DUBAN, United Arab Emirates  – Muslim authorities in Saudi Arabia and several other Middle Eastern countries have announced that the fasting month of Ramadan will begin Thursday based on the expected sighting of the crescent moon.

Clerics in the region said the moon could not be seen Tuesday night, meaning it is almost certain to appear the following night, heralding the start of the fasting month.

During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex from sunrise to sunset. Even a small sip of water or a small puff of smoke is enough to invalidate the fast. In the evening, families and friends gather and eat in a festive setting.

The fast is intended to bring the faithful closer to God and remind them of the suffering of the poor. Muslims are required to strictly perform daily prayers and engage in greater religious contemplation. They are also urged to refrain from gossiping, fighting or cursing during the holy month.

Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam and is obligatory for all healthy Muslims. But there are exemptions for the sick and pregnant or lactating women. Young children should not fast.

Islam follows a lunar calendar, so Ramadan begins about a week and a half earlier each year. At the end of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate the joyous holiday of Eid al-Fitr, when children often receive new clothes and gifts.

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