What Is Ramadan? Why Does the Date Change?

Ramadan 2022 is starting now, and if you don’t observe the month-long celebration, you might be wondering why Ramadan doesn’t start at the same time every year. It does always fall on the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, though. If that was your only question, you’re lucky, because the answer is that Ramadan’s start and end dates are governed by the Islamic calendar, which is a lunar calendar. There’s more to Ramadan than just being bound to a lunar calendar though, so what is Ramadan, and why does it last a month?

Further Reading: What Is a Lunar Calendar?

What does Ramadan mean?

The word “Ramadan” is derived from the Classical Arabic ramiḍa (رَمِضَ). It’s a verb that roughly means to become super hot. Generally speaking, it is believed that the first Ramadan fell during the summertime, so these two points definitely track. Ramadan can be read as one of the names of God in Islam, which is why some refer to it as the “month of Ramadan” instead. 

You may have also seen “Ramazan” before, though “Ramadan” is far more common when discussing the month in the English language. This is a property of the letter “zuad,” which carries the “z” sound in Urdu–but the same letter is pronounced like a “d” in Arabic. As a result, the “d” pronunciation appears in Arabic script while the “z” sound appears in Persianate-Urdu script. 

Less literally, Ramadan is the most sacred month in the Islamic calendar. According to the Prophet Mohammed, it is a time in which “the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of hell are closed, and the devils are chained.” According to the Muslim faith, the first verses of the Quran revealed to Mohammed (by God) during the month of Ramadan. The night the verses were revealed is Laylat al-Qadr (لیلة القدر)–the Night of Power in English. While the exact date is undefined, it is commonly held that this night fell on an odd-numbered night within the last ten days of Ramadan.

Fasting

One of the five pillars of Islam is fasting during Ramadan, and this fast is probably what most outside-observers are familiar with. Fasting (sawm) begins at dawn and ends at sunset and all Muslims are obligated to do so–with the exception for those who are pregnant, menstruating, nursing, or otherwise ill. Missed days are intended to be made up later. Also, the fast includes water.

Well before dawn a pre-fast meal is observed called suhur. Once the sun sets, fast is broken with iftar

Why does the date change?

Ramadan is bound by a lunar calendar, and the Islamic calendar has 11 fewer days than the Gregorian one. This means Ramadan cycles between each of the seasons by moving back roughly 11 days each year–which makes fasting way more difficult during the summer months when days can last up to 20 hours. Remember the fasting period is governed by when the sun rises or sets, not by one’s watch. 

The beginning of Ramadan is also dictated by the moon, which may throw in additional variance for Ramadan’s start date. On the Islamic calendar, new months start on each new moon, which can get sticky back when people were making these calculations with the naked eye. Some say the fast begins when there is a slight crescent in the moon, attributed to Prophet Mohammed. Some argue to use more modern calculations for moon’s phases, while some argue Muslims should go with what Saudi Arabia decrees with their moon sightings since Saudi Arabia is where many of the holiest sites of Islam are. That last one is perhaps one of the most contentious, given geopolitical tensions. But that’s why the beginning of Ramadan might seem a little less straightforward than just counting to the ninth month.


See if you know more Ramadan trivia here.

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