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Indonesia Begins the Holy Month of Ramadan

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, where Muslims around the world refrain from eating, drinking, and sex from sunrise to sunset, has begun in Indonesia the country with the world's largest number of Muslims. VOA's Katie Hamann has a look at how Ramadan is observed by Indonesian Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

On the first day of Ramadan, pious Muslims awaken long before the pre-dawn call to prayer rings out across the Indonesian capital. Throughout the holy month, eating and drinking is a priority in these early hours because once the sun rises a day of fast begins.

Meaning 'ninth month' the word Ramadan is derived from an Arabic term for 'scorched earth'. Participants must not eat, drink or have sex before the fourth prayer of the day at sun-down.

For most Muslims it is a chance reflect upon those less fortunate.

Muhammad Adam, a motorcycle taxi driver, says it is his obligation as a Muslim to fast. Ramadan, he says, allows him to experience what poor people without regular food feel.

For the less devout Muslims, Ramadan is an opportunity to re-connect with their faith or an exercise in self-discipline.

Emmy Zumaidar grew up in the strictly Muslim province of Aceh on the island of Sumatra. She now lives in the capital Jakarta, working as a translator and dating a non-Muslim.

"For me it's nothing really to do about being a Muslim or the Muslim teachings, well it was my childhood teachings but now I do it not because of that, I do it more to challenge myself," she said. "And I do it during Ramadan."

As well as hunger and thirst, other challenges accompany Ramadan. Food prices often increase dramatically because of increased demand for staples and speciality items.

Across Indonesia, prices for eggs, meat and cooking oil grew by as much as 25 percent this past week. The government has urged retailers not to increase prices, insisting that food stocks are plentiful.

Non-Muslims in the capital Jakarta and other major cities continue to eat at restaurants during the day and enjoy a drink after dark but operating hours are restricted and some businesses obscure their trade by blocking windows.

The government is hoping that the Islamic Defenders Front or FPI, a militant group that has attacked restaurants and bars during past Ramadans, will be less active this year. Their leader, Habib Rizhiq, is currently on trial for leading a violent attack at a peaceful religious rally in June.

Ramadan will continue for the month of September, concluding with to a celebration that Indonesians call Idul Fitri. Like Christmas for Christians, Idul Fitri is a holiday bringing families together for lavish meals and the giving of money.