The content of Muslim prayers is formalized, consisting mainly of the first surah (chapter) and other ayat (verses) of the Qur'an. These recitations are largely fixed and repeated in every prayer cycle. A helpful, albeit incomplete analogy, would be the Lord's Prayer for Christians. Often Muslims will offer personal prayers after the obligatory ones, holding one's palms open before one's face as if holding an open book.
Muslim prayer is always communal as well. For if he or she is not praying immediately with a group of Muslims, one always faces Mecca when praying, and is conscious that millions of Muslims around the world are praying while facing Mecca at the same time. Sawm or fasting is performed during the month of Ramadan. Sawm does not only consist in physically declining food, drink, smoking, and sex, but also includes abstaining from evil thoughts, actions, and speech. For a full month Muslims will eat a small meal before sunrise, followed by a full day fast, including abstaining from drinking water. The fast is broken after sundown traditionally by eating a few dates. Muslims then pray before gathering for an evening meal of family or communal celebration called an iftaar. Because the Muslim calendar is lunar based, the month of Ramadan recedes a number of days each solar calendar year, and thus Ramadan will at times take place in winter, and at other times in the heat of summer. Winter fasts are relatively tolerable because of the short days, but Ramadan in the heat of summer can be quite a challenge. Muslims who live near the planetary poles where at times the sun never sets have had to make specific arrangements to account for the exceptional solar patterns. The month of fasting ends with one of the two greatest festivals of the Muslim calendar: Eid al-Fitr. During this 3-day celebration, people exchange gifts, spend time with family, friends, and loved ones, and share many feasts.
Zakat or charity is the divine command to give to those in need rather than merely a generic admonition to be generous. Often an annual percentage is offered from one's savings and income as zakat. Because of the unity of God and his creation, all people have equal right to the resources of this world. Zakat aims to achieve a more equitable distribution of resources in accordance with Allah's original design. The zakat is paid once annually and consists of 2.5% of one's accumulated wealth. This does not only include one's income, but savings, and many forms of personal assets. In a number of Muslim countries this is an obligatory tax, but in many immigrant communities it is a voluntary act of religious observance.
Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca is a special honor in Islam. Muslims are required to perform at least one hajj in a lifetime if they are able. Hajj involves a series of ritual submissions to God in which a person suspends his or her normal everyday activities to converge with the Muslim community on the most holy Muslim places in the world. Muslims hold that Abraham instituted the hajj after Allah had commanded Abraham and his son Ishmael to build the ka'bah. The ka'bah is a large black stone housed in a cube brick structure in the center court of the great mosque of Mecca.