The Islamic holy month of Ramadan began on Friday, signaling the start of a four-week period during which Muslims across the world seek to cleanse their souls and come together.
However, the start of the holy month also has raised tensions in Iraq as officials fear an escalation in violence. Last year, insurgents sharply increased attacks on U.S. and coalition forces during Ramadan.
Muslims believe that their holy book — the Quran — was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad during Ramadan about 1,400 years ago.
During the month-long holiday, Muslims traditionally refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and having carnal relations from dawn to dusk.
Businesses and offices reduce opening hours during the day and often open in the evenings.
The holy month does not begin on the same day each year. Instead, Muslims scan the sky at night in search of the new moon to proclaim the start of Ramadan.
Senior religious councils in the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia, as well as in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates said the moon’s crescent was not sighted after nightfall on Wednesday, and so Thursday was the last day of the month preceding Ramadan.
U.S. officials said they are worried about an escalation of violence in Iraq during the period.
Some extremists believe they earn a special place in paradise if they die in a jihad, or holy war, during Ramadan.
Security was also tightened in Jerusalem where thousands of Muslim worshipers visited the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine, which is located on a site that is also sacred to Jews.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had said he would limit the number of worshipers due to possible earthquake damage. But Israel later backed off amid safety assurances from Arab engineers.
In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, mosques were full on Friday. But, observance of the fast in the southeast Asian country is generally less widespread than in the Middle East.
Restaurants are permitted to open during the day, however most hang thick curtains over their windows.
However, under a decree issued in 2002, all of the thousands of massage parlors, freestanding nightclubs, bars and karaoke rooms in Indonesia’s capitol, Jakarta, must close for the whole month. Other administrations around the country have also issued similar directives.
In the past, Islamic militants have launched nightly raids on nightclubs flouting the ban during Ramadan. However, since the 2002 Bali bombings, those groups have largely disbanded amid a police crackdown on extremists.