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Ramadan: A history of the holy month

GlobalPost answers some frequently asked questions about Ramadan.

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A man sits on the side of a hill waiting to see the new moon of Ramadan as astronomers and scholars of Islam debate when the holy Muslim month of Ramadan begins, in the Saudi city of Taif on July 19, 2012. The start of the fasting month, when the faithful abstain from eating from dawn to sunset, is determined by the sighting of the new moon. (AMER HILABI/AFP/Getty Images)

Millions of Muslims around the world are currently observing Ramadan, a holy month in the Islamic calendar marked by worshippers abstaining from food or drink between sunup and sundown. But why is Ramadan so important for Muslims? And what exactly is the purpose of a fast?

GlobalPost answers some frequent questions about the Holy Month

What's the historical significance of Ramadan?

Muslims believe that it was during the month of Ramadan that the Koran was first revealed in its entirety to Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel on what is known as "Laylat al-Qadr."

Why do Muslims fast?

Fasting (or Sawn in Arabic), is one of the five pillars of Islam. Along with not eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset, Muslims should abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual intercourse.

The purpose of the fast is meant to purify oneself from thoughts and deeds that counter Islam. According to clerics, by removing material desires, a Muslim is able to fully devote oneself to God. For this reason, many Muslims attempt to purge themselves of other impure behaviors such as cursing, anger, and greed.

How long does Ramadan last? Does everyone have to participate?

According to the Koran, fasting is mandatory for all Muslims for the entire thirty days of the month. However there are some groups that do not have to fast. Pregnant or breastfeeding mothers, people who are seriously sick, travelers, or anyone at a health risk should not fast. Children who have not gone through puberty are also not required to fast during the month.