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World's Largest Muslim Nation Marks Beginning of Ramadan - 2003-10-26

For more than a billion Muslims, Monday morning will mark the beginning of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, a month of fasting and reflection. In Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, many people have turned back to Islam in a time of crisis, and for them this month will have special significance.

More than 80 percent of Indonesia's 220 million people are Muslims and most of them will observe the Ramadan dawn-to-dusk fast - one of the five central expressions of faith in Islam.

It is a month of reflection and forgiveness, a time to pay special attention to families and friends, and to renew relationships over the evening meal that marks the breaking of the fast.

The Imam at the Istiqlal Mosque, Achmed Sodakin, says charity - another of the five pillars of Islam - is also particularly important during Ramadan.

Indonesians are overwhelmingly moderate in their practice of Islam, but in a country where corruption consistently tops every poll of people's concerns, Islam, with its heavy emphasis on honesty and sobriety, is often seen as a ready-made solution.

But there are also other forces at work. The terrorist bombings in Bali and Jakarta over the past year have repulsed the vast majority of Indonesians, and they have been particularly turned off by the attempts of the bombers to use Islam to justify their actions.

Indonesia will hold general and presidential elections next year, and many analysts are looking at opinion polls and actions of the religious parties, as a litmus test of where Indonesian Islam is headed.

But for most of Indonesia's Muslims, this month will be a chance to reaffirm their faith in the moderate, inclusive Islam that has characterized the country.