Ramadan is the holy month of obligatory fasting (sawm) for Muslims. The Quran tells us its significance.
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 God initiated His divine revelations of every Heavenly Book before the final and culminating Revelation of the Quran in Ramadan. This makes Ramadan the host month for all the Writs of Revelation. This includes the unnamed “Scripture of Abraham” (Ṣuḥuf Ibrahîm), the Torah (Tawrah) of Moses, the Psalms (Zabûr) of David, and the Evangel (Injîl) of Jesus, on them be peace.
Ramadan (Ramaḍân, in proper English transliteration with diacritical marks to represent the Arabic) is the ninth month of Islam’s 12-month lunar year, which is called the Hijrî Calendar (Al-Taqwîm Al-Hijrîy). God Himself set the lunar year at the time of earth’s creation.
Indeed, the ordained number of months with God is 12 lunar months, as decreed in the Preserved Heavenly Book of God on the day He created the heavens and the earth (Sûrat Al-Tawbah, 9:36).
The Hijrah Calendar began in the year 622 of the Common Era, with the day Muhammad, on him be peace, God’s final Messenger to humankind, completed his Emigration — Hijra — from the mercantile and spiritual center of Arabia, Mecca, to the city of Yathrib, also in western Arabia. Yathrib then became known as The City of the Prophet, Al-Madinah Al-Nabî, as his home and resting place, on him be peace.
Islam’s lunar calendar flows back through the solar year and seasons, as a true lunar year is naturally 10 to 11 days shorter than its solar counterpart. It takes about 33 solar years for Ramadan to make its way back through the entire solar calendar. In a typical lifespan, a Muslim will experience Ramadan through the full range of a solar year twice.
Ramadan’s fast imposes a dawn-to-sunset abstinence from food, drink, sexual intercourse and emission for its entire 29 or 30 days, as lunar months naturally fluctuate. It does so for all Muslims not constrained by illness, travel, or inability to endure the fast due to age, pregnancy, nursing and like hardships (who can pay something called the fidyah, a redemption fee, instead of fasting. See Valid exemptions for not fasting. Those who deliberately violate its fast without cause must pay an expiation or atonement penalty called kaffârah. See also, What Acts Invalidate Fasting?).
The Quran explains the fast of Ramadan in four verses:
O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it has been prescribed for those who have believed before you, so that you may be ever God-fearing.It is for a specified number of days. But one among you who is sick or is on a journey shall fast the same number of other days. Yet for those who are hardly able to endure it, and do not fast, the redemption for each day is feeding an indigent person instead. And if one volunteers a good offering over and above this, it is better for him, still. However, if you fast despite difficulty, it is best for you, if only you were to know.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. Yet if one among you is sick or is on a journey, such a person shall then fast the same number of other days. God intends for you ease, and does not intend for you hardship. Rather, He wills for you to complete the number of prescribed days — and 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 therein (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:183-185).
O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it has been prescribed for those who have believed before you, so that you may be ever God-fearing.
It is for a specified number of days. But one among you who is sick or is on a journey shall fast the same number of other days. Yet for those who are hardly able to endure it, and do not fast, the redemption for each day is feeding an indigent person instead. And if one volunteers a good offering over and above this, it is better for him, still. However, if you fast despite difficulty, it is best for you, if only you were to know.
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. Yet if one among you is sick or is on a journey, such a person shall then fast the same number of other days. God intends for you ease, and does not intend for you hardship. Rather, He wills for you to complete the number of prescribed days — and 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 therein (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:183-185).
Permitted for you believers on the night of the fast is intimate approach to your wives. They are a garment for you. And you are a garment for them. God knows that before granting this permission, you used to betray yourselves. Thus, He has granted you repentance for what is past and pardoned you. So now you may lie with them and seek whatever offspring God has decreed for you. Moreover, you may now eat and drink until the white thread of dawn becomes clear to you, as distinguished from the black thread of night. Then complete the fast until the night. But do not ever lie with them for so long as you may be in ritual retreat in the mosques of God. These are the ordained limits of God. Therefore, do not approach them. Thus does God make clear His revealed signs to all people, that they may be ever God-fearing (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:187).
Ramadan’s sustained fast does not aim to deliver hunger, thirst, and sensual deprivation to its fasters. The Prophet, on him be peace, said:
“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).
Ramadan 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” (Sûrat Al-Mulk, 67:2).
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! (Sûrat Al-Mulk, 67:23)
The sensory heart directly connects to the spirit — the ruḥ — 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 (our human bodies contain 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).
In fact, the linguistic meaning of the Arabic name Ramaḍân means “to purge by fire.”
Spiritually, the Quran tells us the explicit virtue fasting Ramadan delivers to the believer is so that you may be ever God-fearing. This is absolutely central to the trust of moral success that has burdened man from the moment his foot slipped from Garden to Earth, as its appointed, capable steward. Becoming God-fearing is essential to our ultimate success.
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).
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 is referencing, is a Quranic term of art. The first Muslim Community defined it succinctly 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.
They illustrated it with this parable: a man walking watchful, wary, his arms enfolding him, through a narrow path thorn-lined on either side.
Fear of God, then, depends upon knowledge of His Revelation — in Word (the Quran), in action (the life-example of its human exemplar, Muhammad, on him be peace), and in Work (God’s creation). All are signs (ayât) 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 Ramadan’s 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.
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.
Look how the verses of the Quran that enjoin fasting begin:
O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it has been prescribed for those who have believed before you (Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:183).
Yes. Zakat al-Fitr, or the Zakat of Breaking the Fast of Ramadan, is the special obligatory alms paid by all Muslims at the end of the Ramadan fasting month.
Zakat al-Fitr comes in the form of food staples or, commonly today, as a payment for each member of one’s household, in a value equivalent to providing full sustenance to another for a day.
It (1) spiritually cleanses our fast from the adulterations we have accumulated in the course of observing it, and (2) communally, it infuses the fasting, believing poor with the food resources to whole-heartedly glorify God, celebrate the Eid Prayer at the end of the month, and share the day’s merriment and delight with their children and families.
(See, What is Zakat al-Fitr?)
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 — Lâ ilâha illa’Llâh 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 daily for a continuous month — alone and together, in sun and in starlight, in unrivaled flurries and matchless abundance, in mosques and prayer niches across the earth. 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, 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. (See, What Is Zakat?)
Overwhelmingly, this year’s accumulation of wealth comes to maturity for most in Ramadan. This acclaimed alms of Zakat works 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, and God makes it all the more so in Ramadan.
Zakat is not properly a charity. It is a due entitlement from God. Zakat today is 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 personally seen how God augments Zakat’s power beyond its monetary value in the scrupulous care of the Zakat Foundation’s leaders and workers, people the Quran characterizes as al-‘âmilîna ‘alayhâ. I say this not to praise, nor lightly, but I am old enough to recall the days with neither channel, nor network, nor guided assistance to discharge this duty of Zakat, which is synonymous in the Quran with belief and Paradise. To our Zakat institutions and workers, we owe a major debt of gratitude. (See our Zakat Calculator)
The very best. Ramadan compounds the reward of every good deed, but none more than voluntary giving, sadaqah. With hands opened wider still, Ramadan’s fasters follow their Prophet’s example, on him be peace. Ibn ‘Abbas, a youthful cousin of the Prophet, on him be peace, renowned for his knowledge of the Quran and the wisdom of its Messenger, said:
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 gusting of a 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 copious plenty flowing from abounding sources of worship in Ramadan besides fasting. (Only Hajj lays claim to more ritual inclusion.)
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, the Prophet, 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 the faster 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).
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 the faster 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).
(See, Is Ramadan the Best Time to Pay Zakat?)
Yes. Our scholars have described this in several ways:
God alone sees our fasting. Ibn Al-Jawzî, the most renowned imam in 12th-century Baghdad, said: All worship besides fasting others may see. This can potentially pollute the purity of one’s intention by an outward display of piety, in other words, showing off (ri’â’).
God has linked fasting above all other forms of worship to Him. God says 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 grant reward for it” without specifying its amount, meaning none but He knows its quantity, indicating fasting’s reward 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, says 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).
Yes. The fact that God alone knows our fasting ties it to sincerity of faith. We fast for fear of God alone — not seeing Him and not seen fasting by others — in the hope of His unknown reward beyond count.
The Prophet’s Companion Sufyân ibn ‘Uyaynah said:
“When Resurrection Day comes, God shall bring His slave to account and pay off the wrongdoings against one from the good works of one’s labor. Then when nothing remains but fasting, God lifts from one whatever wrongdoing is left and admits one into the Garden with fasting.”
The Night of Empowering Decree (Laylat Al-Qadr) is matchless among all the nights of other ritual worship in all the world. 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. It is one of the odd-numbered nights of the fasting month’s last 10 days.
In a word, this night brackets the miraculous hours wherein God compounds to the equal of a thousand months whatever worship the faster does in it. That makes whatever worship one does in these nighttime hours equal to a lifetime of such devotions — 83 years and four months — be it 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 Laylat Al-Qadr (Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:187). (See The Night of Empowering Decree (Laylat Al-Qadr). See also, On Ritual Retreat.)
Couched among the Quran’s divine “signs,” ayât, that enshrine the Ramadan fast, are profoundly hope-inspiring words. Ramadan’s fasting and worship demands are perhaps the most demanding in all religion.
In the course of enjoining this rite of rigor and daylight abstention upon all who believe in the One who we 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, 2:186).
So whoever would well-please God and be well pleased with Him — in Gardens everlasting beneath which rivers flow — Ramadan, and its unequaled gift of a God-fearing heart, is for you. For that is the reward for whoever fears his Lord (Surat Al-Bayyinah, 98:8).
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