(Dubai) Muslim authorities in Saudi Arabia and several other Middle Eastern countries have said this year’s fasting month of Ramadan will begin on Thursday due to the expected sighting of the crescent moon.

Clerics across the region said the moon was not visible on Tuesday evening, meaning it will almost certainly appear the following evening, heralding the start of the observance of Ramadan.

During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and having sex from sunrise to sunset. Even a small sip of water or a puff of smoke is enough to invalidate the fast. In the evening, family and friends get together and celebrate in a festive atmosphere.

Fasting aims to bring the faithful closer to God and to remind them of the suffering of the poor. Muslims are expected to strictly observe daily prayers and engage in increased religious contemplation. They are also asked to refrain from gossiping, fighting or swearing 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 sick people and for pregnant or breastfeeding women. Young children are not expected to 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 joyful holiday of Eid al-Fitr, when children often receive new clothes and gifts.