Most of the Muslim Mideast began the first day of Ramadan on Monday, but Iraqi Shiites, some Lebanese Shiites and Iran will start observing the holy month of fasting on Tuesday.
Ramadan begins the day after the sighting of the crescent moon that marks the beginning of a new lunar month. Some Muslim countries use astronomical calculations and observatories, while others and particular sects in some countries rely on the naked eye alone, leading to different starting times.
Libya, for example, started the fasting period Sunday, and the state-run Libyan news agency reported that religious officials there had already spotted the first tiny sliver of the moon.
This year's Muslim holy month comes at a time of high food prices region-wide — a burden for low-income people struggling to afford the special foods traditionally prepared for the meal that breaks the fast at each sunset. High food prices also complicate the usual practice of buying new clothes and other Ramadan treats.
Hot weather also will likely create extra challenges this year, for observers who go without food or water during daylight hours.
In Shiite Iran, 100 groups sent to different parts of the country on the order of Iran's top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did not detect the moon Sunday night, said state-run TV. It said Ramadan would start Tuesday in Iran.
In Iraq, Shiites will also begin observing the month on Tuesday, but Sunnis started on Monday and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called on Iraq to "maintain peace and security" during Ramadan.
Lebanon's Sunnis and some Shiites did start Ramadan on Monday, but the Iranian-backed militant Hezbollah group and its supporters are to begin fasting Tuesday.
Gestures of goodwill
In a gesture of goodwill ahead of the holy month, Pakistan suspended fighting in the volatile northwest, allowing some of the 300,000 people displaced by airstrikes and gunbattles to pack up belongings and return to their shattered homes.
Meantime, Egypt opened its sealed border crossing with Gaza over the weekend, allowing hundreds of Palestinians to leave the coastal territory for medical treatment in Egypt and other reasons, officials said.
In Gaza itself, Palestinians are marking the holy month under the strain of an Israeli blockade that has lasted more than a year, since Hamas militants violently seized control of the territory. More goods have been entering Gaza since a June cease-fire went into effect, but a shortage of cooking gas has forced dozens of bakeries to cut back on the number of traditional Ramadan pastries they produce.
In Ramallah in the West Bank, the atmosphere Monday was a little more upbeat than last year. Many homes were decorated with colored lights in the shape of crescents — the symbol of Islam. To cash in on the season's traditional soap opera television specials, shops offered a Ramadan special 50 percent discount on TV satellite dishes.
In Jordan, police distributed small booklets to motorists, urging traffic safety. Traffic accidents — a problem across the region during Ramadan — increase by an average of 70 percent during the fasting month in Jordan.
In Dubai, newspapers published special editions with ads for Ramadan sales in the city-state's giant shopping malls and lavish meals at its luxury hotels.
Ramadan can last either 29 or 30 days, depending on when the first moon of the next lunar month is sighted. During the month, Muslims are expected to abstain during daylight hours from food, drink, smoking and sex in order to focus on spiritual introspection.