and has banned any cash donations to make sure that charity money does not reach extremist organisations.

Source: Agencies