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The origins of the word 'Ramadan' Open in fullscreen

Akram Belkaid

The origins of the word 'Ramadan'

Economic activity is at its lowest levels during the month of Ramadan [Getty]

Date of publication: 19 June, 2016

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Comment: Akram Belkaid explains where the word 'Ramadan' originally derived from and what this holy month means for Muslims.
The word 'Ramadan' originally meant the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar, also known as "Hegira". The starting point of this calendar, that’s to say the founding date of the Muslim era, marks the emigration – Hijri or Hegira – of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina, on September 13, 622.

The month of Ramadan, which began this year on June 6, 2016, begins with the appearance of the crescent moon, and is that of the year 1437.

A semantic shift means that the word is now also used to refer to the month of fasting that accompanies it. This has led to expressions such as "doing Ramadan", meaning "observing the fast of Ramadan".

This is something that applies to many Arabic speakers, especially in North Africa where the word’s implicit meaning is to fast. Anecdotally, in North Africa "fasting for Lent" is still sometimes said to mean fasting during Ramadan.

Indeed, during the colonial era, Europeans in Algeria often – wrongly – called the period of fasting at Ramadan the "Muslim Lent". One well-known Arabic proverb which clearly identifies Ramadan as a month, states that you should not "put Ramadan before the Sha’ban", or in other words, "don’t put the cart in front of the horse".

During this period of 29 to 30 days, Muslims are called upon to, among other things, fast from dawn until sunset. In practice, this fast – or sawm – means not eating or drinking. It is also accompanied by sexual abstinence, no lying, no insulting, chasing "impure" thoughts from your mind and in general, committing no bad actions. Failing to respect these guidelines makes invalidates the fast.

Pregnant women, people who are ill and travellers are exempt from fasting, providing they make up for the days they missed when possible.

During this period of 29 to 30 days, Muslims are called upon to, among other things, fast from dawn until sunset. In practice, this fast – or sawm – means not eating or drinking

The first day following the end of the month of Ramadan is Eid al-Fitr, or "celebration of breaking the fast". It is also known as "Eid al-Saghir", the Little Eid, as opposed to the other large religious festival, Eid al-Kebir (big Eid) or Eid al-Adha "the festival of sacrifice".

The month of Ramadan comes between the months of Sha’ban and Shawwal and is the only one in the Hegira calendar to be cited in the Quran. Surah (or chapter) II, dubbed "genesis", details its prescriptions over several verses[i] (these were also completed by the al-Sunna tradition).

One which is very well-known, stipulates that eating and drinking are allowed (at night) "until the white thread of dawn becomes distinct to you from the black thread [of night]". (II-183). Then complete the fast until sunset.

Etymologically, the word "ramadhān", which can also be given as a first or last name, comes from the Arabic root r-m-d. While it can carry many meanings, they are all connected to heat, to burning, from the ashes of the fire or the furnaces of the summer.

Originally, this month fell in summer, because the lunar calendar included interim periods so as to make it fixed in relation to the solar calendar. But today, the Hegira calendar follows the lunar cycles and "gets earlier" every year by 10 or 11 days. As a result, Ramadan in 1438 is due to begin on 25 or 26 May 2017.

The fourth pillar of Islam and a point of historical reference

In religious terms, the importance of Ramadan comes not just from the fact that its requirements are set out in the Holy Book.

It is, first and foremost, the fourth pillar of Islam, the others being professing the Muslim faith, prayer, charity and making the pilgrimage to Mecca, for those who are able.

It was in the second year after the Prophet’s arrival that fasting became mandatory. At the time, the practice was familiar to the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula, some of whom were Jewish or Christian.

For Muslims, fasting is not an act of penitence, but a method of self-purification, both physical and spiritual, as well as a way of showing solidarity with the needy. For many believers, it is also an asceticism that brings spiritual elevation and the collective affirmation of faith.

In addition, Ramadan is also important in religious terms, because beyond the fast, it’s a month during which the Quranic revelation started. It was during the "night of Destiny", Laylat al-Qadr, that the Quran began to be communicated to the Prophet.

It is commonly believed, according to tradition, that this night "better than a thousand months" and during which "the angels as well as the Spirit descended [to earth]" falls on an uneven night of the last ten days of Ramadan.

It is commonly believed, according to tradition, that this night 'better than a thousand months' and during which "the angels as well as the Spirit descended [to earth]" falls on an uneven night of the last ten days of Ramadan

Traditionally, the "night of the 27th" [day] is particularly important. It is a time for special celebrations, devotional meetings and prayers in the mosque or other places. It is from this time on, that one can make charity donations – Zakat al-Fitr – that form part of Ramadan, and whose name is derived from the fact that they are made during, or more precisely before Eid al-Fitr ("the celebration marking the breaking" [of the fast]). It usually amounts to a few pounds in England.

In many countries, it is also the time for Quran recital competition and the time for circumcision for boys. The 27th day is often the one during which young children "try out" fasting for the first time.

Ramadan also has both religious and historic importance. It is the month of the taking of Mecca by the Prophet in the Hegira year 8 (630), that of the birth of Hussein, the grandson of Mohammed and the death of Khadija, his first wife. More importantly, it is during the month of Ramadan that Muslims made, during the Battle of Badr, their first military victory against their Meccan enemies in the Hegira year 2 (624).

It is during the month of Ramadan that Muslims made, during the Battle of Badr, their first military victory against their Meccan enemies in the Hegira year 2 (624)

This is important, because it is, among others, this historic landmark that Muslim extremist groups recall in aiming to justify their renewed activism and the proliferation of violent actions during Ramadan.

A social practice

Aside from the religious aspect – believers are invited every evening to perform any extra prayers, or tarawih. After breaking their fast (iftar) which happens at the time of the "western sun" call to prayer (maghrib), and much socialising ensues. Groups of families sharing large meals with traditional dishes, gatherings, cultural events, broadcasting of successful soaps on TV, programmes and religious discussions and entertainment can all be found in the majority of Muslim countries.

In recent years, a new trend has arrived from the Gulf countries: long seen as a family affair, the iftar, is increasingly being enjoyed, for those who have the financial means, in the grand hotels or restaurants, which put together bountiful spreads of food. These meals are sometimes even sponsored by large companies. 

Dedicated to abstinence, this month is also one of wastefulness, of over-consumption and exacerbated inequalities, worsened by the fact that food prices tend to increase.

Dedicated to abstinence, this month is also one of wastefulness, of over-consumption and exacerbated inequalities, worsened by the fact that food prices tend to increase

Careful to avoid stirring up social tension, authorities in those countries concerned try to avoid shortages and to guarantee those most in need of a cheap supply. Though for some households, the month remains a synonym for financial difficulties and debts in order to put on special meals, eating for example, meat every night. 

Added to this is the fact that the country’s economic activity is at its lowest levels during the days. The combined effect of fasting, and the lack of caffeine, nicotine and sleep means that businesses and governments in Muslim countries slow down.

During summer, a time when productivity is never very high – the negative impact of Ramadan on business doesn’t change much at all. On the contrary, for the coming years, the month of fasting will coincide more and more with more temperate months, penalising the economy, even if consumption is always boosted. 

Lastly, and this is mainly a concern in North African countries, initiatives by those not fasting regularly claim the right to eat in public, and without having to fear reprisals by the police. These protesters – though in the minority – remind others that there was a time in the Arab world, when choosing not to fast, though it might have been discreet – did not constitute an offence or a crime in the eyes of the authorities or society in general.

The Quran indicates the purpose of fasting at Ramadan "O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous"  [Surah II - Verse 183].


This is an edited translation originally published in French by our partners at Orient XXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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