The main goal of Ramadan is to leave earthly influences behind to focus on the spiritual aspect of Islam. While most people worry about food and drink, both during the daily fast and at the time of breaking the fast, the month is actually about a lot more than that. As well as striving to better understand the suffering of the poor, Muslims resist temptation and focus on practices which will bring them closer to God, including reading the Quran daily and the nightly tarawih prayers. These prayers are the reason for all the cars and people around mosques during the evening hours.
Unlike the five daily prayers, the tarawih prayers are an optional sunnah (meaning it was a practice of the Prophet), but highly recommended during the holy month. In mosques they are performed right after the evening prayers, but Muslims can perform them on their own at any time before dawn.
It is believed that the Prophet prayed them once with the people so that they would know how to perform the optional prayers, but then he opted for praying them on his own, fearing that it would become an obligatory practice. Tarawih is the plural of tarwiha, which means rest, since they are performed in pairs of two with the possibility of resting in between each pair.
There is a set of specific movements performed during prayers, called raka’ah, which are repeated a set number of times; the dawn prayer is comprised of two, and the noon one is comprised of four.
The Prophet never stated how many raka’ah should accompany the tarawih prayers, and so scholars’ opinions differ. It is believed, according to a saying attributed to the Prophet’s wife Aiha, that he prayed 11 raka’at (plural of raka’ah). The main body of the prayers encompasses eight raka’at. Added to this, the Prophet prayed what is known as shafe’ (comprised of two raka’at) and watr (one raka’ah), bringing the total to 11.
Therefore, mosques usually observe eight raka’at, although it can be more or less than that. The practice of tarawih starts on the eve of Ramadan, and continues until the end of the month. However, it is not recommended to pray them on the eve of the feast that follows the holy month directly so as to be free to celebrate and prepare for it.
A typical tarawih prayer at the mosque can last for an hour or two, depending on the amount of the Quran being recited . Most mosques opt to read an entire section, in order to finish it by the end of the month. Typically, there is a 10-15 minute break at the midway point during which the Sheikh performs a sermon and the faithful are allowed to eat and drink, talk or even leave.
The evening prayers start around an hour and a half after sunset and completion of the full tarawih prayer in the mosque can last until 10.30pm.