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Ramadan Begins for Many Muslims

Muslims around the world are beginning the holy month of Ramadan. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, required of all believers who are able to do so.

It is the first day of Ramadan, and Muhsen Abdel Aziz's vegetable shop is jammed with customers buying food for the first iftar, the meal that breaks the daily Ramadan fast.

The shopkeeper says this time of year is special to him and to all Muslims.

He says, Ramadan is a month of worship, a month of intimacy among people. People love each other. Families visit each other. There is something spiritual, something good, coming from God Almighty.

Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, or central tenets of the faith. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, and fasting from dawn till dusk is required for all Muslims who are physically able to do it. There are exceptions for the seriously ill, for pregnant women or nursing mothers, and for travelers.

A leading Islamic scholar from Cairo's famed al-Azhar research academy, Ahmed Omar Hashem, says fasting is only one of the responsibilities of the holy month.

He says, the responsibilities of a Muslim during Ramadan are to be obedient to God Almighty and to his prophet, which means fasting during the day and waking up at night to pray El-Tarawih, a special Ramadan prayer. He says Muslims are also expected to read the Qur'an, give charity to the poor, to get along with other people.

Sayyid Hashem says fasting increases piety and strengthens one's relationship with God.

Fasting during Ramadan is also supposed to give people empathy for the poor and hungry. Some wealthier people set up huge tents with tables of food for the underprivileged, so that everyone can share in the iftar meal at the end of the day.

But most people, especially on this first day of Ramadan, prefer to spend the evening with their families.

Outside the vegetable shop, two sisters are shopping for their families' dinner.

Nahed Abdel Aziz says there is more closeness between people, more togetherness than other months of the year.

The feeling even extends to non-Muslims who live in Egypt, where about 10 percent of the population is Christian.

Layla Fawzi, a Coptic Christian, says, there is joy in the country, and people are happy because it feels as if more traditional days and practices are back.

Ramadan started Tuesday throughout much of North Africa and the Middle East.