How Ramzan Became Ramadan in South Asia

The linguistic switch might seem innocuous, but its roots go back centuries.

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A man carries a fruit bowl to distribute among people at Jama Masjid in Delhi, India during Ramzan, May 18, 2018.(Xinhua/Javed Dar via Getty Images)

Hassaan Bin Sabir


March 22, 2024

Each year, Ramzan — the ninth month of the Muslim calendar — begins with the sighting of the crescent moon. It sounds straightforward, except it isn’t. In the diaspora, local imams at mosques can reach different conclusions. And in South Asia, the task falls to national moon sighting committees. That, too, can lead to divergent results. Pakistan’s northwest, for instance, often starts Ramzan a day before the rest of the country. 

Eventually, wherever you are, the moon appears, and Ramzan begins, bringing a month full of fasting, iftar feasts, lots of dates, and groggy sehris. Dormant family group chats light up as aunts and uncles extend greetings. As you scroll through, however, you notice two variants: “Ramzan Mubarak” and “Ramadan Mubarak.” 

Like deciding when Ramzan begins, the debate over Ramzan vs. Ramadan resurfaces each year, transcending South Asia’s borders. In 2019, journalist Barkha Dutt asked why her fellow Indians had switched from Ramzan to Ramadan. This year, Pakistani activist Usama Khilji suggested that Ramadan had triumphed. While Ramzan’s erasure may be imminent, it is not a foregone conclusion. But to salvage the term, we must understand why people abandoned it in the first place.

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