With the holy month of Ramadan starting for Muslims around the world, Qasim answers questions about what exactly that means.

This week, Muslims around the world begin observing the holy month of Ramadan. I’ve received some great questions about this month, so here’s your all-in-one article for anyone interested in accurate information on fasting in Islam.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It is the month in which Muslims believe the Angel Gabriel first revealed the Qur’an to Prophet Muhammad. The first word ever revealed was “iqra,” which means “to read, convey, or recite.” This sums up the entire religion of Islam—a faith based on education and dialogue.

Now, the Qur’an was not the first Scripture to prescribe fasting. Prophets Jesus, Moses, Abraham, David, Joseph, Noah, and more—all fasted as a means of attaining nearness to God. The Holy Bible well documents this. The Qur’an also celebrates this point in several places, including in chapter 2:184, declaring, “Oh ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may guard against evil.”

Strict Limits on Fasting

Likewise, the Qur’an and the hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) also place strict limits on fasting. The Qur’an 2:185 declares, “The prescribed fasting is for a fixed number of days, but whoso among you is sick or is on a journey shall fast the same number of other days: and for those who are able to fast only with great difficulty, is an expiation—the feeding of a poor man.”

Ramadan fasting isn’t meant to cause physical harm or damage to a person’s physical health. If a person is traveling, sick, aged, or a child—fasting is not permitted. For women—periods, pregnancy, or nursing exempt, rather, forbid Ramadan fasting. Any such person who cannot fast must ensure their physical health is back to 100% before they can fast again.

Fasting occurs daily from sunup to sun down. Muslims abstain from food and drink, and also from intimate physical relations with their spouse during this time. But let me be clear. Ramadan fasting goes far beyond the physical element. Prophet Muhammad made clear that this is a month of moral reformation, not starvation.

‘Give Up Telling Lies’

He famously remarked, “Whoever does not give up telling lies, and evil deeds, and speaking ill to others, God is not in need of his fasting and leaving his food and drink.” (Sahih Bukhari). Moreover, the Qur’an 2:218 forbids all fighting during the month of Ramdan, declaring, “They ask thee about fighting in the Sacred Month. Say, Fighting therein is a heinous thing.”

Ultimately fasting is between a person and the Creator to attain nearness to Him. So, any act of violence, any attempt to force people to fast, or any attempt to punish people who do not fast—all are contrary to Islamic teachings. Instead, while Islam obliges Muslims to give charity at every opportunity, Ramadan inspires Muslims to increase their charity to the less fortunate as much as humanly possible.

Without service to humanity, fasting is meaningless. A close companion of Prophet Muhammad named Ibn Abbas reports that “God’s Messenger was the most generous of people in charity, but he was generous to the utmost during Ramadan and his charity was like a fierce wind.” (Sahih Muslim)

Ramadan Offers a Time of Self-Improvement

Muslims love and cherish this month because it is a time of self-improvement, peace, and personal progress. Ramadan is the annual reset button. Muslims are encouraged to break bad habits and build strong new habits. To repair broken relationships and strengthen old relationships. Finally, Ramadan is a month of forgiveness and attaining nearness to God. In the Qur’an, God declares that He forgives all sins out of his Grace and Mercy to all people, regardless of faith, “Say, O My servants who have sinned against their souls, despair not of the mercy of God, surely, God forgives all sins. Verily, he is Most Forgiving, Every Merciful.” (39:54)

Anyone can participate in Ramadan so don’t hesitate to reach out to myself or a local mosque if you’d like to get involved. And while this short primer on Ramadan is a starting point, I invite interested readers to learn more with this book on fasting, available for free download. May this month be one of peace, progress, and joy for all humanity. Ramadan Mubarak!

Qasim Rashid is a human rights lawyer, author, and Truman National Security Project Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @QasimRashid.