In the Holy Qur’an (2:185), Allah, says:
“Ramadan is the month in which was sent down the Qur’an, as a guide to mankind, also as clear signs for the guidance and judgment between right and wrong”.
This month also marks the commencement of the Prophet’s mission as the final messenger of Allah, Prophet Muhammad Mustafa (Peace be upon him and his progeny) received his very first revelation in the month of Ramadan while in solitary retreat in a cave of Mount Hira. Muslims mark this month with an awareness, attitude, and orientation that is somewhat different from other months of the year. The Holy Prophet continued to receive revelations for a period of twenty-three years, which were later compiled in a book form known as the Holy Qur’an.
In the Muslim tradition, fasting does not happen in isolation. It is coupled with increased prayers and supplications, including more concerted efforts to live an ethical life and to hear and recite the Words of Allah preserved in the Holy Qur’an.
Fasting, however, is not just about abstaining from food. Like zikr and ibadat, fasting is linked to one’s purification. Since our entire being is still in need of sustenance, when physical food is reduced, spiritual nourishment is often increased through acts of piety and remembrance. In this way, the month of Ramadan has the potential to bring us closer to our Creator. Through acts of piety and fasting we become more aware of His proximity to us. This awareness is most acute during the auspicious night of Laylat al-Qadr which is towards the end of the month of Ramadan.
Fasting is observed, and thought of, by Muslims in a variety of ways. For some, fasting means simply to abstain from food and water. For others, the outward fast is balanced by an inward fast – an awareness that fasting is much more than simply preventing ourselves from indulgences. In Pir Pandiyat-i Javanmardi (maxims of fortitude), a collection of writings and sayings attributed to Imam Mustansirbillah (a.s) (d. 880/1475), we are reminded of the inner meaning of fasting and its importance, not just during Ramadan, but throughout the year as follows:
“The whole year you must fast. The meaning of this fast is austerity. Control yourselves, keep away from bad habits, evil and indecent actions, and devilish acts, so that the mirror of your hearts may be gradually polished. The fasting of the eye means that one must keep away from coveting looks. The fasting of the ear means that one should abstain from listening to slander. The fasting of the tongue means that one should keep one’s tongue from uttering abuse or slander. The fasting of the heart means to keep the heart free from doubt. The fasting of the foot is to hold one’s foot back from the wrong step. The fasting of the hand is to keep all one’s limbs away from treachery so that they may not do evil. This especially applies to one’s tongue which must be kept from uttering lies.”
Fasting, thus, in its true sense, extends to abstinence from wrong-doing and inappropriate thoughts too. We should aspire to hold ourselves to these standards. The month of Ramadan encourages physical, spiritual, and intellectual discipline. Al-Qur’an (50:40) instructs: “And during part of the night (also) celebrate His praises and (do likewise) after prostration.”
This means that throughout this month, we are encouraged to glorify Allah and be grateful to Allah by devoting additional time in contemplation, understanding the Qur’an, and remembering Allah. These are supererogatory or additional prayers, termed as nawafil.
The noble month of Ramadan, is the commencement of the ritual fasting practiced by Muslims world-wide. This month encourages heightened spiritual duties, physical and intellectual discipline, and development.
During this month, in addition to prescribed fasting, we are reminded to reflect upon and regulate our thoughts on the importance of our ability to balance between our material and spiritual lives, encouraged to strengthen our relationship with God, and to recommit to helping others. Muslims not only fast during this month and regulate their thoughts and actions, but also give to charity and show compassion for the less fortunate and practice taqwa. Taqwa is variously defined as righteousness, piety, God fearing, and more importantly God consciousness. Taqwa entails that we consistently demonstrate ethical behavior, not just in the month of Ramadan but throughout the year. In a tradition, the Prophet is reported to have said: “If Allah’s servants knew what Ramadan was, they would have wished it lasted for the whole year.” In this sense, we must take it upon ourselves to strive to work on our actions and practice the ethics of our faith throughout the year. The intent is to purify the soul through prayers, good deeds and consciousness of God. Ramadan inspires us to be generous, to exercise self-discipline, offer shukran, for the struggles and triumphs of our lives, fostering a beautiful sense of solidarity and brotherhood, i.e., live according to the ethics of Islam. In this broader sense, Muslims are expected to fast every day. Hence, abstinence is not an end in itself; as Allah says in the Holy Qur’an, it is a means to taqwa i.e., constant awareness of Allah’s presence.
During the month of Ramadan, families make a special effort to pray and eat together. Parents use these occasions to teach their children the value and importance of family unity, concern for others, generosity, compassion, peace, and kindness, all of which are ethical principles of Islam.
During this month, Muslims fast from dawn until dusk by abstaining from food and water as well as staying away from unethical behavior. In his sayings, Imam Jafar al-Sadiq, (a.s) reminds us that fasting is a blessing from Allah. Though physically challenging, it serves as a pathway to strengthening our relationship with ourselves and with Allah through the practice of self-control and piety. Imam Mustansirbillah (a.s) says:
“The meaning of this fast is austerity. Control yourselves, keep yourselves away from bad qualities so that the mirror of your hearts may be gradually polished.”
The practice of refraining from food and water constitutes the exoteric aspect of fasting. The esoteric complement to this suggests that fasting also requires abstaining from bad social habits, cheating, lying, and other unethical behaviors. In a tradition attributed to the Prophet’s beloved daughter, Hazrat Bibi Fatima az-Zahra (a.s), she asks:
What benefit is there to one who fasts but does not safeguard one’s tongue, ears, and limbs?
In other words, while practicing the prescribed rituals during Ramadan is important, what is more important is to recognize the essence behind these rituals and to internalize them in a way that one remains conscious of that essence during the entire year. The goal, here, is to subjugate our passions, be constantly aware of the Divine and live an ethical life in the service of humanity. This ethic of self-restraint echoes the Qur’an (17:36) where Allah says, “the hearing, the sight, the heart – all of those shall be questioned.”
Similarly, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is reported to have said: “He who does not desist from obscene language and acting obscenely (during the period of fasting), Allah has no need that he does not eat or drink.”
During Ramadan, and throughout the year, sadqa, or charity, is an important component of ibadat that we should also observe. Charity can take many forms. While one form of charity is sharing material resources with those who are less fortunate than ourselves, we can also offer our kindness to others; we can volunteer our time and share knowledge to important causes; we can make a commitment in our families to help and support one another and strive to forgive the mistakes of others.
The month of Ramadan also serves as an important reminder of our social and ethical responsibility towards all humanity. Acts of charity can be performed in many ways: sometimes it can be in the form of material means, at other times it can come in the form of taking time to assist someone in trouble or showing compassion to those around us.
The Prophet has said: “When you smile at your brother, or enjoin what is reputable, or forbid what is objectionable, or direct someone who has lost his way, or help a man who has bad eyesight, or remove stones from the road, or pour water from your bucket into your brother’s, it counts as your sadqa.”
Considering the Quranic exhortation that Allah desires ease and not hardship for believers in religion, undue hardship is not to be inflicted on oneself through fasting. Thus, Allah has dispensed with the obligation of fasting for anyone who is unwell or is traveling. For this reason, when a person is sick and suffers from acute and unbearable pain, he/she may break the fast according to traditions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
Ramadan is also a time of festivities and celebration. In Egypt, for example, the streets are filled with hundreds of faanoos (lanterns), a tradition that began when the people of Cairo welcomed Imam al-Mu’izz (a.s), during Ramadan in 973 CE. Around the world, Muslims come together to celebrate this month in unique ways that reflect their heritage, strengthen their family ties, and enhance a sense of brotherhood within their communities.
During March and April 2022, our Hindu neighbors celebrated Diwali, our Zoroastrian friends celebrated Khordad Sal, our Sikh friends celebrates Vaisakhi, our Jewish neighbors commemorate Passover, and our Christian neighbors experience Lent, Good Friday and Easter.
As we celebrate the month of Ramadan, let us make a commitment this Ramadan to take advantage of the blessed month that is upon us. Some of us, based on personal circumstances, may decide to abstain from food and water. Some may choose to fast in other ways also. Others may decide to spend more time each day in conversation with the Divine. Some of us may make a concerted commitment to read some passages of Qur’an al-Kareem every day. Several of us might decide to do all of the above. Whatever path we choose, Ramadan is a month of seeking to develop God-consciousness or taqwa. It is a month when we have the potential to truly feel God’s presence and proximity in our lives and seek closeness to God, with sincerity and piety. Let us renew our commitment and devotion to our spiritual search, that lead each one of us to peace, fulfillment, and spiritual enlightenment and to fulfilling our responsibilities, being more self-aware, deepening our relationship with God through prayers, participating in act of kindness, and offering thanks for what Allah has graciously provided. May all our spiritual growth across our faiths and across the globe be a Mercy for ourselves and each other. Ameen.
In this month of giving of your Zakat, Sadqah & Donations, I would like you to consider one of my favorite charities (The Patients’ Behbud Society for AKUH … to donate use link: https://giving.aku.edu/