April 23 (UPI) -- Hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide are celebrating the start of Ramadan on Thursday, with a different feeling this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The month-long observance is the most sacred among Muslims and consists of fasting, familial gatherings, communal prayer and a three-day feast at its conclusion.
The start of the Islamic holiday Thursday depends on where faithful are located. Based on the Islamic and lunar calendars, it officially begins with the sighting of the first crescent of a new moon, which will occur at different times around the world. In the United States, it is expected to start sometime Thursday evening.
This year, social distancing and stay-home orders are forcing faithful to celebrate differently.
"There's something about embrace and praying together and being together and upholding traditional ritualistic forms of worship," Imam Omar Suleiman, founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, said.
"I don't want to lose that because we're feeling down about being quarantined this Ramadan."
Because mosques around the world are closed, group prayers that are part of Ramadan tradition will not be possible.
"The heart of the believer is tied to the mosque," said Sheik Firas Balloot of the Islamic endowments department in Libya. "Our hearts are burning from this situation. Not just burning, they're a volcano. If this fire wasn't there, then we have no faith; we're stone. But there is a common good, and issues of health."
Muslims must fast from dawn to sunset each day of Ramadan, and drinking liquids and smoking are prohibited. The fast is intended to teach discipline, sacrifice, mindfulness, reflection, and empathy for the less fortunate.
Ramadan is held on different dates each year, as it's based on the Islamic calendar, which is based on the lunar calendar. The holiday will end this year on May 23.
In a Ramadan message Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump encouraged Islamic followers to take comfort in their faith over this year's peculiar circumstances.
"This holy month is an opportunity to renew and strengthen their faith through rigorous fasting, devout prayer, reflective meditation, reading the Koran and charitable deeds," he said. "These acts are closely aligned with the universal values that the Islamic faith promotes, peace, kindness, and love and respect for others.
"Over the past months, we have seen how important the power of prayer can be during challenging times. Today, as the holy month of Ramadan commences, I pray that those who are observing this sacred time find comfort and reassurance in their faith."