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Arab World Gears Up for Holy Month of Ramadan

According to Islam's lunar-based calendar, the holy month of Ramadan is set to start on Wednesday in large parts of the Middle East, predicts a Saudi cleric. Clerics also have issued a fatwa - or religious edict - prohibiting price increases, a common practice during Ramadan.

Merchants across Cairo are stocking their shelves with dates, nuts, figs, and apricot paste for the start of the holy month of Ramadan. Many also are stringing lights and lanterns to decorate for the event amid intense summer heat.

Ramadan starts with the first sighting of the crescent moon. Cloud cover and geography mean that some countries begin a day or two earlier than others. One Saudi cleric predicts that Ramadan will start next Wednesday in his country, as well as Egypt. He says that the crescent moon will probably be sighted on Tuesday night in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and if there are witnesses and their sightings are corroborated by the religious court, then Ramadan will begin on Wednesday.

During Ramadan, people fast from sunrise to sunset across the Islamic world, abstaining from food and drink. Since Ramadan this year starts during the summer, the heat will force many to curtail their activities. Egypt will even set clocks back an hour to help people to cope.

After sunset and the sound of the Ramadan cannon, people eat their first meal, or iftar, which is often a copious, multiple course banquet.

Dates are traditionally an important part of the Ramadan celebration and markets here in Cairo sell dozens of varieties. The finest dates are named after well-loved celebrities, and the more mediocre after familiar villains. A food critic from the Gulf explains that dates are important, a well-known product of the Arabian desert and well-loved by Arabs. He stresses that they are mentioned in the Koran and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed. He also notes that they go through five stages, all of which have many nutritional values.

Egyptians complain that prices of many foodstuffs are rising dramatically as Ramadan nears, making it hard for families to prepare meals. The daily Al-Masry Al-Youm reports that a fatwa has been issued to forbid merchants from raising prices during Ramadan.

The dean of Cairo's venerable Al Azhar University, it adds, is calling the practice "unlawful" and contrary to Islamic sharia law. Egypt's Ministry of Religious Affairs also is planning a small revolution, set to start with the onset of Ramadan, by creating one, official broadcast call to prayer.

The cacophony of poorly coordinated prayer calls across Cairo has long irritated many residents. Though the project has met opposition from some clerics, the government has finally decided to implement the unified prayer call, which it has long considered.

Arab satellite television channels also are starting to advertise for this year's crop of Ramadan soap operas and mini-series, which are a popular staple during evening gatherings of family and friends. Many stay up during the night to talk and watch TV, sleeping instead during the day.