By Amer Haleem
Ramadan, whose ancient Arabic name means “to purge by fire,” comes in as the ninth month of the Islamic lunar year, known properly as the Hijri Calendar (Al-Taqwim Al-Hijri). It comprises 12 months by divine decree.
Indeed, the ordained number of months with God is twelve lunar months, as decreed in the Preserved Heavenly Book of God on the day He created the heavens and the earth (Surat Al-Tawbah, 9:36).
It starts in 622 of the Christian Era, the day Muhammad, last of the prophets, on him be peace, reached the agrarian city of Yathrib in western Arabia. This ended his emigration – his hijra – north from the merchant city of his birth, Mecca, home to the Ka‘bah: first House of God on earth; laid down by the first man, Adam; then built up on those foundations, and its precincts purified for worship, by Abraham, Father of Prophets, with his first son – the one of sacrifice – Ismail. It was Friday, the 12th of Rabi Al-Awwal, the third lunar month in that calendar when the Prophet, on him be peace, arrived to the children of Yatrhib’s song and its peoples’ celebration.
The hijra adjourned 13 years of the Prophet, on him be peace, and his followers’ religious persecution by his people, the Quraysh (whose name some say means Little Shark (fr. qirsh, shark, the possible nickname of an ancestor) but more likely, the Alliance (fr. taqarrush, to come together)). It founded the Muslim Community, the Ummah, in the city (madinah) that became ever after Madinah Al-Nabi, the City of the Prophet, on him be peace, his home and resting place.
The divine command establishing the rite of fasting Ramadan – the Fourth of Islam’s renowned Five Pillars – came down some 17 months later, in the second year of hijra, in Sha‘ban, the eighth lunar month, just prior to the first communal fast. The Quran itself sets the significance of Ramadan as the chosen month of obligatory fasting (sawm).
It was the month of Ramadan in which the Quran was first sent down as guidance for all people, having in it clear proofs of divine guidance and the criterion for right and wrong. So whoever among you bears witness to the month shall then fast it (Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:185).
Indeed, Muslim scholars hold that the divine revelations of every Heavenly Book before God’s final and culminating Revelation of the Quran commenced in Ramadan, making it the host month for all the Writs of Revelation. This includes the unnamed Scripture of Abraham, the Tawrah (Torah) of Moses, the Zabur (Psalms) of David, and the Injil (Evangel) of Jesus, on them be peace.
This verse occurs with three others that together lay down the fast for believers and explain it, along with a fifth intervening verse that is among the most hope-filled in God in all Revelation and most inspiring of piety and godly obedience.
Ramadan’s fast imposes its dawn-to-sunset abstinence from food, drink, sexual intercourse and emission for the entire month of 29 or 30 days, as lunar cycles naturally fluctuate. It does so for all Muslims not constrained by illness, travel, or inability to endure it due to age, pregnancy, nursing and like hardships. Though the Quran exhorts fasting despite difficulty as best for you, if only you were to know, it authorizes five categories that except one from its abstinence. (You can read about “Valid Exemptions for Not Fasting Ramadan” here.)
One who does miss days of the Ramadan fast must still fulfill them by fasting the same number of other days. The fast seeks not to inflict suffering. On the contrary, through it God intends for you ease, and does not intend for you hardship, for Ramadan’s fast institutes a divine curative whose prescription the believer must complete if at all possible. For those who cannot fulfill the days of Ramadan, the Quran sets out rules and atonements. (You can read about “Making up for Missed Ramadan Fasts” here.)
Ramadan’s sustained fast does not aim to deliver hunger, thirst, and sensual deprivation to its fasters. “Said God’s Messenger, on him be peace: It may be that a faster gets nothing but thirst and hunger from his fast; and it may be that one who prays the night long gets from it only sleeplessness” (Ahmad no. 8693). It seeks to furnish the believers with moral agency. Specifically, our trial as human beings is to adjudge and “act” on our judgment for the time the Blessed One – the One who created death and life to test you – has assigned us to live in the world with the knowledge that death unknown comes for us to reveal which of you is best in deeds.
The standard of action is that of Heaven unseen. Yet the life of the world blankets our senses, commands our attentions, and distracts our hearts – the fu’ad in the Arabic singular, which the Quran tells us is no metaphor but our prime sensory-organ. Say, O Prophet: He is the One who has brought you into being and who gave to you the faculties of hearing, and sight, and hearts that comprehend. How very little are the thanks that you give! The sensory heart directly connects to the spirit – the ruh – God breathed into us, transfiguring us from composted clay into creatures of fair form and glimmering soul. It is this breath of life from the divine (we hold nothing divine) that the world stifles, humbling our human stature and quenching its light.
God gave us the Ramadan fast as a mechanism to galvanize that life force. It burns away worldly obstruction, diversion, and indulgence so we can re-center our lives and focus our minds on our first-order existence: to breathe with the remembrance of God again; to lift up the praises of the One who created us, blesses us, eases our moral guidance, and keeps us grounded in belief in a more or less continuously mindful worship. In other words, Ramadan is a divine intervention in the life of the world designed to unshackle us from it for an interim and to free us to become what the two Right Hands of the Creator fashioned us to be originally: consciously, expressively grateful worshipers of that single God. Look at the Divine intent of Ramadan for us:
Rather, He wills for you to complete the number of prescribed days – that you shall extol God for the blessing of faith to which He has guided you, so that you may give thanks to Him alone for easing its way and establishing you in it (Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:185).
Ramadan’s fast is not new for people. Its Quranic injunction counts it a devotional resource ancient as monotheistic belief, meaning as old as man, since true religion and man make their earthly appearance together in the sacred anthropology of Islam, unlike what our secular catechism preaches to us. O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it has been prescribed for those who have believed before you. And how not, when fasting’s explicit virtue – so that you may be ever God-fearing – is absolutely central to the trust of moral success that has burdened man from the moment his foot slipped from the garden to the earth as its appointed, capable steward. On the Day all are raised up for Judgment, a Day when wealth and children shall not benefit anyone in any way; but only those who come to God with a pure heart will be saved (Surat Al-Anbiya’, 26:87-89). And how not, when nothing but becoming God-fearing can restore the upright symmetry the very cast of man’s creation demands he reclaim as his rightful distinction and balanced nature. Very truly, We created man in the fairest stature. Then We reduce him to the lowest of the low – but not those who believe and do righteous deeds. Indeed, for them, there is an unfailing reward awaiting (Surat Al-Tin, 95:4-6).
In the vocabulary of the Quran, “God-fearing” – the specific power the divine intent wants us to take from fasting Ramadan – does not carry the generalized sense it conveys in English, at least as used today. Taqwah, the word this verse references, is a Quranic term of art. The first Muslim Community defined it succinctly (and illustrated it: a man walking watchful, wary, his arms enfolding him, through a narrow path thorn-lined on either side) and passed its definition down to the knowing who followed them, who did likewise, until now: doing what God has commanded and not doing what He has forbidden. The fear of God, then, depends upon knowledge of His Revelation – Word, Way, and Work: that is to say the Quran; the life-example of its human exemplar, Muhammad, on him be peace; and creation – all signs (ayat) of God’s truth.
So altogether, Ramadan’s fast peels back the world from our senses, its veil from our hearts, and restores our spirits to first fluidity so we come to its fruit: taqwah, God’s proper fear. That is the provision the month’s obedience supplies, a prescription whose regimen injects us with the strength to rise up to our full human stature and walk among people in a shrouded world by a light God makes for us.
It is true that Ramadan is flush with worship besides fasting and lush in its bounty for many other devout acts. It integrates all the pillars of Islam that go before it, as God has made it His multiplier month for every generous deed, no matter how small:
THE SHAHADAH: Islam’s Witness to faith by which one enters its fold – La ilaha illa’Llah Muhammadan rasul’Allah, There is no God but Allah. Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah – which fasters make in many forms countless times every Ramadan day.
THE SALAT-PRAYER: Worshipers perform Islam’s hallmark ritual prayer – alone and together, in sun and in starlight, in unrivaled flurries and matchless abundance, in mosques and prayer niches across the earth – daily for a continuous month. Ritual prayer is everywhere in Ramadan, with congregational celebrants at night’s end sending up crescendos of impassioned entreaties, hymned to the Heavens in chorus with the angels, Amin! Entrusted to You, O Lord!
ZAKAT: For a lunar year do the faithful accumulate the Divine fund invested with them – for the poor, the indigent, its yeoman administrators, those with hearts to be reconciled by it, the enslaved and captive to be freed with it, the debt-ridden, the striving in God’s cause, and the wayfaring without place or home. Overwhelmingly, it comes to maturity for most in Ramadan. This is the acclaimed alms of Zakat – working something on the order of a miracle for its deserving (at the hands of wise distributers), paid to them with brisk delight, for it redeems hundreds of times its worth in purifying reward, the more so in Ramadan.
Not properly a charity but a due entitlement from God, Zakat is today collected and delivered by special nonprofits organized by the closest thing we have in our time to visionaries – and none better than those whom I’ve written this for, the Zakat Foundation of America. I have seen how God augments Zakat’s power beyond its monetary value in its people’s scrupulous care. I say this not to praise, nor lightly, but I recall the days with neither channel, nor network, nor guided assistance to discharge a duty synonymous in the Quran with belief and Paradise. To our Zakat institutions and workers, we owe a major debt of gratitude – and there’s more.
SADAQAH: Ramadan compounds the reward of every good deed, but none more than voluntary giving, sadaqah. With hands opened wider still, the month’s fasters follow its prophetic example. Said Ibn ‘Abbas, a youthful cousin of the Prophet, on him be peace, renowned for his knowledge of the Quran and the wisdom of its Emissary:
Ever was the Prophet, on him be peace, the most generous of people. Yet he was even more generous in Ramadan, for then he would meet [the Archangel] Gabriel. Indeed, Gabriel, on him be peace, would meet him in every night of Ramadan, and the Prophet would review with him the Quran. Then would the Messenger of God, on him be peace, become more generous in deeds of charity than the heaven-sent wind (Bukhari, no. 3554).
Ibn ‘Abbas reports also that the Companion Anas asked the Prophet, on him be peace: “What is the best charity? He said: ‘A charity in Ramadan.’”
None can deny the plenty flowing from abounding sources of worship in Ramadan besides fasting. (Only Hajj lays claim to more ritual inclusion.) Nonetheless, Ramadan’s fast gives those who do it – “unseen” by all but God – a power in how it pleases God and in the sense of how God raises its divine reward. The Prophet, on him be peace, said: Indeed, your Lord says: ‘Every good deed of the Son of Adam shall be the like of 10 to 700 extra, but the fast is for Me, and I shall reward for it (Muslim, no. 115). In a more detailed statement:
God’s Messenger, on him be peace, said: God has said: All the works of the Son of Adam are for himself but fasting. It is for Me alone, and I shall grant reward for it. The fast is a safeguard from the Fire. So if ever it is a fasting day for any of you, there shall be neither sexual intimacy nor angered yelling. So if another should trouble or fight someone fasting, let him say: “Indeed, I am someone who is fasting.” For by the One in whose Hand is Muhammad’s soul, most surely the faster’s reeking mouth is better to God than the scent of musk. For the faster, there are two joys to rejoice in: When one breaks the fast, one rejoices; and when one meets one’s Lord, one shall rejoice in one’s fasting (Bukhari, no. 1904).
The scholars tell us several things about fasting’s special place with God:
- All worship besides fasting others may see, potentially polluting the purity of their intention with showing off (ri’a’), said Ibn Al-Jawzi, the most renowned imam in 12th-century Baghdad. God alone sees our fasting.
- God has linked fasting above all other forms of worship to Himself. God said of the faster: “He leaves his food, and drink, and desires for My sake” (Bukhari no. 1894). One can only understand this divine linguistic connection as honoring it.
- God is the One who rewards all our good deeds, which He says in the Quran He counts from 10 (Surat Al-An’am, 6:160) to 700 times (Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:261). Yet He singles out fasting with the words “Fasting is for Me, and I shall reward for it” without specifying its amount, meaning none but He knows its quantity, indicating it will be magnitudes more than other good deeds.
- God’s statement “Fasting is for Me” implies also that He has ranked it as the act of worship “dearest” to Him, what the great 11th-century Maliki judge of Lisbon, Ibn ‘Abd Al-Barr, said is “sufficient to indicate fasting’s superiority over all other acts of worship. This is supported by the Prophet’s authentic statement, on him be peace: “Fast, for there is nothing like it” (Nisa’i no. 2220).
That only God knows our fasting ties it to sincerity of faith. We fast for fear of God alone, not seeing Him and seen not by others, in hope of His unknown reward beyond count. The Prophet’s Companion Sufyan ibn ‘Uyaynah said: “When Resurrection Day comes, God shall bring His slave to account and pay off the wrongdoings against him from the good works of his labor. Then when nothing remains but fasting, God lifts from him whatever wrongdoing is left and admits him into the Garden with fasting.”
Ramadan’s fast gives us yet another power, one matchless in all the measures of other ritual worship in all the world: The Night of Empowering Decree (Laylat Al-Qadr), one of the odd-numbered nights of the fasting month’s last 10 days. This is the night of the Quran’s first revelation to Muhammad, on him be peace, in retreat in the Niche of Hira’ atop the Mount of Light outside of Mecca, commissioning him as a prophet. In a word, this night brackets the miraculous hours that God compounds to a thousand months whatever worship the faster does in it! That is a lifetime of such devotions – ritual prayer, supplication, charity, God’s remembrances, and every good deed and worship. (You can read about “The Night of Empowering Decree” here.)
For this reason, many follow the practice of the Prophet, on him be peace, in spending Ramadan’s last 10 nights in retreat in the mosques of God, seeking out The Night of Empowering Decree (Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:187). (You can read about “Ritual Retreat” here.)
All of which brings us to the fifth verse of inspiration mentioned previously, couched among the Quran’s divine “signs,” ayat, that enshrine the Ramadan fast. In the course of enjoining this rite of rigor and daylight abstention upon all who believe in the One who they shall most surely meet for recompense on the Last Day, God adjures us with words that cannot fail to move a heart that trembles with the longing to draw close to Him:
Now, if My servants ask you, O Prophet, about Me – then, indeed, I am near. I answer the call of the caller when he calls upon Me. Then let them all respond to Me and believe in Me, so that they may be rightly guided (Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:187).
O you who would well-please God and be well pleased with Him – in Gardens everlasting beneath which rivers flow – your month is at hand. For that is the reward for whoever fears his Lord (Surat Al-Bayyinah, 98:8).