The Meaning of Ramadhan
Ramadhan is a special month of the year for over one billion Muslims throughout the world. It is a time for inner reflection, devotion to God, and self-control. Muslims think of it as a kind of tune-up for their spiritual lives. For Muslims, Ramadhan is a "month of blessings" marked by prayer, fasting and charity.
Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. The others are: belief & testimony in The One God (Shahaadah); prayer (Salah) - five times a day at its appointed times; alms -giving (Zakat) – approx. 2.5% of fixed assets annually; and pilgrimage (Hajj) to Makkah (also spelled Mecca) at least once in a lifetime.
The third "pillar" or religious obligation of Islam, fasting has many special benefits. Among these, the most important is that it is a means of learning self-control. Due to the lack of preoccupation with the satisfaction of bodily appetites during the daylight hours of fasting, a measure of ascendancy is given to one's spiritual nature, which becomes a means of coming closer to God. Ramadhan is also a time of intensive worship, reading of the Qur'an, giving charity, purifying one's behavior, and doing good deeds.
As a secondary goal, fasting is a way of experiencing hunger and developing sympathy for the less fortunate and learning thankfulness & appreciation for all of God's bounties. Fasting is also beneficial to the health and provides a break in the cycle of rigid habits or overindulgence.
When the fast ends (the first day of the tenth month of the Islamic calendar –Shawwal) it is celebrated for three days in a holiday called 'Eid-ul-Fitr (the Feast of Fast Breaking). Gifts are exchanged. Friends and family gather to pray in congregation and for large (in the number of attendees) meals. In some cities fairs are held to celebrate the end of the Fast of Ramadhan.
Who Fasts in Ramadhan?
While voluntary fasting is recommended for Muslims, during Ramadhan fasting becomes obligatory. Sick people, travelers, and women in certain conditions are exempted from the fast but must make it up as they are able. Perhaps fasting in Ramadhan is the most widely practiced of all the Muslim forms of worship.
The Sighting of the Moon
Ramadhan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The much-anticipated start of the month is based on a combination of physical sightings of the moon and astronomical calculations. The practice varies from place to place, some places relying heavily on sighting reports and others totally on calculations. In the United States, most communities follow the decision of the Islamic Society of North America, which accepts bonafide sightings of the new moon anywhere in the United States as the start of the new month. The end of the month, marked by the celebration of 'Eid-ul-Fitr (also called just “ ‘Eid “), is similarly determined.
From Dawn to Sunset
The daily period of fasting starts at the breaking of dawn and ends at the setting of the sun. In between -- that is, during the daylight hours -- Muslims totally abstain from food, drink, smoking, and sexual relations. The usual practice is to have a pre-fast meal (suhoor) before dawn and a post/break-fast meal (iftar) after sunset.
Islam follows a lunar calendar which means that the months of the year are measured according to the revolutions of the moon around the earth (each month begins with the sighting of the new moon).
Because the Islamic lunar calendar (hijri) is approximately 11 days shorter than the solar or Gregorian calendar, Islamic holidays "move" each year.
This lunar calendar gives every month an opportunity of rotating through every season completing a cycle in which every month does not exceed 29 or 30 days.
Thus, since Ramadhan begins on October 4th or 5th one year, the next year it will begin on September 24th or so. The entire cycle takes around 35 years. In this way, the length of the day, and thus the fasting period, varies in length from place to place over the years. Every Muslim, no matter where he or she lives, will see an average Ramadhan day of approximately 13.5 hours.
One may eat and drink at any time during the night "until you can plainly distinguish a white thread from a black thread by the daylight: then keep the fast until night." [2:187]
The good that is acquired through the fast can be destroyed by five things –the telling of a lie, slander, denouncing someone behind their back, a false oath, greed or covetousness.
These are considered offensive at all times, but are most offensive during the Fast of Ramadhan.
Devotion to God
The last ten days of Ramadhan are a time of special spiritual power as everyone tries to come closer to God through devotions and good deeds. The night on which the first verses of the Qur'an were revealed to the Prophet, known as the Night of Power (Lailat ul-Qadr), is generally taken to be the 27th night of the month. The Qur'an states that this night is better than a thousand months. Therefore many Muslims spend the entire night in prayer.
During the month, Muslims try to read as much of the Qur'an as they can. Most try to read the whole book at least once. Some spend part of their day listening to the recitation of the Qur'an in a Mosque (Masjid).
Preservation of Qur’an
During this month Huffath (Muslims who have memorised the entire Holy Qur’an) recite a thirtieth of the Qur’an, word for word and accent for accent in congregational prayers on a daily basis after the night prayer, which is approximately an hour and a half after sunset, for the duration of the month (approx. 30 consecutive days), until they have completed the whole Qur’an.
Muslims believe this is one of the ways in which the Qur’an has remained intact since revelation more than 1400 years ago.
Food in Ramadhan
Since Ramadhan is a special time; Muslims in many parts of the world prepare certain favorite foods during this month.
It is a common practice for Muslims to break their fast at sunset with dates (from a palm tree), following the custom of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). This is followed by the sunset prayer, which is followed by iftar –The actual break-fast meal. Since Ramadhan emphasizes community aspects and since everyone eats iftar at the same time, Muslims often invite one another to share in the Ramadhan evening meal, the breaking of the fast “break-fast.”
Some Muslims find that they eat less when breaking their fast during Ramadhan than at other times due to stomach contraction. However, as a rule, most Muslims experience little fatigue during the day since the body becomes used to the altered routine during the first week of Ramadhan.
The Spirit of Ramadhan
Muslims use many phrases in various languages to congratulate one another for the completion of the obligation of fasting and the 'Eid-ul-Fitr festival. Here is a sampling of them:
"Kullu am wa antum bi-khair" (May you be well throughout the year) - Arabic
"Elveda, ey Ramazan" (Farewell, O Ramadhan) - Turkish
"'Eid mubarak (A Blessed 'Eid)" - universal
Fasting in Islam
Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. It has been an integral part of all major religions. The Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him) fasted for forty days before he was called to prophethood (Matthew 4:2). Similarly Prophet Moses (peace be upon him) fasted for forty days and forty nights before he was given the law (Exodus. 24:18).
Fasting in Ramadhan is a part of the broader programme that Islam prescribes for man to fulfil his moral and spiritual destiny in this world and in the hereafter. It is the special worship designed to develop in man the ability to exercise self--restraint and patience for the pleasure of Allah, man's Creator, Lord and Nourisher. Its objective is to give man the power to keep in check his unruly desires and tendencies that make him prone to greed, revenge, anger, provocation, and fear; that make him commit various sins, acts of aggression, cruelty, and oppression. It seeks to free the human soul and lends it moral and spiritual strength to promote beauty, harmony, goodness, truth, kindness, peace, compassion and justice. The Qur'an says: "We sent aforetime Our messengers with clear signs and sent down with them the Book and the balance (of right and wrong), that men may stand forth in justice" (57:25).
Prescribing fasting the Qur'an says: "O you who believe, fasting is prescribed to you as it was to those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint" (2:183). The original Arabic word translated here as self-restraint is taqwa, which has a much broader significance. It symbolises that basic moral quality that demarcates the line between morality and amorality, distinguishing humans from animals as moral beings. It represents love of good with an eagerness to respond to it, and a strong desire to keep away from what is evil and harmful. Those who are neutral or immune to questions of good and bad, justice and injustice, compassion and cruelty, loyalty and treachery, are in the words of the Qur'an like the blind, deaf, and dumb cattle, whose only concern in life is to fill their stomachs. "They have hearts wherewith they understand not, eyes wherewith they see not, and ears wherewith they hear not" (Qur'an 7:179).
This moral quality or taqwa is nourished and can be developed only by controlling and keeping in check one's desires, impulses, and emotions, and that is precisely what fasting is prescribed to achieve.
The Arabic word for fasting used in the above verse is siyam which means to leave something or to avoid it. In the light of this, Islamic fasting may be defined as the worship in which man willingly forsakes his quite legitimate needs such as eating, drinking and other lawful pleasures, in compliance with the commandment of God, every day in the month of Ramadhan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. Thus Islamic fasting is not merely leaving one's drinking and eating; it is in fact leaving all that is evil. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: When one of you is fasting and someone abuses him or fights with him, he should tell him 'I cannot respond to you for I am fasting.'" On another occasion he said: "He who does not leave evil all he gets from fasting is thirst and hunger."
It is well known that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) regularly observed fasting in other parts of the year besides Ramadhan, and he always exhorted his followers to do the same. But it is in the month of Ramadhan alone that the entire Muslim community (all over the world) observes fasting that gives it a special meaning: it transforms fasting into an institution that elevates the human soul to unprecedented moral and spiritual heights. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: "Every good deed is rewarded from ten to seven hundred times over, but God says fasting is the exception; it is for Me, and my servant forgoes his eating and drinking for my sake, so I myself will reward my servant for it."
Association of fasting with the month of Ramadhan reminds us that it was during this month that Allah perfected His blessing upon mankind by giving us His last book, the Qur'an. "Ramadhan is the month, the Qur'an says, in which was sent down the Qur'an as a guide to mankind, also clear (signs) for guidance and judgement (between right and wrong). So everyone of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting."
Fasting in the month of Ramadhan thus takes on a new spiritual and moral significance. It is the month in which we celebrate the praises of our Lord God for the great gift of the Qur'an. We glorify Him and extol His holiness by fasting during this month.
The Qur'an not only shows man the right path, but also guides human reason and lays down a clear criterion between right and wrong, good and evil. It is not just a book of do's and don'ts, but is the repository of infinite wisdom, and a guidance to the highest moral and spiritual excellence as well as to material and temporal success. By fasting in Ramadhan we offer our love, gratitude and thanksgiving to our Creator. Through fasting we seek to transcend our caprices, impulses, and lusts and seek to live by that which is only rational and natural: we seek closeness to God by obeying Him sincerely and carrying out His Will in our daily life, our actions and thoughts, till our days and nights bear witness that He is dearer to us than anything else. The life of a believer during this month - getting up early before dawn for a light snack, forsaking eating and drinking from dawn to dusk, prayers and worship during the waking hours, eagerness to mend and to be good while keeping away from all that is evil, and spending long hours of nights in prayers and supplications, foregoing ones sleep and comfort, offering special extra prayers - is reminiscent of a soldier undergoing rigorous training. The only difference here is that it is not just some physical combat a believer is training for, but a life-long continuous war against evil on all fronts, both from within and without.
The Qur'an regards human reason as the greatest single gift of God to man, and addresses its message to it, but it can function properly only if it is free and objective in its outlook. Fasting helps free human reason from the tyranny of unruly lusts and appetites, whims, and caprices, individual and social, which often overwhelm and enslave it. Fasting puts human reason back in the driving seat by restraining, not suppressing or destroying three dominant human desires: desire for comfort, desire for food, and desire for procreation of his species. The Qur'an liberates human reason from the clutches of blind but powerful and unbridled emotion and sentiment. To celebrate this great blessing it is only fit and proper that special thanks be given to our Lord in the month in which He bestowed upon man his greatest gift -- the Qur'an. Incidentally fasting which is the special worship designed to develop in man self-restraint, piety and goodness, is also the most appropriate manner of offering our thanks to God for the great gift of the Qur'an, especially when we remember that the Qur'an is addressed primarily to those who are morally alive, are sensitive to questions of good and evil, and are willing to adopt the one and eschew the other. "This is the book in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who are God--conscious." In other words it is man's moral quality of being alive to what is good and evil that in the first place made him a fit recipient of Divine Guidance. Ramadhan is the month in which this moral quality thrives and envelops entire life. For this reason also it was only appropriate that this month should be set aside for the celebration of this great joyous occasion. The Qur'an is the fountainhead of all goodness, wisdom, and piety, and the Month of Ramadhan is the season when these virtues blossom and bloom in human spirit reinforcing its moral commitment to truth, goodness and righteousness.
Following the path of good is often unpalatable, and involves struggle against one's own desires and interests. It may also sometimes mean doing or saying what one considers true but is not popular and hence risking the anger and displeasure of others, sometimes of those most dear and near. To stand firm under these circumstances and steadfastly follow the right path requires a great deal of inner strength and self-restraint - a prime moral and human quality - to choose what is right and then abide by it notwithstanding the difficulties and sacrifices. "Wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leads to destruction, and many there are that follow it," whereas "strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leads to life, and few are who find it."
Islam seeks to guide man onto the path to eternal life and prepares him for it through worship, prayers, charity, and fasting. All these are meant to enable man to exercise control over his own life and have the moral courage to take the path of truth, justice, and compassion. It wants reason to take charge of the ship of life and steer it wisely and safely through the stormy and dangerous seas of life under the guidance of Divine revelation. That is the message of Ramadhan. Let us heed the message and proclaim: "God is my Lord and your lord; then worship Him. This is a way that is straight" (Qur'an 3:51).
The Muslim is described as Abd Allah, although, in truth, this term applies to everything that lives. Nowadays we usually translate it as "servant of God" to avoid the ugly associations of the term "slave". The fact remains that the Qur'an instructs us to say: "To God we belong, and to Him we return", and the definition of a slave is that he belongs, not to himself, but to another. In this case it is an honorable term and, whatever his outward circumstances, the true "slave of God" can never see himself as the slave of any man or, for that matter, of his own passions or of money or of his profession. He is truly independent because his Master is not of this world and nothing in this world can claim mastery over him. He is also, as the Qur'an reminds us, "poor", no matter what earthly riches he may possess. There is nothing that belongs to him as of right; neither his wealth nor his virtues nor even his own body. Everything he has is a loan from his Creator, a loan which will be returned to the Owner of the heavens and the earth when the time is ripe. Humility is not a "feeling", but a fact, a cool recognition of what we are and of our existential situation.
This brings me to detachment. Previously I have quoted the French philosopher, Gustave Thibon's reference to the "divine label which so many believers stick onto their earthly passions". Human emotions have their share in religious faith, but faith itself is not an emotion. It is a form of knowledge, perhaps even the supreme form of knowledge. It is the means by which, despite our ignorance, we know God without being able to define him. We cannot know what he is, but we can know that He is.
We are prevented from knowing this if we are the slaves of our own passions. They muddy the waters. Let me quote Thibbon once again: "Give the same welcome", he says, "and maintain the same distance with regard both to joy and to sorrow & Let your passions flow within you, but so not flow with them." I am reminded immediately of a verse in the Qur'an which tells us neither to grieve over what escapes us nor to rejoice unduly over what comes to us; in other words, to maintain an attitude of detachment in the midst of worldly vicissitudes, never allowing ourselves to be so totally engulfed either by grief or by joy that we forget God, who both gives and withholds blessings according to His eternal, all seeing wisdom.
A difficult lesson, but one that is forcefully pointed by the month of fasting, the sacred month of Ramadhan which is now upon us. Outwardly we abstain from food and drink during the daylight hours, but this would have little value if it were not the outward sign of an inward state. However, much we may be prey to our emotions throughout the rest of the year, we must distance ourselves from them during Ramadhan. The fast is ruined if we give way to anger, hatred, resentment, envy or to any overmastering passion. This is true detachment; an emptiness which is to be filled with the remembrance of God, the though of Him, the awareness of His presence; for, as the Prophet said, "Though you see Him not, yet He sees you!" This "month of detachment" is of value in itself, but it is of far greater value if the state of mind which it requires is prolonged through all the months of the year. That is the true significance of Ramadhan.