Sarmad Naveed, Canada
One of the key components during the holy month of Ramadan is fasting; in other words, abstaining from food and drink from dawn till dusk. It symbolizes a form of detachment from the world in order to enable one to focus more on their relationship with God. Hence, fasting in Ramadan transcends the mere abstinence from food and drink as doing so represents something much greater.
However, as far as the physical aspect of fasting is concerned, the question may arise; when exactly is a person supposed to stop eating and drinking, and when exactly can they start eating and drinking again, and how are these times determined?
During Ramadan, there are two terms which become very common throughout the month: suhoor and iftar.
Suhoor refers to the meal eaten before dawn in order to begin the fast. Essentially, this is the last thing one eats before fasting for the remainder of the day. In fact, even having a meal for suhoor is a source of blessings, as the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) stated: ‘Take suhoor, for there is blessing in it.’  But when exactly before dawn is one to stop eating? God Almighty answers this question Himself when He states in the Holy Qur’an:
‘Eat and drink until the white thread becomes distinct to you from the black thread of the dawn. Then complete the fast till nightfall.’ 
What is meant by the black thread and the white thread? The Holy Prophet (sa) explained with reference to this very verse when he said:
‘That verse means the darkness of the night and the whiteness of the dawn.’ 
Hence, according to the instruction of God Almighty, one can continue eating until the break of dawn before fasting for the remainder of the day. In fact, the time has been even further specified in narrations. For example, it is narrated by Sahl bin Sa`d (ra):
‘I used to take my Suhoor meals with my family and then hurry up for presenting myself for the (Fajr) prayer [the prayer right before dawn] with Allah’s Messenger (sa)’ 
Hence, one can eat up until the break of dawn before fasting for the remainder of the day.
Iftar refers to the breaking of the fast. As indicated by God Almighty in the verse mentioned above, a person is to fast ‘till nightfall.’ As for the exact time of when the fast should be broken, the Holy Prophet (sa) said:
‘When the night advances and the day retreats, and the sun is hidden, then the fast is to be broken.’ 
The time described here coincides with the timing of the Maghrib prayer, which is the prayer offered right after sunset. Hence, the fast is broken right before offering the Maghrib prayer.
It was also the practice of the Holy Prophet (sa) that once it was time, he would not delay the opening of the fast. It is narrated that once, Hazrat Aisha (ra), wife of the Holy Prophet (sa), was asked about two people; one would break the fast as soon as it was time to do so, while the other would break the fast after some delay. Hazrat Aisha (ra) said regarding the person who broke their fast immediately:
‘This is how the Messenger (sa) of Allah did it.’ 
The Holy Prophet (sa) himself said:
‘The people will remain on the right path as long as they hasten the breaking of the fast.’ 
We also find narrations which outline how exactly the Holy Prophet (sa) would open the fast. It is recorded that the Holy Prophet (sa) would break his fast with dates, and if dates were not available, then he would take a few sips of water.  Hence we find that dates have become almost synonymous with the month of Ramadan, as they represent the manner in which the Holy Prophet (sa) used to open his fast. The Holy Prophet (sa) himself said:
‘Whoever has dried dates, then let him break the fast with that, and whoever does not, then let him break the fast with water, for indeed water is purifying.’ 
So, there you have it; this is the manner in which Muslims around the world begin and break their fast during the month of Ramadan.
About the Author: Sarmad Naveed is an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community who graduated from the Ahmadiyya Institute for Languages and Theology in Canada. He serves on the Editorial Board of The Review of Religions and coordinates the Facts from Fiction section. He has also appeared as a panelist and host of programmes on Muslim Television Ahmadiyya (MTA) such as ‘Ahmadiyyat: Roots to Branches.’
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