Ramadan comes from the Arabic word ‘ramad’, meaning ‘scorching heat’. It was so named at a time when the sun was blazing on all its guns so there was an intense heat. Before delving into the substantive issue of fasting, I want to mention some of the worthy events germane to Islam that occurred in that month at different times in the journey of time. Muslims believe that the Torah (what the Christians call Pentateuch), the Injeel (Gospel), the Zabur (Psalms) were bestowed on Moses, Jesus, and David respectively during the month of Ramadan.
Likewise, the Battle of Badr, the first ever battle which freed the Muslims completely from the shackles and manacles of persecution from the pagans of that time, the death of Khadija bint Khuwaylid, Aisha bint Abu Bakr (both wives of the Holy Prophet), Ali ibn Abi Talib ( the fourth Caliph of Islam) and other prominent personalities in Islamic history and the Conquest of Mecca ( the event which signified the complete victory of the Prophet and Muslims within the Arabian peninsula) all occurred in the month of Ramadan.
Beyond the above etymological discussions and historical linkages around the month of Ramadan, the most important issue therein is fasting. Fasting is the second obligation on a Muslim after Salat (prayer). The Arabic word that describes that is ‘sawm’ which literally translates “to abstain” but technically is the abstinence from food and drink, sexual intercourse from the dim start of dawn till sunset.
It is important to note that this practice of fasting is very common in all religions. The encyclopedia Britannica captures that “it would be difficult to name any religious system of any description in which it is wholly unrecognized.” The Quran in its second chapter captures the stipulation as “O ye who believe! prescribed unto you is fasting even as it was prescribed unto those before you. that happily you may become God-conscious (v. 183).”
There is an interesting linkage between the above etymological discussions to a very basic scientific everyday occurrence, evaporation. Just as the sun starts the water cycle by burning liquid and water that is frozen to evaporate and rise high to form clouds which comes down as pure rain and snow, so is Ramadan supposed to refine a Muslim’s character, uplift a Muslim’s spirituality, and make him or her come out of it with a heart that is spick and span, neat and prim, solely for Allah.
Ramadan thus is a period to discipline the spirit and control oneself. The introduction to the book of fasting in Sahih Muslim states it in a nicer way, “in Islam fasting is primarily an institution for a spiritual discipline and self-control. It is in fact an exercise in religious devotion in the form of cheerful and willing renunciation, for a definite period, of all the appetites of flesh lawful in themselves (the unlawful ones being ruled out of course).”
Ramadan was once described by cleric as the “spring of the heart.” Now that is fascinating to me. What is the nexus between Spring and Ramadan? A poem I learnt back in elementary school advice the youth that “don’t be a no-nothing plant in the spring and see what a harvest the summer will bring.” This means the spring is the period where ideas are rebirthed, bodies are rejuvenated, resolutions are renewed, spirits get resurrected and whole beings get some regrowth.
Thus, a Muslim should come out of Ramadan a fresh soul, refined, and embellished in spirits, nourished in mind, and refreshed in body. The abstinence from various depravities, and other lawful ones gives strength to the morals of man and gives profundity of consciousness in the Lord. A Muslim increases his prayers, gets involved in excessive remembrance of Allah and the single most important activity is to augment activities surrounding the Quran; recitation, reflections, ponderance and teaching of it.
And much more importantly strive to live one’s life per the dictates and teaching of the Quran. Ramadan offers one the opportunity to be involved in so many supererogatory acts such that one attains the state described by the Prophet that the worshipper begins to see with the eyes of Allah, hear with the ears of Allah and has ultimate guidance from his Lord. That is the golden opportunity that one should aspire towards in this month.
Another angle I want to add on that discussion is the intellectual development aspect of Ramadan. Ramadan is a month where the Quran was revealed, of which its first verse is “Read in the name of your Lord who created you”, an invitation to nourish the mind and soul. Countless places in the Quran, Allah asks us to not only read but to ponder. Of what benefit is accumulation of knowledge if it does not lead to positive change or a paradigm shift in an individual.
Wisdom, we are told is the ability to go beyond what an information provides, to engage with it, apply it and find different perspectives, a sure way to discern the message of Allah. Among the many things history informs us is that, during the persecution of Islam, the prophet would hide and teach people the Quran in the house of a man called Arqam ibn Arqam.
These Muslims valued their intellectual development and would sacrifice their safety (because they would be severely punished if caught) to seek knowledge. Another story is that of our beloved Umar, the caliph, who on his way to murder the prophet, was met by a man who asked where he was going looking so furiously. The man informed Umar that he should rather go to his sister who had become Muslim.
Now his displeasure towards the prophet had grown but had to go sister put his sister in “her place”. Upon his arrival, his siter and her husband were reciting the Quran. Some narrations talk about his violence towards her but ultimately, he was touched by the words of the Quran and wanted to know more. Umar became a caliph of Islam later in life.
Let me mention another incidence where the disbelievers told their people to cover their ears so that “Mohammad does not dissuade them with his magic words”. This is proof that, listening and reading(truth) is an invitation to engage with the intellect. The Quran as we reflect on it, not only engages our intellect, but makes known to us, how mighty and concurrently, our limited human understanding. Among the miracles of the Quran is, it’s message would apply differently to different individuals at different times. It is Truth and Just to people of the present, the past and the future.
The month of Ramadan is a month to honor the Quran even more, dust off the Quran, pull out your journals, find the tafseer (explanation of the Quran), make time to do the intellectual work which has a great effect on the heart. Allah promises finding peace and serenity when you open your heart to the Quran.
Importantly, the attitudes we build, do away with and improve upon in the month of the Quran (Ramadan) is supposed to be a continuity. Let’s not be worshippers of Ramadan but worshippers of Allah. The prophet observed a total of nine fasts in his lifetime and completed the Quran twice and observed ihtikaaf (solitude) for twenty days in his last Ramadan. On the day the prophet passed, Abubakar said something beautiful and profound.
He said, “whosoever worships Muhammad, Muhammad is dead. But whosoever worships Allah, He is all living and never dies”. How beautiful it is, for us to have a month to spiritually cleanse ourselves but also benefit from physical cleansing when we eat healthy meals and snacks for suhoor and iftar. Let’s remember to direct every of worship we do to Allah, our creator. Lest we become of those who on the day of judgment, have nothing to show to Allah because we worshipped prophets, people, festive seasons and so on, of which we received the reward of praise from people in this world.
Let’s build our communities through sharing and doing more charity, make merry with friends, and loved ones in iftar and suhoor, because who knows if we will witness next Ramadan.
It should also be borne in mind that fasting does not aim at inflicting punishment upon people or saddling upon them unbearable burdens. The underlying idea behind it is to teach moderation and spiritual discipline so that human temptations may not become so wild and uncontrollable as to flout the commands of the Great Master. To be a true servant of Allah, it is essential that man should be able to conform his behavior to the moral and spiritual discipline embodied in the Shari’ah of Islam. One cannot achieve this end if one finds oneself helpless before untamed and turbulent desires. Fasting is indispensable for this moral and spiritual training.
Allah has made special provisions for specific people or conditions. Children, the sick, old Muslims struggling with health issues, pregnant women who cannot bear hunger, the traveler, and Muslim women menstruating are not allowed to fast. Feeding the poor to abstain from fasting is for very special cases.
May Allah give us the best of this Ramadan. And make us refined in deeds and speech. May Allah increase us in manifolds and grant us our positive heart desires. May Allah give us the strength and ability wake up in the middle of the night to worship Him. Ameen….
The writers are Community Organizers, Students of Knowledge, and Youth-Activists.