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Every year two billion Muslims around the world celebrate Ramadan, a time of spiritual reflection, fasting and charity. This year the holiday started on July 19th and will go on till August 18th. Here are 10 things you should know about the Islamic holiday:

  1. Fasting from dawn to dusk during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and therefore a fundamental aspect of the Muslim faith.
  2. All practicing, able-bodied Muslims above the age of 12 refrain from eating and drinking, in addition to having sex and smoking, during daylight hours. Young children, seniors, pregnant women and those with medical conditions are exempt from fasting.
  3. Muslims abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours for a month as a way to feel for the less privileged and to sympathize with those who do not have easy access to food and drink. 
  4. The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, meaning months begin when the first crescent of a new moon is spotted. Since lunar calendars are 11 to 12 days shorter than solar calendars, Ramadan’s dates change every year.
  5. Besides fasting, worshipers engage in introspection, repentance and self-renewal. Reevaluating one’s life and healing wounded relationships is encouraged. Fasting teaches discipline and restraint while allowing worshipers to focus on nourishing the mind and soul.
  6. Observers break their fast at sunset during a meal called iftar. Iftar is usually an elaborate, communal feast during which families and friends gather to break their fast together. It is custom that meals begin with a hearty soup. Traditional soups include lentil, cream-based vermicelli and roasted tomato soup. Other quintessential Ramadan dishes include various baked proteins (cooked tagine-style), in addition to fulstuffed grape leaves and kebabs. Desserts during Ramadan tend to be pastries soaked in honey syrup, such as katifi and baklava. Mosques and community centers offer free sohour meals to the poor every day during Ramadan. Huge tables that seat hundreds of people are a common sight during Ramadan in Muslim countries. The meals are donated by wealthy people throughout the community. 
  7. Before sunrise, those planning on fasting consume a meal called sohourSohour is a late-night meal meant to line the stomach so that hunger doesn’t strike early the next morning. Typical Souhour items include homemade yogurt and other typical Middle Eastern breakfast fare such as eggs, cheese, jam and bread. 
  8. Ramadan lanterns or fanous are symbolic objects that illuminate streets and public places during the holy month. The lanterns are traditionally made using recycled tin and colored glass, with a single wax candle. Children buy lanterns and sing traditional Ramadan songs after Iftar. 
  9. Ramadan is known as the month of giving. Muslims are obligated to donate food and money to those in need, an almsgiving known as zakat. Zakat is another one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
  10. At the end of the month, a three-day celebration known as Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan. Traditionally mothers, daughters and grandmothers gather in their kitchens to make special sugar cookies known as kahk and grayiba, which are served during breakfast.