CAIRO (AFP) – Muslims in much of the Middle East begin the fasting month of Ramadan Wednesday during an especially gruelling time of the year, with sweltering heat and extremely long daylight hours.
Religious authorities in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, announced the sighting of the crescent moon on Tuesday evening, fixing the start of the ninth month of the lunar Islamic calendar on the following day.
Officials in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Qatar, Syria, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Algeria and Tunisia also announced a Wednesday start to the month.
The same was true for Sunni Muslims in Iraq, but the larger Shiite community will not begin until Thursday, as is the case with Oman.
Muslims observe Ramadan by abstaining from food, drink and sex from dawn until sunset.
Pregnant and menstruating women, the sick, travellers and prepubescent children are exempt from the fast, which is one of the five pillars of Islam.
Ramadan will begin amid scorching temperatures in the Middle East and elsewhere, with the first six months of 2010 being the warmest ever recorded.
Egypt, the largest Arab country whose 80 million population is mostly Muslim, will switch to winter time for the month, moving the clock back by an hour.
The same will be true in the Palestinian territories.
In Dubai, a cleric told workmen they are religiously allowed to break their fast if the heat got the better of them.
Most fasting Muslims go about their business as usual, if skimping an hour or two from work. Sleeping well into the day, although not technically a fast breaker, is considering cheating by some clerics.
Pieties increase, with additional optional prayers in the evening. Often, so does the evening and nighttime revelry for those able to peel themselves away from the special Ramadan television series in the evenings.
The month is marked by family visits and invitations to sumptuous iftars — the meals that break the fast.
Festivities can last into the early morning, to the consternation of traditional clerics who stress the ascetic nature of the month, in which Muslims believe God revealed the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed.
Egypt, which depends on tourism, is offering rich Arab holidaymakers fireworks, concerts, folkloric shows and displays by whirling dervishes.
But given the family-centred traditions of the month, enticing people to leave their countries is a tough sell.
Egypt’s bars and pubs either close during the month or switch to abstemious menus, with the exception of hotel bars, which serve alcohol only to non-Egyptians to conform with the Islamic ban on alcohol.
Dubai, one of the most popular Middle East cities for party-goers, closes its night clubs or bans dancing in them.
Consumption of alcohol in the United Arab Emirates is officially allowed only for non-Muslims. But in practice, anyone can drink at licensed hotels and clubs. During Ramadan, hotels close off their bars from public view.
“There are tourists and non-Muslims in the country and they can go to closed bars in which they can be served alcohol” during Ramadan, director of Dubai government’s inspection and tourism permit section, Mohammed Khalifa, told AFP.
“It is not permitted to hold entertainment activities, celebrations or parties at any time throughout the holy month of Ramadan,” the government said in a circular.
Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, will take the opportunity to crack down on Internet pornography.
Quoting a poem at a press conference on Tuesday, Communications Minister Tifatul Sembiring called on Muslims to “keep hearts clean in the holy month,” and said that he would target websites and media that carried sexual content.
Despite the fasting, some clerics complain that people end up piling on the pounds during the month, as they over-indulge to compensate for the fasting. The consumption contributes to price hikes.
In Mauritania, the government announced “urgent measures” against the increase.
The global rise in food prices, coupled with the Ramadan spike, also means that less can afford a traditional theme of the month — charity.
Long iftar tables set with free stews and bread that were commonplace in Cairo have been noticeably decreasing over the past two years, with many hosts saying they can’t afford it anymore.