I present my readers with a special edition of our discourse; a barka da sallah of three articles presented in one straight edition. The marathon essay is a farewell to Ramadan. The month visits us annually, as part of the twelve months in the Islamic calendar, months that were ordained by God “the day He created the heavens and the earth.” (9:36) Although it is not part of the “sacred four” (viz. Zul qida, Zul Hajj, Muharram and Rajab), it is by no means less important than any of them. That is because each time it visits us, it comes with offers that no other month will present us with.
I do not intend to belittle other months, as we said earlier, they were created by God, and behind each of His creation is a purpose (3:191; 38:27). But consider that one form of the gifts of Ramadan alone – a night most probably in the last one third of its tenure – “is better than a thousand months.” (97:3)
Like small kids used to a generous visitor, we lament that it will not be here with us longer than the ordained 29 or 30 days. Much as that lamentation is obvious, we are nevertheless glad that its grants are durable enough to last its absence. It is in this regard, of gratitude and remembrance, I felt compelled to bid it farewell by recounting the opportunities it offered for making us better human beings and better Muslims, annually. I hope the little that I hereby commit on paper will be a reminder to my readers such that they will make the best use of the gifts that Ramadan gave them and, hopefully also, they will eagerly await its return next year.
The most obvious gift Ramadan is associated with is fasting. Fasting means abstinence from what is lawful. Even outside the sphere of religion, people do fast for one reason or another to maintain the strength of their body, its shape or voice. Aqqad once wrote in second volume of his Islamiyyat, saying, “we have seen all sorts of fasting these days, done for the sake of the body, and none for the sake of the soul.”
In religion, fasting has been a long tradition. The Virgin Mary was commanded tell the Israelites when she returned to the city with her baby: “So eat and drink and cool (thine) eye. And if you dost see any man, say, “I have vowed a fast to (God) Most Gracious, and this day will I enter into no talk with any human being.” (19:26)
In the book of Ezekiel, as indicated in the Islamiyyat, we have seen how he fasted by abstaining from some types of food while eating others. Daniel also who abstained from any delicious food, meat and wine for three weeks, something practiced by some Christians to this day. For voluntary fasting, the Prophet (Peace and blessings be upon him) has recommended the fasting of David (Blessings be upon him), as he advised Abdullah bin Amr bin al-‘As: “fast for a day and eat for a day, that was the fasting of David and it is the best.” (Bukhari and Muslim).
Before it was raised to the status of obligation, the Prophet used to fast as a necessary part of his spiritual training, once he secludes himself in the cave of Hira. He continued with this practice after receiving the Message. Unlike prayer that was prescribed in Mecca before the establishment of the Islamic state, fasting was prescribed in Medina when some degree of personal stability and social liberty was attained, “for thy Lord is indeed full of kindness and mercy (16:47); and He “has not imposed any difficulties on you in religion.” (22:78) That is also why he waived the immediate obligation on the sick and the traveller, and quickly added, “God intends every facility for you; He does not want to put you to difficulties” (2:185)
Fasting in Islam is not abstention from meat or delicious food only. Rather, it is a complete abstinence from the necessities of life – food, drink and sex – from dawn to dusk. In the temperate regions and at high latitudes this may sometimes be easy for it does not exceed three to six hours. But in the tropics and in the desert regions – like Sahara or Arabian deserts – the days may be very long, at least 12 hours and the quest for water and food could be severe. Now would this not be interpreted as “difficulty”?
No. The fact is that fasting is essential for the fulfilment of the most important identity of man: self-discipline. This is the virtue upon which the entire concept of religion and the success of man in life are based. If man is to lead a life different from that of animals he must show discretion on how he indulges in the permissible. As he strives to achieve any goal, spiritual or material, his body must be under the command of his soul. And watch him, whenever he declines, his soul must be definitely under the command of his body.
The best way to reduce the influence of the body on the soul is to deny the former what it needs best. That food and sex, the strongest motivations in the animal kingdom, were selected was to differentiate us from animals that have no goal beyond eating and propagating their species.
The point is that if a person can deny his self the indulgence in what is lawful during Ramadan, then he can, if he chooses to, tame his desire for the unlawful throughout the year. Having control over the desires of the body will accord him the spiritual position that is necessary for the fulfilment of his obligations to God. He thus attains the position of Taqwa (self-restraint), the most fundamental character of the faithful, his ultimate goal on earth and his only currency or qualification for felicity in the Hereafter.
“O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint.” (2:183)
No other regulation can offer us this opportunity apart from fasting. In Islam fasting is not a recommendation but an obligation. If one would break it unlawfully for a day during Ramadan, he must compensate that single day with feeding sixty people or freeing a slave or fasting all day for sixty consecutive days in other months!
In according Ramadan fasting the position of obligation, God has saved us the trouble of negligence. It means that a billion people will undergo a turn around maintenance (TAM) every year, at the same time and without suffering from trouble of making up their minds one billion times on when to observe it individually. I did not understand the magnitude of this grace until I compared it with the TAM of our refineries. Successive governments, well aware of its need in the survival of the refineries suffered from the bug of indecision and neglected them until they broke down. Many of us would have suffered from this bug regarding fasting were it not for God’s intervention. Think of it, how difficult would it have been if fasting was made obligatory but the choice of the 29 or 30 days were left to the individual, to be observed anytime during the year, separately or consecutively? To grasp the difficulty, just remember how cumbersome it is to decide when to repay some fasting that you missed for one reason or another.
In addition, the dose was also prescribed, a month or what the Qur’an calls “a fixed number of days” (1:185). Here also, we were saved the trouble of consulting one spiritual leader or another on when to observe it and for how many days. And so on. The more we ponder over the Qur’an, the more we recognise that God has in the best way fulfilled the two most basic conditions of legislation: wisdom and knowledge. That is why God deserves our thanks for making it obligatory every year, as he clearly stated in the Qur’an: “He wants you to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you; and perchance ye shall be grateful.” (2:185)
Now doing it in congregation is another mercy from God. The Prophet was reported saying that “togetherness is mercy, and separation is torment.” That is why in Islam, congregation in worship is preferred over individual performance. Here, I beg to disagree with “show-off test” of our learned and most respected Sheikh, Abdulkadir Jilani (May God grant him mercy). In his book, al-Ghunyah, which has received the recommendation of even non-sufis like our late Sheikh Abubakar Mahmood Gumi (May God grant him mercy), he stated that, “if a servant finds it difficult to do in private the worship he does in public, then it is an indication of riya (show off).” The act of worship, in my humble view, becomes easier as a result of the blessing that God placed in the congregation as reported from the Prophet, not as a result of hypocrisy. But God knows best.
Now, having sacrificed our primary motivations, fasting takes us closer to God. At least in a year, for thirty days we share a common feeling of belonging to a congregation whose only goal is the satisfaction of God and getting closer to him through fasting, prayer and different forms of worship. The soul, debased of the primordial need of food and sex, transcends ordinary position and walks an extra mile in the spiritual sojourn that takes it ever closer to God. The movement is massive, just as the congregation: a billion people, sharing the same philosophy and culture doing the same thing for a month. It is also most assuring because as we try to move closer to the target, the target itself moves closer to us at a rate, according to a hadith, that is at least double our pace.
That is why God said, in the segment regarding fasting: “When my servants ask thee concerning Me, I am indeed close (to them): I listen to the prayer of every suppliant when he calleth Me: Let them also, with a will, listen to My call and believe Me: that they may walk in the right way.” (2:186)
I am not attempting to exhaustively expound the rationale behind fasting. I cannot. The late Sayyid Qutb was correct when, in his Fi Zilal, he refused to discuss at length the wisdom behind fasting, saying, “the horizon of human knowledge is limited; it does not have the capacity to encompass, nor to discover, the Wisdom of God …” Our intention rather was to capture, albeit in a glimpse, something of the importance of fasting during Ramadan and narrate it, within the short space available, to a generation given to discourse and reason.
Through the fasting of Ramadan, in a nutshell, an avenue is created that allows us to transcend the animal level of eating and propagation to that of proximity with the Highest Assembly in a constant preparation for a struggle to remain on the path of God. No wonder therefore, it was prescribed the very year that the Muslims were to fight their first and most decisive battle in their history: Badr.
The second gift of Ramadan is the Holy Qur’an, the primary text of Islam. It is not possible to exhaustively list down the teachings of the Qur’an. We will therefore restrict ourselves here to its peculiarities.
First, a peculiarity which Muslims in particular must note about the Qur’an, is that it is meant to be a guide (2:2) for them. It is thus a divine manual meant to be consulted, read, understood and applied in everyday life. In other words, unlike the books that other religions use today, the Qur’an is a book of practice. It has no ‘old testament’ that is discarded as irrelevant for today, nor a ‘new’ one that is modified according to exigencies of times. Thus anyone accepting Islam is discarding all sources of legislation and adopting only that which agrees with the Qur’an. Obedience to its commandments is obligatory, as much as possible.
To be continued tomorrow