The start of Ramadan, the ninth and holiest month of the Muslim calendar, is traditionally determined by the sighting of a new moon, often dividing rival Islamic countries and sects over the exact date. Libya, however, does not look to the moon but to its centre for astronomical studies, which declared Wednesday the start of Ramadan, based on astronomical calculations.
Across much of the Middle East, Ramadan will begin on Thursday, including in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. 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.
Shiite Iran, which is also due to begin fasting 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 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 in Afghanistan 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 Baghdad and a vehicle curfew will 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 neighbouring Syria.
Residents of the Gaza Strip 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 in defiance of 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. "Everyone must respect the month of Ramadan," he said. "We just want a little serenity and calm to bring us closer to God." Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam, is this year 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 organisations.
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 Southeast Asia, Thailand's army on Wednesday lifted a night curfew meant to smother a separatist insurgency in Muslim provinces, where people will 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.