The Islamic holy month of Ramadan starts Wednesday. It is during this period that Muslims refrain from eating during daylight hours to concentrate on their faith.
The wails of Islamic muezzins float over a suburb before dawn in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, calling the faithful to pray. It is now the ninth month of the Islamic calendar: Ramadan. During this month, more than a billion Muslims around the world are called on to fast during daylight hours. The morning call to prayer now marks the time when Muslims are permitted to eat before dawn. Based on the lunar calendar, Ramadan marks the month in 610 A.D. during which God, or Allah revealed the first verses of the Islamic holy book, the Koran, to Mohammed, who was wandering in the desert. Adhering to the demands of Ramadan is seen by many as a way to be closer to Allah. For many families, Ramadan is also a time of nightly gatherings, as relatives and friends gather to break their fast with favorite foods after sundown. The majority of Indonesia's 210 million people are Muslim, making it the world's most populous Muslim country. Most Indonesians practice a moderate form of Islam, although there are very small groups that represent more extreme views. Alwi Shihab is an Islamic scholar with the Nhadlatul Ulama, Indonesia's largest Islamic organization, which boasts more than 35 million members. Speaking at a conference in the Indonesian capital on Islamic radicalism earlier this week, Mr. Shihab said those who use violence against others do not represent Islam.
"In the case of Islam, Islam is sacred and not subject to change," he explained. "The Koran is not subject to change. But Islamic thought covers a great variety of discipline and sciences, as well as school of thought. Now let us try to find which of those schools of thought that incites emotions, that ignites anger, that try to put people in a place where he justifiably kill others by the name of religion. We do not go to Islam, but we go through the school of thought that interprets wrongly Islam. " There are exceptions to the rule about fasting. Pregnant or nursing women, for instance, are not required to fast. In the Indonesian capital Jakarta, some people make exceptions of their own. In past years, the fast-food restaurant chain McDonalds put curtains up in its windows during Ramadan, so no one can see who might be breaking the fast and eating inside. The holy month is not immune to Indonesian politics. Authorities have set a deadline at the end of Ramadan for separatist rebels in the northern province of Aceh to return to the negotiating table - or else face a renewed military offensive. The rebels have been fighting Indonesian troops for independence for Aceh since the 1970's.