This is the holy month when Muslims, about one fifth of the world’s population, undergo a rigorous fast (not even a drop of water or spittle passes their throats). Muslims around the world take a journey within – to discover their inner strengths and strive zealously to subjugate their evil instincts. It is abstinence in its literal, metaphorical and allegorical sense.
From dawn to dusk each day this month, Muslims do not eat, drink, smoke, use perfume or apply leeches and abstain from conjugal relations. It is the month of Ramadan, the ninth and holiest month of the Muslim lunar year, a month of sacrifice and humility punctuated by joyous family gatherings, during which conscientious observance of every divine commandment marks a high water mark in the lives of every Muslim.
The rules of Ramadan are fairly straightforward: for one month, all practicing, able-bodied Muslims over the age of 12 are forbidden to eat or drink from sunup to sundown. Muslims believe that during this month the gates of hell close — meaning the devil is unable to tempt them during a month of discipline, charity and self-control. The objective of the fast, which also prohibits participating in “sensual pleasures” such as smoking, sex and even listening to music during daylight hours, is to diminish believers’ dependence on material goods, purify their hearts and establish solidarity with the poor to encourage charitable works during the year. It’s as much a period of self-growth as of self-denial: Muhammad reportedly said, “He who does not abandon falsehood in word and action in accordance with fasting, God has no need that he should abandon his food and drink.”
The origin of the word Ramadan comes from the classical Arabic root, ramida ,ar-ramad or ramdaa, meaning scorching heat or dryness – believed to be either in reference to the heat of thirst and hunger or because fasting burns away one’s past sins. The first Ramadan is thought to have occurred during the middle of summer. In other words, Ramadan is a month meant to purify the body of toxins and the soul of the lavish desires of life, such as greed, hatred and malice. This period is called Ramadan in Iran and Turkey and Ramadan in the Indian subcontinent. The month of Ramadan is further divided into three parts, consisting of ten days each. Each ten day period is referred to as ashra, which is the Arabic word for ten. These three parts are the Rahmah (God’s mercy), Maghfirah (God’s forgiveness), and Najah (salvation). The first 10 days of the month of Ramadan are dedicated to mercy from Allah. The next 10 days focus on forgiveness from Allah and the last 10 on freedom from Hell Fire.
Ramadan commemorates the time when Quran was first revealed to Prophet Mohammad about 1,400 years ago through the angel Gabriel. This revelation was the final link in the chain of divine communication, which includes the Commandments of Moses, the Psalms of David, the Scrolls of Abraham and the Gospel of Jesus.
Fasting or sawm is one of the vital pillars of Islam. Sawm is derived from the root sama which means `to abstain’ – Although ṣawm is most commonly understood as the obligation to fast during Ramadan, it is more broadly interpreted as the obligation to refrain between dawn and dusk from food, drink, sexual activity, and all forms of immoral behaviour, including impure or unkind thoughts. Thus, false words or bad deeds or intentions are as destructive of a fast as is eating or drinking. As Lent may be prescribed for Christians and Yom Kippur for those of the Jewish faith, Ramadan is an eagerly awaited interval for Muslims to utilise the absence of food, drink and other luxuries, as an opportunity to concentrate on prayer, meditation and worship. This in turn encourages greater reflection on life itself and appreciation for the resources we sometimes take for granted
Unintentional breaking of the fast is not punished, and Muslims are enjoined to break their fast if there is a threat to health. Other types of infractions require restitution. This is of two kinds: Qada, which involves making up missed days, and Kaffarah, which additionally exacts a penalty from the transgressor.
The devout Muslim is also expected to observe the Shari’a, which means “the path to follow.” Based on the Koran, the deeds and sayings of Muhammad and the consensus of Islamic scholars, the Shari’a is not just a compilation of criminal and civil law, but a complex, all embracing code of ethics, morality and religious duties. It is a sophisticated system of jurisprudence that summarizes 1,400 years of experience and constantly adapts, in subtle ways, to new circumstances. The Kaaba, a shrine in the Grand Mosque of Mecca is, for Islam, the most sacred place on earth, and making the pilgrimage there at least once in one’s life is one of the basic obligations of devout Moslems.
In many ways, Ramadan mirrors a form of spiritual renewal – a time for new resolutions and a revival of inner peace. Similar to how one might attend a nature retreat once a year to escape the humdrum of a dog-eat-dog world, Ramadan provides an internal retreat where the mind and it’s natural ‘thirst’ for knowledge, awakening and reason is given greater precedence over the physical needs and desires of the body – needs which are regularly served but rarely satisfied. Human desire in its bare essence is animalistic and somewhat selfish. It has been the evolution of teachings of faith that has kept in check much of our primitive needs for constant self-gratification.
The struggle for internal balance and control of the self is as old as mankind. Ramadan is a long arduous ordeal to prepare mankind for a journey into a new year with renewed spiritual energy and fresh pledges. It is a means of building self control and striking a balance between the spiritual and the mundane. It is a way of adapting one’s life to subjugate the evil instincts and vicious ambitions like lust, greed and hatred
Islam has a beautiful word to describe this war against man’s carnal instincts. It is called jihad .In fact Islam repeatedly emphasizes it and calls it the ‘greater jihad’. The “greater struggle” is the personal one: the struggle to resist temptation, combat one’s own evil traits and imperfections, and become a better person in God’s sight. the King James Bible speaks of it as seeking ‘The Kingdom of God’ and the Hindu spiritual classic Bhagavad Gita represents it in the battle of Kuruksetra.
For a Muslim seeking Ramadan’s spiritual bliss, it is like a traveler climbing a mountain; the higher he goes the farther he sees. It elevates the human mind to great heights of ecstasy, comparable to what the greatest English poet John Keats experienced when he discovered Chapman’s Homer:
Then felt I some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken,
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent upon a peak in Darien.
Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades .He can be reached at email@example.com