Soon, Muslims across the world will be preparing for the holy month of Ramadan.
It is common knowledge that the month involves fasting, and ends with a celebration called Eid.
But it is actually about much more than that – the Islamic month is also about charity, reflections and resolutions.
By going without food or water, Ramadan gives Muslims an insight into how it feels to be less fortunate, giving them a time to reflect and show their gratitude to Allah.
Want to learn more? Here is everything you need to know about Ramadan in 2018.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, when it is believed the first revelation of the Quran to the prophet Muhammad took place.
To commemorate this event, Muslims across the world observe a month of fasting during daylight hours.
Muslims must abstain from food, drink, smoking and sex every day, and are only allowed to eat during an early-morning meal, suhur, and a night-time meal, iftar.
Fasting during Ramadan is the fourth of the five pillars of Islam, the most important of Muslim practices.
While fasting, Muslims also spend the time focusing their minds and activities on prayer and spiritual reflection, including greater study of the Quran.
When is Ramadan in 2018?
Based on astronomical charts, Ramadan could start on Wednesday 16 May this year.
It will continue for 30 days until Thursday 14 June.
This means that the first day of the next month, Shawwal, is expected to begin on Friday 15 June.
The first day of Shawwal also marks the date of Eid al-Fitr, the festival celebrating breaking the fast.
Why do the dates vary?
While the Gregorian calendar largely used in the western world is based on the sun, the Islamic calendar is based on the cycle of the moon.
Because the two calendars don’t align exactly, the Islamic dates move back by 11 days each year.
Ramadan was particularly tough in 2016 because it was in the period leading up to – and including – the longest day of the year.
Because the fast takes place from early in the morning (a couple of hours before sunrise) to sunset, it has meant long periods of around 19 hours without food and drink.
In 2018 it won’t include the longest day, but it will still cover a challenging period of extended daylight hours.
As the Islamic dates move back through the Western calendar, Ramadan is set to begin in April by 2020, in March by 2023 and in February by 2026.
That means the daily hours of fasting will get shorter – offering some comfort to those who struggle to go without food and drink for such long periods.
How are the dates worked out?
In Islam, the start and end of month is based on a sighting of the first crescent of the new moon at Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Mecca is Islam’s holiest city because it’s the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad and the place where the Quran was first revealed to him.
But, of course, the crescent moon may not always be visible – because of its position in the sky or because of cloudy weather.
It has been agreed since 2002 that if the first crescent of the new moon is seen above Mecca on the 29th day of the existing month, then Ramadan has ended and the next day will be the start of the new month.
If the moon is not seen, the current month will go on another day, lasting a total of 30 days.
This occurred in 2016, when the moon was not sighted on July 4 and therefore Eid was not the next day but instead on July 6.
So the date of Ramadan – and, therefore, of Eid al-Fitr at the start of the next month – is not known until a day or so before it is expected to happen.
Is anyone exempt from fasting?
Fasting is done out of the love for Allah (God) and shows devotion, willpower, discipline, patience, selflessness, adaptability, unity, and closeness to the supreme being.
During Ramadan, fasting is compulsory for every Muslim who is mentally and physically fit and healthy.
But not everyone can take part.
There are some exceptions, including the severely mentally ill, those who are sick or elderly, and people who are away from home on a journey of 50 miles or more.
Women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or having their period are not expected to fast.
Children who haven’t yet reached puberty, usually around 14, are also exempt – but are encouraged to gradually start giving up some food and drink during Ramdan so they are better prepared when they reach the age of full fasting.
And while they are exempt from fasting, elderly or frail people are still expected to offer a meal (or its value) to one needy or poor Muslim every day of Ramadan.
For those who are too ill to fast during Ramadan must make up for every day of missed fasting at a later date.
What is daily life like for Muslims during Ramadan?
The prophet Muhammad recommended breaking the fast by first eating a few dates or drinking a glass of plain water right after sunset.
Dates are the food that Muhammad used to break his own fasting, and are a good source of sugar, fibre and essential vitamins and minerals.
It’s then suggested to make the evening meal as light as possible rather than trying to make up for missed food with a big feast.
Five sets of prayers are held through the day and are calculated around sunrise and sunset.
For children, Ramadan advent calendars are a way of keeping track of the fasting during the countdown to Eid and are usually filled with toys and treats.
Ramadan food and supermarket offers
In 2015, Ramadan boosted Britain’s big supermarkets with a £100 million increase in sales.
Tesco said demand for chapati flour, oil and dates had risen by 70 per cent, while Sainsbury’s said sales of rice had doubled.