By Moin Qazi
O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may attain Taqwa [God-consciousness] – (The Qur’an, Al-Baqarah: 183)
Religious fasting traditions- from Ramadan to Ekadasi to Yom Kippur and Lent -are meant to relieve believers from unburden believers from day-to-day compulsions, helping them replenish their spirituality, remember the poor, give up bad habits, make amends for moral deficiencies and get closer to their conscience. The most prominent among these spiritual fasting customs is Ramadan. Islam does not have a tradition of monasticism. Instead, observant Muslims become ascetics by seeking sacred abstemiousness during Ramadan every year.
Fasting (“Sumoo”, derived from the Arabic root of “Saama” and Syriac, “Sawma”) means “to refrain” – and not only is it abstaining from eating, drinking , smoking and sex, but all forms of immoral actions including talking about others behind their backs, or indulging in impure or unkind thoughts. Like prayers, fasting is an essentially solitary act; it represents a personal relationship each one of us has with God.
When fasting, Muslims have one meal before sunrise, called sahur –the pre-dawn meal — together, and share another meal with friends and family after sunset, called iftar — the fast breaking meal. The fast is actually much longer than what everyone perceives .It actually commences at the first ray of dawn, or, as it is said in the Qur’an, “when the white thread of day becomes distinct from the blackness of night.
The simultaneity of all these Muslim rituals is Islam’s way of fostering fellowship and a powerful sense of solidarity. During Ramadan, the Muslim communities across the far corners of the world are unified by one food: the date, one of the earliest cultivated crops and an ancient icon of the Arabia, where the thick-trunked date palm is a symbol of hospitality, rest and peace, it is recorded that Prophet Muhammad always broke the fast with dates and water.
Fasting during Ramadan is obligatory for all able-bodied Muslims from when they reach the age of religious observance. Those who are exempt from fasting are those who are sick, the elderly, those suffering from a mental illness, those who are travelling long distance. Menstruating and pregnant women are also exempt. So are breastfeeding mothers. However, the exemption has a caveat that those who skip the fast have to make up for the lost days after Ramadan. But if a person is not able to fast at all – particularly if that is for health reasons – can compensate and partake of the holy month’s blessings by feeding a needy person for each day they do not fast (fidiya, or “expiation”).
Ramadan is a commemoration of the descent of the word of God, the Qur’an, from heaven to the earth. Just as the word of God has come down, the word of supplicants goes up to God more vigorously and efficaciously in Ramadan than at any other time.
The most significant hallmark of the month of Ramadan is the Night of Destiny, Night of Value or Night of Measure: Lailat al Qadr, in Arabic. According to the Qur’an, angels descend from heaven on this special night -most important, the archangel Gabriel — bringing peace and divine presence into the world. Prophet Muhammad did not mention exactly when the Night of Power would be, although most scholars believe it falls on one of the odd-numbered nights of the final ten days of Ramadan.
The Qur’an says:
“The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.
Therein come down the angels and the Spirit by Allah’s permission, on every errand:
Peace… This until the rise of morn! “(Q97)
Better than thousand months. A thousand months are equivalent to 83 years and 4 months. The importance of this night is also mentioned in hadith, which are the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad as remembered by his companions:
“Whoever establishes the prayers on the night of Qadr out of sincere faith and hoping to attain Allah’s rewards (not to show off) then all his past sins will be forgiven.” (Sahih Bukhari Vol 1, Book 2:34).
Ramadan is always a very amazing month. We undertake a month long spiritual odyssey that is meant to rejuvenate us, both physically and morally. It enables us to detach from worldly pleasures to invest our time in intense prayer, charity and spiritual discipline and focus on our deeds, thoughts and actions. Every Ramadan, we undergo illuminating and enriching experiences that provide valuable lessons in understanding life and ourselves better. The extremity of the test reminds us of the fragility of human life and is meant to foster a relationship with God.
Over the years, the experience has been life-changing for me. I learnt to be disciplined; started feeling empathetic towards the poor, as Ramadan taught me how it feels to be less fortunate. Every year, we gain something substantial, as the entire spiritual gymnastic nurtures our soul, leaving us like an engine overhauled, or a computer reformatted.
I remember the early years of fasting when my mother would tell stories about Ramadan when she was little and growing up–how the table at sunset would be full of delicacies; how she and her siblings would hold handfuls of food in front of their mouths, waiting for the cue from my grandfather to eat. At the end of the month of fasting, he would sacrifice a lamb, in the name of God, and feed it to the poor.
The first time I fasted was when I was attending school away from home. Marching up to the man in charge of the cafeteria, I fully expected to be rebuffed when I asked for food to take back to my dorm for a predawn breakfast. But he just looked me in the eyes and asked what I would like to eat. Had I not been so stunned by his acceptance, I might have asked for a table full of treats. I fortified myself by hearty food and sealed the fast with a full glass of fruit juice .the fast seemed interminable and intolerable because, as every Muslim would confess, no matter how much food or water or juice you pour into yourself at dawn, it is enough to drown the body’s yearnings until sunset.
Later that night, nibbling on the meat sandwich, I realized, ”I’m fasting for Ramadan!” For the first time, I was doing something that wasn’t primarily for myself or for parents or for good grades. By fasting, I was doing something for God- that which would bring me closer to the creator and sustainer of all existence .it is said that it’s the only Islamic practice that’s invisible to an observer.
Later in college, on Saturday nights, other Muslim students and I would take the college van to a pancake house at 4 a.m. I told my non-Muslim friends, who always accompanied me to dinner in the dining hall at sunset, how the entire holy month of Ramadan was about feeling spiritually charged and elevated despite the hunger and deprivation.
The fasting ritual is an eagerly awaited interlude for utilizing the abstinence from food, drink and other indulgences to concentrate on prayer, meditation and worship. This, in turn, encourages greater reflection on one’s life and appreciation for resources we sometimes take for granted. It teaches us about patience, self restraint, spirituality, humility and submissiveness to God.
The act of fasting for spiritual prowess makes us more conscious, not just of food habits but of how we think, behave and interact throughout the day. Fasting does not mean Muslims retreat from their daily chores; rather they are encouraged to continue their normal routine. This is the real challenge, and fasting helps us hone our patience and endurance because, by refraining from consumption throughout the day, we learn the benefit of refraining from gratifying each of our desires in the moment.
Each fasting day during Ramadan is trial on the body and our spiritual resolve. Removing the regular comforts from daily routine is intended to focus the mind on spirituality, prayer and charity. By fasting, we cut ourselves off from the temptations and distractions of our busy, hectic, materialistic lives and try attaining “taqwa“, or “piety” or “God-consciousness”. With a decaffeinated, empty stomach, and a thirst that is difficult to tolerate, this act of fasting connects us to someone else.
Tending to the welfare of the less fortunate members of the community is a central tenet of Islam and a very important tradition during Ramadan. On several occasions, I have read that when we are handing someone charity, it first passes through the Hand of God before it reaches the recipient’s hand. I always imagine that when I give, it helps me do it with greater humility. Holding wealth is truly an immense blessing that comes with great responsibility and untold reward when we pass it along. All good deeds done in Ramadan fetch manifold rewards in the afterlife. Thus, apart from being a personal religious voyage, the season of sharing and giving reconfigures one’s social bonds.
Our fasting draws us to the story of a woman in Somalia who has been walking for miles to reach and fetch firewood and water; successive droughts have ravaged her land, her body, and her children. The baby she is carrying no longer gets milk from her breast; she feels him shrinking in her arms as she walks. She’ll thank God, if they all make it alive to the feeding centre. The baby she is carrying no longer gets milk from her breast; she feels him shrinking in her arms as she walks. Her other children, languorous and emaciated, are trailing her. The mother keeps repeatedly telling them that they must put their trust in God and keep moving. One can understand her thirst as she utters the words of prayer with every precious drop of water she goes without to give to her children for their survival.
Our act of fasting brings empathy for her that is greater than any ordinary day. I remember her when my head would go dizzy with thirst after running out on a simple errand in triple-digit heat. I can step back into my air-conditioned refuge; she can’t. I won’t complain of my exhaustion from too little sleep because I know she won’t find a sheltering place to rest in the harsh landscape. I’m hungry, but I can break my fast in a celebratory mood when the day is finished; I’ll take a cooling sip of clean, filtered water and literally feel it splash down in my empty gut at sundown. As I feel my body reviving, I remember the Somali woman’s fast has been going on since well-before Ramadan, and it will continue past the 30 days which Muslims will observe. It is her way of life for years on end. For her “fasting” is not a choice, for her hunger is part of daily life.
As we slice up exotic fruits to refresh our families after fasting, we keep seeing this poor woman. How can we set a table with melons, dates, rice, other lavish goodies and dollops of dainty creams when she has none? How can we keep stocking up on provisions featuring a variety of so many alluring and exquisite foods, such as sweetmeats, spices, savouries and sugary drinks, with which to break our daily fasts, without thinking of the woman’s broken heart when she has to tell her children she has nothing for them; the crops failed, the livestock died, and food prices have risen so high. She has no way to feed them. The suffering of these unlucky ones reminds us to be grateful for our fortunes.
At times we don’t realize how hard and coarse our hearts have become. The absence of regular and consistent times for self-reflection and contemplation has made us insensitive to the suffering around us. The pursuit of complacency has become our goal rather than the pursuit of contentment and we sacrifice things that would bring us everlasting comfort in pursuit of those things that simply give us the facade of comfort. The empathy for the suffering of those less fortunate people around us, created by the act of fasting, is only worth something to them — and to us — if we do something about it.
The emphasis on enduring the fast stimulates us to move beyond simply the physical aspects of it and reach out in the direction of a spiritual fast. It’s not about mortification of the flesh. It’s about refraining from complaining, a fast from thinking ill of others, a fast from coarse language and harsh speech, a fast that’s focus is not on food or drink, but how the absence of those things leads towards the development of a strong heart and soul. That’s the fast that we should strive for – one that moves beyond not feeding our bodies but feeding our souls. The essence of Ramadan is to become humble, simple and free from ill-will, anger, meanness and hate. It is a one-month refresher course from which we can emerge as the greatest version of ourselves. It is a month of penance, peace, forgiveness atonement and reconciliation.
I pray that Ramadan gets into our hearts and minds and makes us embrace all shades of mankind with dignity, respect and care acknowledging the diverse swath of traditions and cultures.
The greatest lesson every Ramadan teaches me is indeed the wisdom expressed in Qur’an, Al-Hujurat:
“O mankind! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. The noblest of you, in sight of God, is the best in conduct. God Knows and is Aware of everything you do.”(Q49:13)
Ramadan Kareem! Ramadan Mubarak!