A member of staff uses a telescope to search the...

A member of staff uses a telescope to search the sky for the new moon that signals the start of the Islamic holy fasting month of Ramadan, at the Astronomical Observatory of the Muhammadiyah University of North Sumatra in Medan, Indonesia, Sunday, March 10, 2024. People in the world's most populous Muslim country will start observing Ramadan, the holiest month in Islamic calendar on March 12. Credit: AP/Binsar Bakkara

Muslims around the world are welcoming the arrival of Ramadan, a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, intense prayer, charity and feasts that begins for many Sunday night.

But as they savor the traditions of their own diverse communities — from holiday treats to evening diversions — the tribulations faced by fellow Muslims are never far from anyone's mind. This year, war and starvation in the Gaza Strip casts an especially dark shadow on the festivities.

Many are also struggling to buy food as inflation remains high in many countries and has worsened in some.

Still, even Muslims who are struggling economically or otherwise look forward to what are widely seen as the true blessings of the holy month — prayer and reflection, nurtured by the daylong fast, and time spent with loved ones.

IN PAKISTAN, A CITY THAT DOESN'T SLEEP

No one does Ramadan better than the people of Karachi, at least according to Maulana Tanveer Ul Haq Thanvi, an Islamic scholar in the city in southern Pakistan.

The congregation at his family-run mosque swells from 10,000 to 15,000 during the holy month, and volunteers are working to make sure there is enough space, food and water for the sunset prayers.

People bathe in the Cisadane River, ahead of the holy...

People bathe in the Cisadane River, ahead of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Tangerang, Indonesia, Sunday, March 10, 2024. Muslims followed local tradition to wash in the river to symbolically cleanse their soul prior to entering the holiest month in Islamic calendar. Credit: AP/Achmad Ibrahim

From dawn to dusk, observant Muslims the world over will refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual intercourse. Even the tiniest sip of water would invalidate the fast, which is intended to help focus the mind on prayer and charity.

“In Ramadan, our prayers are heard and the religious observance is day and night,” Thanvi said. “People want to help others who are needier than them, even those who don’t have much to give.” His sermons will focus on “how people should behave with each other, including when Ramadan is over.”

At sundown, many will break the fast with a date or two, as the Prophet Muhammad was said to have done, before attending evening prayers. Then they will gather for “iftar,” a typically lavish feast shared with friends and family, and a festive atmosphere will prevail late into the night.

“Locals don’t go to sleep. You’ll see kids playing cricket in the street after iftar,” Thanvi said.

People shop for decorations for the Muslim holy month of...

People shop for decorations for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at a shop in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, March 9, 2024. Credit: AP/Bilal Hussein

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Riazat Butt in Islamabad

IN INDONESIA, HIGH PRICES THREATEN HOLIDAY FEASTS

Muslims liven up their iftar spreads with their own local delicacies. In Egypt, the shelves are lined with qamar el-din, a sticky apricot treat. In Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, sidewalk vendors make qatayef — tiny pancakes stuffed with cream and nuts and drizzled with syrup.

In Indonesia, with the world's largest Muslim population, Ramadan rituals vary by region, reflecting the country's rich and varied culture. Many celebrate with rendang — meat braised in coconut milk and local spices.

This year, it will be harder to come by, as the country grapples with soaring food prices because of worldwide inflation and a poor local rice harvest.

Sari Yanti, a mother of three, stood in a long line at one of several distribution points in the capital, Jakarta, to purchase state-subsidized rice and other staples, saying it had never been this bad. “Prices are going up nowadays — anything to do with cooking is rising,” she said.

Mosques and charities across the Muslim world organize free iftars for the poorest, and sometimes it's the only meat they will eat all year.

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Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia

IN EGYPT, MANY STRUGGLE DESPITE FESTIVE ATMOSPHERE

In Cairo, the streets are decked with colorful Ramadan lanterns, bakeries are hawking holiday sweets and television networks are promoting prime-time soap operas, hoping to capitalize on nightly food comas.

“Ramadan is a month of prayer, but also of desserts,” one man quipped as he waited in line outside a bakery displaying trays of holiday sweets, including baclava, qatayef and kunafa — a syrupy delight made with shredded pastry and topped with crumbled pistachios.

But here too, beneath the normal holiday veneer, many are struggling. The government floated its currency last week as part of an emergency bailout from the International Monetary Fund, causing prices to skyrocket.

One out of every three people in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, was already living in poverty, and in recent years even the middle class have struggled to make ends meet.

“The situation has been very difficult,” said Abdel-Kareem Salah, a civil servant and father of four, as he shopped for groceries ahead of Ramadan in the working class neighborhood around the famed Sayeda Zaynab mosque, where the alleys are strung with lights and lanterns.

“We just purchase the necessities," he said. "For us, and many like us, meat has become a luxury."

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Samy Magdy in Cairo

IN THE UNITED STATES, ‘A SENSE OF GUILT’ OVER GAZA

Sonia Uddin, a second-generation Pakistani-American living in Orange County, California, said that her family sometimes enjoys hamburgers for iftar and coffee and donuts for suhoor, the pre-dawn meal right before the daily fast begins.

She strives to maintain the traditions of her immigrant parents, but said that her 14-year-old son “is really more Western than Eastern," and insists on American-style food as they observe the holy month half a world away from the cradle of their faith.

She looks forward to attending nightly prayers, drinking tea with friends and catching up with people she hasn't seen for the past year.

But for her and many other Muslim Americans, those joyful moments will be shadowed by concern for Gaza, where a five-month Israeli offensive has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, driven most of the population from their homes and pushed hundreds of thousands to the brink of famine.

Israel launched the campaign in response to Hamas' Oct. 7 attack, in which Palestinian militants killed around 1,200 people in Israel and took around 250 hostage. The United States, Israel's top ally, has provided crucial military and diplomatic support while pushing for more aid for civilians.

“Ramadan has typically been a time when I’ve turned away from the outside world and focused on my connection with God,” Uddin said. “But this year, turning off is not an option for me. I need to continue my activism so those who have no voice can be heard.”

Zulfat Suara, a Nigerian American and the first Muslim to serve on the metro council in Nashville, Tennessee, said that Gaza is “at the very top" of her list of prayers.

“That is the whole point of Ramadan — just that weight. That is the whole reason we fast,” Suara said.

She plans to attend the Music City Iftar, an annual community event for Muslims and non-Muslims. She said that interfaith dialogue has broken down barriers and likely helped her get elected.

“Muslims are not strangers anymore. Our customs, our traditions, become part of our society,” she said.

Nashville native Ahmad Ayoub, a 20-year-old Palestinian American, said he is looking forward to Fridays at the city's Islamic Center and iftars with his family, but the guilt is already creeping in.

“I’ll come home to break my fast and hunger with a full meal, while our aunts, uncles and cousins in Palestine are just forced to continue to starve,” he said. “There will definitely be a sense of guilt in knowing that I have this full meal in front of me."

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Deepa Bharath in Los Angeles, and Holly Meyer in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.

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