“The month of Ramadan is the month in which the Quran was sent down, a guidance for the people, and clear verses of guidance and criterion.” Quran: [Chapter 2, 183]
The fourth pillar of Islam is Sawm, or fasting in the month of Ramadan. Fasting is also practiced in many other religions and is mentioned in the Torah and Bible as well as in Hindu scriptures. Observant Christians fast during Lent by giving up a particular food. Hindus fast on certain days of the week or on holidays, and for Jews, the most important day of fasting is on Yom Kippur, which lasts a little over a day.
Ramadan is the 9th month in the Islamic Calendar. Because Ramadan follows the lunar calendar, it rotates through the seasons, moving back around eleven days each year. Last year, Ramadan started in mid August 22, 2009 and this year, the Islamic Society of North America, declared Ramadan to begin on August 11, 2010.
Muslims fast from dawn to sunset, abstaining from food and drink during this time. The aim of the fast is to weaken the physical desire or self and allow for the purification of the soul. It’s a process of spiritual purification and strengthening of willpower to carry us through the year. Muslims break their fast with dates and water followed by the evening prayer and dinner.
It is customary for families to attend the local mosque after breaking fast for special nightly prayers called taraweeh. The entire Qur’an, 114 chapters or 6,000 verses are recited by the end of Ramadan in a melodious recitation, called tajweed.
A Month of Blessings
Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings taught Muslims “Ramadan has come to you. (It is) a month of blessing, in which God covers you with blessing, for He sends down Mercy, decreases sins and answers prayers. In it, God looks at your competition (in good deeds), and boasts about you to His angels. So show God goodness from yourselves, for the unfortunate one is he who is deprived in (this month) of the mercy of God, the Mighty, the Exalted.”
Muslims are reminded to embrace this opportunity and receive the blessed month of Ramadan with gratitude, repentance, sincerity, steadfastness and fervor.
Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings, addressed his companions on the day before Ramadan began, saying, “Oh people! A great month has come over you; a blessed month; a month in which is a night better than a thousand months; month in which God has made it compulsory upon you to fast by day, and voluntary to pray by night. Whoever draws nearer (to God) by performing any of the (optional) good deeds in (this month) shall receive the same reward as performing an obligatory deed at any other time, and whoever discharges an obligatory deed in (this month) shall receive the reward of performing seventy obligations at any other time. It is the month of patience, and the reward of patience is Heaven.”
A Month of Mercy, Forgiveness and Salvation
The first ten days of the month is an emphasis on seeking mercy. The second ten is an emphasis on seeking forgiveness and the final ten, salvation.
Many view Ramadan as a boot camp for Muslims, where everyone strives to purify the soul together. Teachers will remind Muslims that God should also see from us on the first night of Ramadan sincere remorse and genuine repentance from all the wrong actions of our lives up to this point.
Allah shows mercy to those who are merciful. Mercy is not just for Muslims, but this should extend to people of other faiths. In addition to this we should have mercy in our hearts for all of His creation and have a sincere desire for the guidance of all morally responsible beings on the surface of the Earth.
Teachers also emphasize to forgive everyone so that we can prepare our hearts for God’s gaze and seek His forgiveness. Muslims are encouraged to follow the example of Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings, and sincerely forgive everyone that transgressed upon us as well as request forgiveness from anyone for any wrong we may have done to them.
During Ramadan our teachers have advised us not to do anything with our limbs that would be a cause of sorrow for the heart of our beloved Prophet, upon him peace and blessings.
This is also a time for expressing our true state, which is brokenness and neediness for God. This is the real meaning of prostration in Islam.
These spiritual teachings are important as Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings, taught Muslims that fasting is not just about hunger and thirst. It’s about re-dedicating ourselves to God and becoming conscious and grateful of God’s enabling grace upon us. This is the month of self evaluation and rebuilding community and family ties. It is an opportunity from the Divine to aid us in our struggles to perfect our character in every way. How did we do since last Ramadan? What milestones and goals will we work towards next year? What have we done for the less fortunate? What are we going to do? Did we remember them in our prayer at least? Will we not even make a prayer for them this Ramadan?
A Month of Charity
Muslims believe that Ramadan is also the month of charity and generosity, and a month in which a believer’s sustenance is increased. It is also the month that helps and trains Muslims to be compassionate for those less fortunate than us. Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings, used to be at his most generous in Ramadan.
Muslims are taught to make the intention to perform extra acts of devotion and worship therein, including additional mid night prayer (qiyam) and end of night prayer (tahajjud), and abundant charity to the poor and needy. The last ten days of Ramadan, for the aspiring souls is a time of seclusion (itikaf) wherein Muslims spend the entire night at the Mosque spending the whole night till dawn in prayer and worship.
Those who are sick or unable to fast, such as elderly, pregnant or nursing women, travelers, and of course children, are exempt from fasting. However, they do participate in the spiritual part of Ramadan, rejuvenating their faith and growing closer to God through extra worship, feeding the poor, charity and other good deeds.
I will be sharing voices of various people in the coming days in a series of blogs called: Window into Ramadan. For anyone interested Celebrate Mercy will have a global live webcast on the 11th, 13th, 14th and 22nd to give everyone glimpse into Ramadan with the most influential Muslim scholars, artists and performers. I invite you to register to get a glimpse into Ramadan.