From Morocco to Jakarta, Muslims mark Ramadan

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BEIRUT (AP) - Across a wide belt that stretches halfway around the globe, the world's estimated 1.6 billion Muslims will mark the beginning of Ramadan this weekend. The holy season is marred by unprecedented turmoil, violence and sectarian hatreds that threaten to rip apart the Middle East, the epicenter of Islam.

Syria is bleeding. Militants have taken over large parts of Iraq. Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Egypt are all battling Islamic extremists. Millions of war refugees are scattered across the landscape.

Although the bloodshed has eroded much of the Ramadan joy, millions of Shiite and Sunni Muslims will fast for grueling hours, both hoping for God's acceptance.

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From Morocco to Jakarta, Muslims mark Ramadan
JAKARTA, INDONESIA - JUNE 29: Food vendors serve customers as they shop for meals to break their fast in Jakarta, Indonesia on June 29, 2014. Muslims around the world are observing Ramadan the holiest month in Islamic calendar. Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking from dawn to dusk. (Photo by Jefri Tarigan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
JAKARTA, INDONESIA - JUNE 29: Food vendors serve customers as they shop for meals to break their fast in Jakarta, Indonesia on June 29, 2014. Muslims around the world are observing Ramadan the holiest month in Islamic calendar. Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking from dawn to dusk. (Photo by Jefri Tarigan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
JAKARTA, INDONESIA - JUNE 29: Food vendors serve customers as they shop for meals to break their fast in Jakarta, Indonesia on June 29, 2014. Muslims around the world are observing Ramadan the holiest month in Islamic calendar. Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking from dawn to dusk. (Photo by Jefri Tarigan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SEMARANG, INDONESIA - JUNE 27: Indonesian villagers welcome Ramadan with cleaning in a pond during the Kuras Sendang ritual, a symbol of self-purification of prayers in Semarang, Indonesia on 27 June, 2014. (Photo by Ainur Rohmah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - JUNE 28: Muslims perform the Tarawih prayer on the first day of the holy month Ramadan at Islamic Center of Brazil in Sao Paulo on June 28, 2014. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - JUNE 28: Muslims perform the Tarawih prayer on the first day of the holy month Ramadan at Islamic Center of Brazil in Sao Paulo on June 28, 2014. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Filipino Muslims pray at the Golden Mosque in Manila on June 29, 2014 on the first day of Ramadan. During the month of Ramadan all Muslims around the world will fast and practice abstinence from dawn until sunset for a total of 30 days. AFP PHOTO / Jay DIRECTO (Photo credit should read JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH Asia-religion-Islam-Ramadan,WRAP BY STEFANUS IAN People watch a soccer game at a bar in Jakarta on June 29, 2014. Muslims in much of Asia began celebrating the holy month of Ramadan on June 29, but in Indonesia even threats by hardliners to raid 'sinful' bars could not stop football fans heading to nightspots to watch the World Cup. AFP PHOTO / STEFANUS IAN (Photo credit should read STEFANUS IAN/AFP/Getty Images)
ERZURUM, TURKEY - JUNE 26: Turkish chefs sweeten Turkish dessert (kadayif dolmasi), shredded wheat in syrup during the holy Islamic fasting month Ramadan in Erzurum district of Turkey on June 26, 2014. Shredded wheat in syrup, (kadayif dolmasi) is a crucial source of nutrition for the people of Anatolia. (Photo by Ayse Yildiz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
GAZA CITY, GAZA - JUNE 28: A Palestinian man sells vegetables in his shop at a market in Gaza City, as Muslims prepare for the upcoming holy fasting month of Ramadan, on June 28, 2014. During the Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking from dawn until sunset. (Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
GAZA CITY, GAZA - JUNE 28: A Palestinian man sells goods in his shop at a market in Gaza City, as Muslims prepare for the upcoming holy fasting month of Ramadan, on June 28, 2014. During the Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking from dawn until sunset. (Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
GAZA CITY, GAZA - JUNE 28: Palestinian muslims perform the Tarawih prayer on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan at al-Omari Mosque in Gaza city, Gaza on June 28, 2014. (Photo by Ezz Zanoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
JAKARTA, INDONESIA - JUNE 28: Indonesian Muslims perform the Tarawih prayer on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan at Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia, on June 28, 2014. Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calander is marked by a month of fasting, prayers and recitation of the Quran. (Photo by Jefri Tarigan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
An Afghan resident buys vegetables from a stall near a market ahead of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in Kabul on June 28, 2014. Muslims are preparing for Islam's holy month of Ramadan, which is calculated on the sighting of the new moon, and during which they fast from dawn until dusk. AFP PHOTO/Wakil Kohsar (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
JAKARTA, INDONESIA - JUNE 27: Children carry torches during a procession to celebrate the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan on June 27, 2014 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is observed by Muslims with fasting, prayers and recitation of the Quran. (Photo by Oscar Siagian/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JUNE 27: Turkish muslims perform evening prayer called 'tarawih' on the eve of the first day of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan at Sultanahmet mosque in Istanbul, Turkey on June 27, 2014. (Photo by Isa Terli/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
YOGYAKARTA, INDONESIA - JUNE 27: Javanese Muslims gather on the beach as they prepare for Ramadan with padusan ritual at Parangtritis beach on June 27, 2014 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Padusan ritual is Java culture with the purpose of purifying themselves welcoming the holy month of Ramadan. Padusan derived from the Javanese language adus, which means 'bath'. They usually bath in the lake or sea. Ramadan, observed by Muslims worldwide, is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and is a holy month of fasting, prayer and recitation of the Quran. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
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Some facts about Ramadan:

WHAT IS RAMADAN?

A Muslim holy month of fasting during which Muslims abstain from food, drink and other pleasures from sunrise to sunset. Ramadan is the time Muslims believe God started to reveal the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. For believers, Ramadan is meant to be a time of reflection and worship, remembering the hardships of others and being charitable.

WHEN DOES RAMADAN BEGIN AND END?

Islam is based on a lunar calendar, so the start of Ramadan on the Gregorian calendar varies each year. Once the new crescent moon has been sighted, observance begins. The new moon at the end of the month signals Eid al-Fitr, a three-day festival marking the end of fasting. The majority of Shiites tend to mark Ramadan a day later than Sunnis, although this Ramadan is an exception and a rare event where Shiite and Sunnis will mark Ramadan together - at least in most places.

WHY FAST?

Fasting is one of the five basic tenets, or pillars, of Islam. Muslims give multiple other reasons: to teach empathy with the poor, learn self-control and show devotion to God. Islam exempts the elderly, young children, pregnant women and those who are ill or travelling from fasting. In some countries like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, non-Muslims are banned from eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan. Other countries are more flexible.

INDULGENCE?

It may be a time for introspection but Ramadan can also be a time of indulgence. Much like Christmas or Thanksgiving in the Western world, Ramadan is a time for families and friends to gather for elaborate, fast-breaking daily meals known as iftars. There's a tendency to overeat and go wild on sweets. Prices go up. So-called Ramadan tents are popular venues, providing a place for people to meet after sunset to eat and smoke water pipes until the early morning hours.

RAMADAN AND VIOLENCE

Ramadan is a time of heightened religious fervor, and Sunni militants in Iraq have in the past stepped up their attacks during the month. Some Sunni extremists believe that attacks, especially suicide missions, during Ramadan are more blessed and better rewarded by God.

SURVIVING RAMADAN TRADITION

Dates with names: In Egypt, dates - typically eaten first to break the fast - are named after leaders, politicians or celebrities. From ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak to Islamist President Mohammad Morsi to the current president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Egyptian Ramadan dates have kept in line with the county's political oscillations.

Mehebes: Despite the perpetual turmoil of Iraq, one surviving tradition is mehebes, a popular game played during Ramadan where players hope to win sweets by guessing who among their opposing team is hiding a ring in their hands.

Pheni and Khajla: Discs of thin, deep-fried vermicelli and crispy, puffed up discs of flaky pastry soaked with milk and eaten for the pre-dawn meal, or Suhur, in Pakistan. Heaps of both items can be found at sweets shops and bakeries during the entire month. In Lebanon, Jordan and Palestinian territories, the equivalent is Qatayef and Kunafa.

Cannons: Before television and radio, it was the only way to alert people it was time to break the fast. A few places, such as Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, have kept up the tradition. Every day at sunset during the holy month, cannon shots are fired from 12 locations at iftar time.

Lanterns: Traditional colorful lanterns, also known as Fanoos, are an integral part of Ramadan in Egypt, where they are hung at the entrance of each building, supermarket and shop. The tradition is believed to date back to the Fatimid period and has spread to other countries in the Arab world.

Musaharati: A person entrusted with waking people up for a pre-dawn meal and prayers ahead of the day's fast by banging on drums. While the centuries-old tradition is fading away - phone alarms replacing the drumming - the custom is still alive in some parts of Beirut, Cairo and Gaza.

The typical drum cry goes:

"Oh, sleeping one, wake up and pray for God - Ramadan Kareem."

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