JAKARTA ~ Most of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims began Ramadan on Thursday, a holy month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, festivities – and abstinence.
The start of Ramadan, the ninth and holiest month of the Muslim calendar, is traditionally determined by the sighting of a new crescent moon, often dividing rival Islamic countries and sects over the exact date.
Across much of the Muslim world, Ramadan begins on Thursday, although Libya kicked off the festivities on Wednesday, the same day as Nigerian Muslims.
During the holy month, Muslims are required to abstain from food, drink and sex from dawn until dusk as life slips into a lower gear during the day, and activity peaks between iftar, the breaking of the fast at sunset, and suhur, the last meal of the day before sunrise.
In Indonesia, the world’s most populated Muslim nation, Ramadan began under the shadow of the latest earthquake disaster after a massive 8.4 tremor struck off Sumatra island.
At least two people were confirmed dead as emergency teams headed for the remote region.
Meanwhile hardline Indonesian Muslim groups have warned they will act against nightclubs and other “dens of vices” that disregard the restricted opening hours for the month.
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Thailand’s army lifted a night curfew on Wednesday meant to smother a separatist insurgency in Muslim provinces, where people will also begin fasting on Thursday.
In multicultural Singapore, Ramadan is just one of the holidays being celebrated, along with the Chinese mid-autumn festival and the Indian Deepavali festival next month.
In Bangladesh, the government has offered rice at a 20-percent discount around the country, while also opening 100 convenience stores around the capital Dhaka to sell other foods at reduced prices.
“We want poor and middle class people to have a comfortable Ramadan,” food secretary Dhiraj Malakar said.
In Cairo, a shopping frenzy began weeks ago despite soaring prices, as the faithful prepare for the first day of Ramadan where extended families break the fast with dates and milk, in accordance with Islamic tradition.
In the teeming city of 18 million notorious for gridlock, traffic police have been banned from taking time off during Ramadan, with extra wardens deployed to control pre-iftar accidents as cars clamor to get home in time for iftar.
Shiite Iran, which also began fasting on Thursday, bans restaurants from operating during the day throughout Ramadan.
Confusion about when Ramadan was starting led some people to wake up in the Afghan capital Kabul at 3am on Wednesday for a pre-dawn meal – just in case it was the first day of the month-long fast.
Once the sun was up, broadcasters said that the holy month would start on Thursday, with restaurants opening only in the evenings and government offices closing by 1pm.
The Taliban insurgency has already threatened to use Ramadan to launch a new wave of attacks on government and Western military targets throughout the country.
But in Baghdad, where thousands of US troops are deployed, the US military said levels of pre-Ramadan violence were lower this year and expected the trend to continue.
The nightly curfew in the Iraqi capital and a vehicle curfew is to be eased during Ramadan to help families celebrate the breaking of the fast.
Baghdad’s 400-year-old Shorja market has been bustling with activity with war-weary residents stocking up on spices, sugar, tea and nuts – these days imported from neighboring Syria.
Iraq’s minority Sunni Arab community will begin observing Ramadan from Thursday, followed a day later by the country’s majority Shiites, top clerics in Baghdad said.
Gaza residents spending their first Ramadan under Hamas, which seized control of the tiny territory in June, are bracing for clashes after Fatah and other Palestinian groups called for sunset street prayers despite a Hamas ban.
But the weary inhabitants were just hoping for a few weeks of peace and calm with their families during Ramadan after months of deadly partisan violence.
“The prayers and religious practices should not be transformed into manifestations of violence and hate,” said one resident, Nabil al-Ali. “We just want a little serenity and calm to bring us closer to God.”
In a traditional gesture, the Islamist movement Hamas announced on Wednesday the release of 84 prisoners in the Gaza Strip.
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, is preparing to receive around one million pilgrims expected to perform umrah, or a smaller pilgrimage, to Mecca.
As generosity peaks during this month of charity, Kuwait is monitoring fund-raising activities by Islamic charities and has banned any cash donations to make sure that charity money does not reach extremist organizations.