An online magazine of news and opinions from the Asia New Zealand Foundation

8 things to know about Ramadan

For a month every year, some Kiwis will temporarily lose a lunch buddy, as Muslims in New Zealand join others worldwide in observing the rituals of Ramadan – the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. The Foundation's Digital Content Editor, Francine Chen, finds out more about the event.

1. It's a time of reflection and empathy

Holy Quran

Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection, when Muslims contemplate their relationship with God, carry out compassionate sacrifices, build community and help those in need. 

Muslims observe Ramadan in three main ways:

  • Devout prayer: In addition to the usual daily prayers, Muslims say an extra prayer known as Taraveeh, which can last for up to 90 minutes. 
  • Charity: As Ramadan is a month of giving, Muslims are extra generous towards the less fortunate. They also contribute Zakat (alms) and Fitrana (a donation to ensure all Muslims have means to celebrate Eid, the event that marks the end of Ramadan).
  • Fasting: This aspect of Ramadan is the most well known, whereby Muslims abstain from food and drink as well as other physical desires (such as smoking, sex, or alcohol consumption) during daylight hours, in empathy of the poor and less fortunate.

Think of the occasion as a month-long spiritual detox.

2. It begins when the moon is visible

Crescent moon in the sky

Ramadan, the name of the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar, begins when the moon is sighted. 

As weather conditions can impede the visibility of the moon, the beginning of Ramadan may differ from country to country.

For instance, Muslims in the United Kingdom started observing Ramadan this year on Friday, 26 May, but as the moon was not sighted in New Zealand then, Ramadan began on 28 May here.

The lunar calendar is 10 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar, so Ramadan falls about 10 days earlier each year.

3. It's part of the five pillars of Islam

Holy city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia

These are the five tenets of Islam: 

  • Declaration of faith: The reciting of a set statement, usually in Arabic, that professes a Muslim's faith to God. 
  • Prayer: Five daily prayers, which occur at dawn, midday, the afternoon, evening and at night.
  • Charity: Alms-giving to ease the economic hardship of others.
  • Fasting: Ritual fasting during Ramadan for able-bodied, healthy adults.
  • Pilgrimage: Taking the Hajj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, at least once.

4. What happens before and after a fast?

Muslims get up early for Suhoor, the meal before sunrise. The meal taken after sundown is known as Iftar.

Traditionally, people break their fast by consuming sweet dates. 

As Ramadan doesn't fall on the same time each year, the fasting duration can vary significantly.

In New Zealand, where it is currently winter, fasts are relatively short, lasting about eight to 11 hours.

5. Muslims do fast outside of Ramadan

While it isn't compulsory, there may be instances when some Muslims voluntarily fast outside of Ramadan. These include:

  • On the 9th and 10th day in Muharram (first month in the Islamic calendar).
  • Any day in the month of Rajab (seventh month).
  • Six days in the month of Shawwal (tenth month).
  • The first nine days in the month of Zulhijjah (12th month).

6. How to support your Muslim colleague during Ramadan

Muslim children in mosque

While Muslims do not expect any special favours, there are some things Kiwi workplaces could consider doing during Ramadan, says Ikhlaq Kashkari, president of the New Zealand Muslim Association. These include: 

  • Greeting Muslim employees with "Ramadan Mubarak" (Happy Ramadan).
  • Scheduling business or team meetings without a meal, where possible.
  • Making some concessions if a Muslim has to carry out strenuous labour.
  • Allowing flexible work hours so Muslims can return home earlier to break fast with family.

7. Ramadan ends in joyful splendour

Eid al Fitr food

Ramadan ends with Eid al-Fitr ("festival of the breaking of the fast"), which marks the first day of Shawwal (tenth month).

Muslims dress in a splash of colour, decorate their homes, and prepare delicious, elaborate feasts for Eid. Gifts are also exchanged as they gather with family, friends, and the community in celebration.

Eid is locally known by other names in different countries, such as Hari Raya Aidilfitri in Singapore and Malaysia, or Lebaran in Indonesia.

Shawwal begins when the moon is sighted. 

8. Most NZ Muslims are of Asian descent

The Muslim community in Aotearoa has grown since a small group of Muslim-Chinese gold miners landed on our shores in the 1870s.

According to the 2013 census, there are 46,150 people in New Zealand who identify as Muslim. 

People of Asian descent form the bulk of the Muslim community, at 61 percent (28,497 people), compared with 12,243 people from the Middle Eastern/Latin American/African ethnic group, and 2,619 from the Maori/Pasifika community.

A quarter of the Muslim population are Kiwi-born. About 4,400 people from the European/Pakeha community identify as Muslim. 

Islam is estimated to be the fastest-growing religion for Maori.

Special thanks to Ikhlaq Kashkari, president of the New Zealand Muslim Association, for his contribution towards this story.

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2 June 2017