The majority of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims have spent the past month observing Ramadan. For some, it’s been a long-awaited opportunity to attain righteousness and to grow closer to Allah. Others participate in the fast but especially look forward to the community experience of the holiday.
Ramadan is an integral part of faith and culture for many of the world’s Muslims. To observe their devotion, even if from afar, is to seek to understand their worldview. It serves us well as Christians to learn who they are, what they believe, and how we can love them.
To that end, we asked photographers around the world to show us Muslim observations of fasting, waiting for sundown, and communing with their brothers and sisters over feasts after dark. May these photos spur prayers and affection for people whom God longs to welcome into his kingdom.
The word Ramadan comes from the Arabic word meaning “scorching heat.” Muslims observe Ramadan during the ninth lunar month of the Islamic calendar, which usually falls during summers for much of the world.
Women in India stroll through the courtyard to enter a mosque for midday prayer. Daytime temperatures in this part of the country often stay above 100°F for much of Ramadan.
A Muslim may have more or less daylight during which to fast, depending on where they live. For example, Muslims in Iceland endure more than twenty hours of daylight, whereas Muslims in Australia have fewer than twelve hours.
A man in India spends some of his daylight hours resting in a mosque. Muslims typically get up earlier in the day to eat before the sun rises. Less sleep coupled with their fast leaves most Muslims with lower energy levels. They limit their activity during the day, reducing overall productivity in some places by as much as 50 percent.
A Pew report surveyed Muslims in thirty-nine countries. Nine out of ten said they fast during Ramadan, making it one of the most-observed among Islam’s Five Pillars, second only to the shahada—their confession of faith in Allah and respect for his prophet Muhammad.
Girls in Dar es Salaam make their way to a madrasa, an Islamic school. Many schools in predominantly Muslim areas will suspend or shorten classes during Ramadan.
Children are not required to fast, but they start participating in small ways around age seven. Perhaps they will abstain from one meal during the week or fast during a weekend.
Many believe that breaking fast even one minute before sundown can invalidate the entire day’s fast. Mosques will often publish the projected sundown time and announce it to help Muslims avoid breaking fast early.
Some Muslims believe it is a crime not to fast during Ramadan. Muslims in some countries can face legal action if they are caught in public eating, drinking, or smoking. Not observing Ramadan is considered by some to be worse than adultery.
Some Muslims also discourage the use of social media during Ramadan to avoid viewing inappropriate photos. Women will wear their hair naturally—with no product or styling—and cover their heads as the girl above in India has done. Women are also discouraged from wearing makeup or nail polish.
Many young Muslims, like this fifteen-year-old Thai boy in a Bangkok mosque, study part time under a religious teacher to memorize the entire Muslim scripture called the Qur’an.
Muslims make it a goal to read or listen to a reading of the entire Qur’an during Ramadan. They believe the first qur’anic revelations were given to the prophet Muhammad during the ninth lunar month, when Ramadan is celebrated. They take the opportunity during their fast to grow closer to Allah through his revealed word. Muslim leaders like this imam in northern Ghana usually read the Qur’an and give a sermon daily during Ramadan.
At sundown, Muslims break their fast with a light snack of water, dates, or another bit of fruit. Many wait until after evening prayers to enjoy a full meal.
This man sits patiently awaiting the start of the communal meal that breaks the day’s fast. On this particular day, he and fellow worshipers were permitted to break the fast at exactly 6:39 p.m., consuming their first food and drink since 4:33 a.m. that day. The exact time varies by geographic location and the daily position of the sun.
After breaking their fast, Muslims will observe evening prayers. Ceremonial washing, called wudu, is required beforehand. Women and men sometimes use separate washing quarters for wudu.
Just as this father and son are doing before prayers in Bangkok, a Muslim is required to wash their head, hands, and feet three times before daily prayers to remove impurities.
Women and children in a mosque in India wait for the muezzin to begin the call to prayer. A muezzin is a person designated to recite the call to prayer. Islam requires that women and men pray in separate places. In this mosque in India, the women’s room is a small room in the back of the mosque.
Sometimes men and women are separated during prayers by only a curtain. These women in Bangkok are praying before partaking in the evening’s communal dinner.
During communal prayers, those who are not able to kneel are allowed to sit in chairs while performing their prayers.
Muslims finish their prayers with a tasleem, “Peace and blessings of God be unto you.” In the course of this recitation, they turn their head to the right to address the angel recording their good deeds, then to the left to address the angel recording their bad deeds.
One reason Muslims look forward to Ramadan is the rich community experience. There’s a sense of solidarity in the monumental commitment of month-long fasting.
Coordinating the feast for such large gatherings is a community effort. In many Muslim communities, the women prepare the food and the men deliver it to the dozens, or even hundreds, of people waiting to feast.
A father and his sons join fellow male worshipers to break the day’s fast with the evening iftar meal at a mosque in Bangkok. These meals often last late into the night.
Women sit together in the courtyard outside their home in Dar es Salaam to share an iftar meal. While fasting from sunup to sundown, the women will often begin cooking the elaborate meal at noon. In Islamic culture, the men often eat separately from the women during Ramadan.
Muslims who feel they fulfilled every requirement of Ramadan believe they have pleased Allah and are perhaps one step closer to earning a place in Paradise. Others experience an emotional letdown when Ramadan ends, even sinking into depression over their inability to sustain such rigorous spiritual discipline.
In light of Ramadan’s end, seek genuine conversation with your Muslim friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Ask how they feel now that Ramadan is over. If they express sadness or disappointment, ask how you can pray for them.
In the meantime, ask God to reveal through his Word and your testimony how Jesus is the Bread of Life (John 6:35), how we can approach him any time, with any prayer (Heb. 4:16; Phil 4:6), and that a glorious feast awaits all who call on the name of his Son Jesus Christ (Rev 19:6–9).
Rachel Cohen is a content editor for imb.org. She lives with her husband and daughter in South Asia.