Last minute preparations are underway as Muslims around the world stocked up on groceries and dates Wednesday for evening meals to break dawn-to-dusk fasting during the month of Ramadan.
Saudi Arabia and other Muslim-majority nations, like Egypt and Indonesia, declared Ramadan would begin Thursday based on a moon-sighting methodology. Muslims follow a lunar calendar, and a moon-sighting methodology can lead to different countries declaring the start of Ramadan a day or two apart.
Some mosques in the U.S. already declared the start of fasting Wednesday while others will begin Thursday. For those fasting in North America and Europe, Ramadan falls on especially long days this year, with Muslims in some cities not breaking their fast until after 8 p.m.
The Ramadan fast, in which food and even a sip of water is prohibited, is intended to bring the faithful closer to God and remind them of those less fortunate. It is also a chance to kick addictions like caffeine and cigarettes.
While fasting, Muslims must also abstain from sex, gossip and cursing. Muslims are encouraged to spend time in contemplation, prayer, reading the Quran and charity during the day.
Just as the sun begins to set, Muslims traditionally break their fast as the Prophet Muhammad did some 1,400 years ago, by eating sweet dates and drinking water, followed by a sunset prayer. At night, many fill mosques for evening prayers, known as "taraweeh."
Before dawn to prepare for the next day of fasting, families often wake in the night for a light meal known as "suhoor," eating fruits and vegetables, or a small dish with beans, lentils, bread or rice.
In many Middle Eastern countries, the wealthy help distribute free meals for the poor, with mosques and volunteers passing out juice and food to pedestrians and anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, in need of the aid or simply breaking their fast.
Fasting is considered obligatory in Islam, although there are exceptions for children, the elderly, the sick, those traveling and women who are pregnant, nursing or menstruating.
Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan with a three-day holiday called Eid al-Fitr.
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