WASHINGTON -- On Monday, President Bush will greet 50 ambassadors from Muslim countries who will munch dates and sip juice, then kneel and touch their foreheads to the floor of the White House's East Reception Room.
The five-minute prayer by Bush's guests will mark the breaking of a daily sunrise-to-sundown fast during the holy month of Ramadan, which began Friday in much of the world.
Global effort: The prayer and the traditional meal are part of a global effort by the U.S. government, which is struggling to build support in Muslim countries for its anti-terrorism coalition, to convey a better image to the followers of the world's fastest-growing religion.
White House and State Department officials said the administration wants to use the occasion to highlight its sensitivity to Islamic tradition and its increasing humanitarian deliveries in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, key Muslim allies in the coalition against terrorism, including President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, warn that bombing during Ramadan would erode support for the war in the countries of Muslim allies.
Understanding these sensitive issues begins with understanding Ramadan.
Some details: Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar, a holy month when Muslims concentrate on their faith and spend less concern on the trials of everyday life.
During Ramadan, healthy Muslims fast during the day then break the fast after sunset. The daytime fasting, which includes abstention from eating, drinking and sexual relations, lasts throughout the month, the purpose of which is to emphasize the spiritual half of an individual by de-emphasizing his physical half. By restraining his physical needs, the Muslim becomes more attuned to his spiritual side. Thus through prayer and reflection, the fast allows a way to be relieved of past sins.
Avoiding immoral behavior, though important year round, is particularly important during the fast of Ramadan. Muslims must refrain from slander, lying, denouncing someone behind his back, making false oaths or exhibiting expressions of greed or covetousness.
Showing compassion for others is also important, and if he cannot fast during this month because of ill health or other circumstances, the nonfasting Muslim is encouraged to give alms to the poor or feed other Muslims during the night hours.
Stronger bonds: Ramadan is also a time to strengthen community and familial bonds by often visiting with friends and family. Most important, Ramadan is a time of worship and contemplation, and much time during the fasting hours is spent by the Muslim in prayer and study of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
Ramadan's origins are explained in a story similar in significance to Muslims as the story of the delivery of the Ten Commandments to Moses is to Jews and Christians. Muslims believe that Ramadan was the month when the first revelation of the Koran was sent from Heaven to the prophet Mohammed. Mohammed is said to have been in Mecca when the Angel Gabriel appeared to him, commanding Mohammed to read and memorize verses of the divinely delivered Koran. For 10 days, these revelations continued, the first occurring on the night known as Laylat-al-Qadr, the Night of Power, which is set for Dec. 11 this year. Although the Koran was revealed to Mohammed over a period of 23 years, it is the first of these revelations that is celebrated during Ramadan.
Because the Muslim calendar is lunar, the day begins with night. Ramadan traditionally begins when the crescent moon is first sighted with the naked eye. Some Muslims observe Ramadan based on its celebration in other countries. In the Mahoning Valley, Muslims agreed to go by the moon sighting in Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam's most holy sites. It also allows for advance notice of the holiday.
The daytime fasts are broken with a small meal called the iftar. After the iftar, it is customary for Muslims to visit friends and family. Each day of Ramadan, Muslims awake early to take their sahoor, a predawn meal, before starting their fast.
Prayer important: While fasting, Muslims will commonly go to mosque to pray and study the Koran. On any day of the year, prayer will normally consist of five daily prayers, but during Ramadan, a sixth prayer called the Taraweeh is recited at night. This prayer is commonly two to three times as long as the daily prayers, and some Muslims may spend an entire night in prayer.
After Ramadan, Muslims celebrate a three-day holiday called Id-al-Fitr -- the Feast of Fast Breaking, which begins on first night of Shawwaal, the 10th month of the Muslim calendar, or Dec. 16 this year.
Gathering, gifts: The holiday will begin with a large congregation of Muslim men, women and children where Muslims will gather and exchange gifts. After the congregation, Muslims visit each other at their homes and have dinners for family and friends.
The duty to keep the fast of Ramadan is called Siyam, one of the Five Pillars of Faith. The five pillars are religious duties that each Muslim must perform as part of their faith. The other four pillars are:
U Shahada (affirmation) -- The duty to recite the creed "There is nothing worthy of worship save Allah, and Mohammed is the Messenger of God"
U Salat (prayer) -- The duty to worship God in prayer five times daily
U Zakat (almsgiving) -- The duty to aid the needy
U Hajj (pilgrimage) -- The duty to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime
About 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide celebrate Ramadan each year.
Showing restraint: Muslim leaders have cautioned that the U.S. should show restraint in its anti-terrorism campaign during Ramadan. They say that military strikes may stoke the fires of resentment among Muslims in all countries, which may break down support for the campaign among key Muslim allies such as Pakistan and Iran.
Some U.S. officials, such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, dismiss these concerns. "History is replete with instances where Muslim nations have fought against themselves or with other countries during various important holy days," Rumsfeld said.
According to the Koran, fighting is "a great transgression." Still, it does not forbid fighting during holy days when required to defend Islam: "Fighting therein is a transgression but a greater transgression with Allah is to prevent mankind following the Way of Allah, to disbelieve in Him, to prevent access to Masjid-al-Haram (a holy site at Mecca) and to drive out its inhabitants. ..."
Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaida followers have on more than one occasion characterized their actions as a defense of Islam. In his fatwa (religious ruling) issued Feb. 23, 1998, bin Laden states that the killing of Americans and their allies "is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order ... for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim."