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Muslims pray at the Jama Masjid (Grand Mosque) on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr in the old quarters of Delhi, India, in this October 2008 file photo. ((Vijay Mathur/Reuters))

The word "Ramadan" is derived from the Arabic root word ramida, meaning intense scorching heat and dryness. It is one of the holiest months for the Islamic communities around the world.

During Ramadan, Muslims concentrate on their faith and spend less time on the concerns of their everyday lives.

What is the significance of Ramadan?

Ramadan is celebrated in the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar. Muslims believe that it was in the month of Ramadan that the Holy Qur'an "was sent down from heaven" and revealed to the prophet Muhammad.

Muslims also believe that during this month, the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of hell are closed.

When will Ramadan be observed this year?

There is typically some confusion over the beginning of Ramadan every year. Some contend the beginning of the holy month is ascertained by physically sighting the new crescent moon, referred to as hilel.

Others say that astronomical calculations are needed to determine the start of the month. According to the Fiqh Council of North America, which favours the second approach, the first day of Ramadan in North America should be observed on Saturday, Aug. 22.

What happens during Ramadan?

"O you who believe, fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may [learn] self-restraint" Qur'an 2:183-185.

Ramadan is meant to be a time of worship and contemplation. Muslims believe that through prayer and fasting they can achieve salvation and be relieved of past sins.

During Ramadan, Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink during the daylight hours — a fast that is known as sawm. Muslims believe fasting brings them closer to their spiritual side through the exercise of restraint.

Muslims also must perform a special prayer, called the Taraweeh, in addition to the five daily prayers. Smoking and sexual relations are forbidden during fasting. 

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A Shiite girl prays as thousands gather to mark the end of Ramadan in Baghdad, Iraq, in this October 2008 file photo. ((Hadi Mizban/Associated Press))

What happens outside daylight hours?

The Qur'an says the day's fast begins when "you can plainly distinguish a white thread from a black thread by the daylight." When daylight fades the fast is broken with prayer and a meal called the iftar. After the iftar is completed, it is customary for Muslims to visit family and friends. The fast is resumed the next morning.

Do children fast during Ramadan?

Children who have not yet reached puberty are not obligated to take part in the fast. In many families, however, children begin fasting at an earlier age to get them accustomed to the fast they will have to undertake in future years.

In many cases, children fast only for part of the day or part of the week.

People who are very ill are also exempt from fasting.

What is Eid-al-Fitr?

Eid-al-Fitr celebrates the end of the fast. Gifts are exchanged, and friends and families gather for large meals. The purpose of the month-long fasting period is to remould, reshape, reform and renew the believer's physical and spiritual disposition and behaviour.