Ethnicity Online

Cultural Awareness in Healthcare

Muslims: Holidays And Festivals

The calendar used by Muslims is based entirely on a lunar system, and so the date of each of the festivals is not fixed within the Gregorian calendar used in the western world. Years are 354 days long and months are 29 or 30 days in the Muslim calendar. Festivals officially start when the new moon is sighted in the relevant time frame (and so the precise timing of festivals may vary slightly). It is important to use a multi-cultural calendar to keep track of when these events fall during the year.

Festivals in Islam are called eid, and all share a desire to bring the community together for celebration. Islam puts social responsibility high on the agenda; one of the five pillars of Islam is a duty to be charitable (zakat). A feature of eid is that everyone celebrates; the poor are taken into people's houses and fed, the sick are visited and any differences settled. It is considered a duty to take strangers into your home for a feast during an eid, and to make good any wrongs that have occurred since the last festival.

The two major eid celebrated by all Muslims are culminations of two holy periods each year. The first such holy period is Ramadan, when all of Islam fasts between sunrise and sunset, and meditates on the meaning of Islam in their life and their duty to Allah. The second period is the hajj, when Muslims converge on Makkah, the birthplace of Muhammad.

There are several other minor festivals in the Muslim calendar, although the exact number varies depending on the sect. The festivals tend to have few implications for healthcare; many of them are a time for getting together with friends and family for lavish meals and services in the mosque and do not carry restrictions on normal life and activities.

the Muslim year

Al Hijrah or the New Year festival

This is the first day of the new Muslim year and takes place on the anniversary of the migration of Muhammad from Makkah to a place of safety in Madinah, and the establishment of the Muslim community.

Generally, it is a time for family meals, services at the mosque and celebration. For Shi'a Muslims, it also marks the sad event of the martyrdom of Hussain, the grandson of Muhammad. Shi'a Muslims differ from the majority at this time, as they 'eat the food of sorrow' by spending time in prayer, wearing black and telling stories about Hussain's death. Passion plays enacting the event are often put on in local communities.

Milad al-Nabi or Birthday of the Prophet Muhammad

Considering the age of the Islamic way of life, this festival is quite a recent addition to the festival calendar. It takes place on the 12th day of the third month and is a celebration of the birth of the baby that was later to become one of the most influential men on the planet, the Prophet Muhammad.

People gather at their local mosque to hear readings from the Qur'an and stories about Muhammad's life.

Lailat al-Baraat or Night of Forgiveness

Muslims believe that on this night, the fate of humankind is determined by Allah for the coming year. It takes place 15 days before Ramadan begins, and is a period of quiet reflection and prayer. Grievances are settled, sins are confessed and the poor, sick, elderly and lonely are cared for. Many Muslims will visit their dead in the cemetery to pay their respects. The night often culminates with a firework display.

Patients may spend much of the day in quiet prayer, and will generally receive a lot of extra visitors on this day.


Ramadan is actually the name of the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, but has become associated closely with the duty to fast that is observed by Muslims during this period. The Ramadan fast is one of the five pillars of Islam and is a ritual of self-discipline intended to effect a re-dedication of an individual's life to Allah. Ramadan is a month of charity and forgiveness as well as fasting.

The fast begins when the new moon is sighted in the night sky. From this moment on, Muslims are not permitted to eat or drink between sunrise and sunset, or to engage in sexual relations. Many follow the tradition of the Prophet, and break their fast after nightfall with a snack of dates and water, before sharing a meal with family and friends later on.

Some people are exempt from the fast; those who are travelling and women who are breastfeeding, menstruating or pregnant may abstain from the fast as long as they make up the time later by undertaking a ritual fast at another date. Those who are seriously ill are not permitted to fast, but may instead purchase a meal for another person as an act of charity for each meal they eat during Ramadan.

Both Muslim patients and staff may be affected by fasting during Ramadan. See the 'dietary guidelines' section for more details.

Eid al-Fitr or Festival of Breaking the Fast

On the first day of the month following Ramadan, one of the major festivals of the Muslim year takes place. Eid al-Fitr lasts for three days, and staff may take several days leave before (to prepare) and during (to celebrate) the festival. It is a celebration of the fast itself, the strength shown by the community who has observed the fast and the renewal of the bond between Allah and the Muslim community.

Eid al-Fitr is also a festival of charity and almsgiving. Before the festival starts, any Muslim who has not yet paid their yearly zakat must do so; this enables the entire community, including the very poorest, to take part in this celebration.

The festival begins with a major service at the local mosque after sunset. Muslims prepare themselves carefully for this service by completing a full ghusl and dressing in new or clean clothes. After the service, they return home to a lavish meal with friends and family.


The fifth pillar of Islam is a duty to make a pilgrimage to Makkah during the twelfth month of the Muslim calendar. This pilgrimage is a celebration of the life of Muhammad and the revelation of the Qur'an to him, and also celebrates the submission of Abraham (the first Prophet of Islam) to Allah in being willing to sacrifice his son Ishmael, to Him.

Pilgrims (male hajji and female hajja) follow a set route and series of ritual events for the duration of the hajj. To do this properly, they must be in the right frame of mind and the correct state of cleanliness or ihram. This involves consecrating oneself to Allah by prayer and meditation, wearing two plain cotton sheets wound round the body, shaving the head (men only) and refraining from sexual relations for the duration of hajj. Ihram is so important that a haji or hajiah will keep the sheets they wore for their hajj so that they can be buried in them when the time comes as a sign of their piety.

The Day of Arafat

This day is one of the final days of the hajj, falling on the ninth day of the 12th month of the Muslim year. It celebrates the last revelation to Muhammad on Mount Arafat, and therefore the completion of the Qur'an. Muslims gather at the foot of Mount Arafat to commemorate this day. There are often two million or more pilgrims gathered on the plain at the foot of the mountain, engaged in prayer and meditation as they reflect and repent. After sunset, the gathering moves to another location to prepare for the final day of the hajj.

Eid al-Adha or the Festival of Sacrifice

This is the second of the major Muslim festivals, and is the culmination of the hajj. Over three days, many ritual events will take place including the sacrifice of animals in the name of Allah. The festival celebrates the story of Abraham and his son Ishmael. Allah called on Abraham to sacrifice his son and, despite obvious misgivings, Abraham prepared to do so. At the last minute, Allah saved Ishmael and sent a goat to be sacrificed in his place. The willingness to do anything that Allah asks of you is an example that all Muslims try to emulate.

This festival is celebrated across the world, but has special significance for those who are on hajj at the time. The night before the festival is a time of prayer and meditation, and the day itself starts with a service at the mosque. After this service, the animal is sacrificed and a proportion of the meat distributed to the poor. The community then goes on to have a day of feasting and enjoyment.

Staff will probably wish to take leave at this time so that they can celebrate eid with their families. Patients may expect to receive many visitors, some of whom may bring meals with them, prepared using the meat of the sacrificed animal.

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