Ramadan originally meant “great heat,” from the pre-Islamic solar calendar. This month was sacred in the pre-Islamic Arabic tradition and was a month of truce.
Rabat – Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim lunar year and the only one mentioned by name in the Qur’an. It is intrinsically linked to the fourth of the five pillars of Islam, obligatory fasting or sawm.
Before the Prophet Muhammed and his companions were forced to flee Mecca and settle in Medina, Muslims practiced only non-compulsory fasts.
It was not until the year 2 AH (623 A.D.) that a series of verses in sura 2 (verses 183 to 187) required Muslims to fast throughout the month of Ramadan and laid down the basic rules of this rite.
What Ramadan means
Ramadan originally meant “great heat,” an image taken from the pre-Islamic solar calendar. This month was sacred in the pre-Islamic Arabic tradition and was a month of truce.
While the month of Ramadan is the month of abstinence, this month is also a good opportunity to question the “basis and the foundations” of Islamic spiritual practice.
Above all, it is a time of solidarity and sharing. Islam is not a dogmatic religion. Ramadan is above all a “vision of the heart” that allows man to return to the center of himself.
The fasting of Ramadan leads man to make a constant effort to fight his weaknesses and passions, to constantly improve, to become totally humanized.
The principle of fasting is linked to self-control. It is the affirmation of man’s will and freedom in relation to himself and his immediate desire to satisfy his basic needs.
It is also a bond of solidarity with the hungry, who must be helped to escape from their situation of destitution and misery.
Ramadan is the month of sharing, moving towards the other who is not from the same social milieu, origin, or religion as oneself. Muslims break the fast at nightfall, and should not swallow everything they can but break the silence and the bread, share a moment of conviviality with family and friends or in associations, mosques, restaurants, and cafes.
Why is there a fast?
Many ancient civilizations and religions imposed on their followers a few days of fasting per year. Why? Was it mere superstition, or was there some use for the practice?
We live in a time when every citizen, rich or poor, can have access to education. Moreover, our governments are not obliged to impose on us the practice of our spiritual duties. That is why we may question whether this ancient duty of fasting is still in the interests of society.
All Muslims should objectively study this since not only reason, but also the Qur’an, the very foundation of Islam, enjoins them to do so.
Indeed, there is not a single one of the spiritual duties imposed by the Qur’an that is not accompanied by a call for reflection, for meditation, so that man may discover that it is in his interest to fulfil it.
The Qur’an repeatedly exhorts us not to follow blindly the customs of our ancestors but to think for ourselves, so that man may be justly and personally responsible for his actions.
Since man is both body and spirit, the exclusive pursuit of body or spirit will destroy the equilibrium of the individual. The true interest of man requires harmony between body and soul.
Ramadan fasting, both horizontal and vertical
The practice of fasting during Ramadan is of great importance in the religious life of Muslims, as much for the rigor it implies as for the spiritual perception of such asceticism. Even more than prayer, Ramadan fasting brings into play a twofold aspect of religiosity: Collective societal participation, a fully horizontal dimension, and the individual commitment of the faster to God, a fully vertical dimension.
Thus, by “fasting Ramadan,” the Muslim is in step with his community, a simple reality which should not make him lose sight of fasting as a purely spiritual process.
Just as we balance the weight of obligation and the sincerity of the impulse of faith in performing prayers, we are expected to ask ourselves about the Qur’anic point of view on fasting in Ramadan as an obligation.
Finally, we recall the Ramadan fast has the particularity of being devoted to the celebration of the Qur’an, the intrinsic key to spiritual openness.
As a pillar, the fasting of Ramadan is a divine obligation. From this obligatory character, Islam has made many accommodations in view of the physical difficulty of fasting for one month.
Children, the sick, pregnant women, the elderly, and travellers are traditionally exempt from fasting.
What holds our attention is the balance between obedience and the deep spiritual impulse fasting implies. However, as the obligation to pray is a prescription of Islam and not of the Qur’an, it is expected the same will be true of Ramadan.
Between collective and elective, ritual and spiritual, what does the Qur’an say?
In the Qur’an, all the information on fasting in Ramadan is in a single chapter: sura 2, verses 183-187.
This thematic treatment of one of the Qur’anic lineaments of the proto-Islam is rare in the Qur’an. It can be assumed it testifies to the introduction of a practice that is completely new to Muslims. The information necessary for the fast is set forth in this chapter and is sufficient.
However, we must analyze only the verses 183-184 to consider the obligatory nature of the fast.
Verse 183 says, “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, may you fear piously!”
The sura is addressed here to Muslim believers without distinction, men and women.
If the verb “kataba” means “to prescribe” in the sense of a divine imperative, it should also have been an order of the same nature for “those who come before you.”
If this is so for Judaism, it is not so for Christianity. According to the Torah, Jews must “deny” themselves on Yom Kippur, which Jews have understood to mean a fast of 25 hours. Yom Kippur is the only obligatory fast; other fasting days in Judaism are optional.
On the other hand, no verse in the New Testament mentions an obligatory fast. Instead, fasting is a purifying and spiritual practice, so for Christians fasting is not an obligation.
The Catholic Lent fasting season is the 40 days before Easter. It commemorates Jesus’ retreat of 40 days in the desert, an allusion to the 40 years the Jewish people spent on Sinai during the Exodus from Egypt.
Lent obligations have changed greatly throughout history. In the Middle Ages, they included strict requirements for fasting and sexual abstinence. Today, only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday include a fasting proposal for adults. Like Ramadan, Lent is a time of prayer and sharing, but its religious origin is distinct.
This simple interreligious observation affirms it is false to declare that fasting “is prescribed/kutiba as it was prescribed/kutiba to those who came before you,” because Jews and Christians differ on this point.
Also, unless we assume the Master of Revelation does not know the religions referred to here, the verb kataba cannot be interpreted as an obligation but retains its original meaning “to recommend, to invite to.”
Let us note that if Christianity had thus undone the Jewish juridical formalism, Islam has reintroduced it, a line of conduct which is regularly found in the construction of Islam.
This is not speculation, and verse 184 confirms the non-obligatory character of the Ramadan fast. “Days are counted, but which of you is sick or travelling, then determine other days. And, as for those who could have, a redemption is incumbent upon them: the food of a poor man. And, who willingly does good, it is good for him, but fasting is better for you, if you only knew it!”
The true meaning of Ramadan
A very special place is given to the intention of the believer: thus, for fasting to be “accepted” and “validated” by God, it must be practiced with seriousness and devotion and not in a mechanical way.
The spiritual meaning of fasting, which aims at purifying, at detaching oneself from material goods, is fundamental.
It is also an opportunity to turn towards others and show love, altruism, and generosity towards those close to us.
Finally, Ramadan is the time when Muslims all over the world are in communion, gather in mosques, and turn their entire being to God, “the Merciful, the Compassionate.”
Muslims celebrate two fundamental feasts during the month of Ramadan: Laylat al-Qadr (“The Night of Destiny”) and Eid al-Fitr.
The night of destiny, usually towards the end of the month, is considered one of the holiest nights of the year and corresponds to the first night of the revelation of the Qur’an by the archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. On this occasion, many Muslims pray part or all of the night and gather in mosques.
Sura 2, 185-187 states, “The Koran was revealed during the month of Ramadan. It is a direction for men; a clear manifestation of the Direction and the Law. Whoever among you will see the new moon, will fast for the entire month. The one who is sick or the one who will then travel and fast for the same number of days. God wants the easy way out for you, he doesn’t, for you, duress. End this period of fasting; exalt the greatness of God who has led you … “
Eid al-Fitr is the festival at the end of Ramadan, the first day of the following lunar month, and is one of the biggest festivals in the entire Muslim world. Visits are made to relatives and friends, large meals are organized, gifts are offered to children and people dress in beautiful clothes. The last day of Ramadan is also an occasion to offer special alms (zakat al-fitr) for the needy.
Beyond the technical and purely physical aspects of fasting, Ramadan is also a month of deep piety and devotion. Many believers, sometimes less fervent during the rest of the year, take advantage of this occasion to go to the mosques and pray. Muslims are advised to recite the Qur’an in its entirety, at the rate of 1/30th per evening.
The soul’s goal in Ramadan
Feeding the soul is different than the body, and the quest for consciousness is an essential project of the soul. By its nature, it carries values and is nourished by ethics.
In its “association” with the body, the human soul is comparable to a rider on a horse. The rider is not the horse. But what is a rider without a horse? Our five senses are continually solicited by the body’s natural. This demand is pressing and continuous. It is capable of putting the soul to sleep, of diverting it from its project.
The Islamic system establishes five daily moments of respite, the Muslim prayers. It is a spiritual exercise with a coded ritual, the aim of which is to remind the soul of its spiritual project. The fasting of Ramadan is an exercise in this regard.
By abstaining from food, drink, and pleasure from sunrise to sunset, the Muslim faster thwarts the natural inclinations of his body. By refraining from speeches and superfluous initiatives, he practices disciplining his mind. He reaﬀirms his will, for he sees his impulses start and is prepared to stop and channel them.
As certain physical needs are sublimated and postponed, the fasting person becomes better available for spiritual experience. During this sacred month, the Muslim intensiﬁes his spiritual exercises. Meditation, recollection, and charity are his priorities.
Mealtime, the iftar, then sounds a victory. Neither dieting nor nightly shindig, the Ramadan fast is not a mortiﬁcation of the body. It is a month of intensive training, where the body is weakened, cut off from its sources of energy, and the spiritual entity is reinvigorated, nourished by acts of piety.
This is why the Qur’anic symbolism quotes ar-rayyan, one of the gates of paradise, specially reserved for fasters!
In several words of the Prophet of Islam, he affirmed “Whoever prays with faith and makes his personal assessment during this month will come out of his sins as pure as he was when his mother gave birth to him,” as found in Hadith 2179 of Sunan Al-Nasa’i, Kitab Us-Siyam.
Elsewhere, we read “If only my community knew what Ramadan is, they would have wished the whole year to be Ramadan,” from Al-Targhib wat-Tarhib, Kitab-Us-Sawm, At-Targhib Fi Siyyam Ramadan.
Giving alms in Ramadan
Ramadan, a month of privation from food and liquids and sexual acts during the day, is accompanied by paying $10 of alms per individual to fellow Muslims in difficulty, to enable them to celebrate with dignity eid al-fitr. Paying this modest sum is religiously obligatory for fasting to be accepted before God.
The “zakat al-fitr” is only a cultural form of donation to which is added the “zakat al-mal,” (a 2.5% tax levied on personal wealth above a certain threshold and paid to the needy, and the “sadaqa,” which is the current donation or almsgiving.
Every donation, however small, is returned by God to the giver. Literally, this Islamic vision of giving guarantees the social prosperity of a community in which all would give to all without anyone becoming individually impoverished.
The philosophical vision of giving in Islam goes even further: We only lose what we keep because God alone is the owner of the goods he grants us.
Giving is also spiritually enriching, and each sum granted by God and spent by the believer will give him a perpetual and uninterrupted divine reward which can be as much as 700 times the value of the gift, according to certain hadiths, depending on the intensity and the spiritual quality of the faith of the donor.
If the gift enriches the giver, it also purifies his assets always in the spiritual perspective defended by the Muslim religion. Almsgiving, the third pillar of Islam, is therefore of particular importance.
Ramadan in the hadith
The Prophet Muhammad (peace and salvation be upon him) said: “When the month of Ramadan comes, every demon is in chains. All the gates of Hell are closed and all the gates of Paradise are open.” He goes on to say: “O You who wish to do good, come forth! O you who wish to do evil, cease! This call is renewed every night and every night God saves from Hell a number of Believers,” as reported by At-Tirmidhi.
The Prophet (pbuh) emphasized through several hadiths the merits of fasting: “Fasting preserves from Hell like a shield in battle,” as reported by Imam Ahmad, and further says: “Whoever fasts in the month of Ramadan with faith, relying on the Divine reward, his sins will be forgiven him,” as reported by Al-Bukhari and Muslim.
Abdullah Ibn ‘Umar reports that the envoy of God (pbuh) said: “The fast and the Qur’an will intercede for the servant on the Day of Resurrection. Fasting will say: ‘O My Lord! I have prevented him from feeding himself and satisfying his desire, so take me as an intercessor in his favor.’ And the Qur’an will say: ‘I have kept him from sleeping at night, so take me as his intercessor.’ And they will intercede,” reported by Imam Ahmad.
The Prophet (pbuh) also said: “The invocation of him who fasts will be heard whenever he breaks his fast (in the evening),” as reported by Ibn Maja. He added: “He who fasts one day for the love of Allah will be removed from the fire by a distance of 70 years,” as Bukhari and Muslim reported.
The Prophet further indicated that God, to Him be the power and glory, has said, “Every act of the son of Adam belongs to him, except the fasting which belongs to Me, and it is I who give its reward, for the fasting servant forsakes his food and desire for Me. The fasting man has two joys: when he breaks his fast, he rejoices, and when he meets His Lord, he rejoices that he has fasted. The breath of the fasting man is more fragrant with God than the smell of musk,” the Hadith Qudsi reported by Muslim.
The Prophet (pbuh), when referring to Ramadan, stressed: “This is a month in which you are the Guests of Allah and His honored ones.” And he further added: “The best charity is the one performed during the month of Ramadan,” as reported by At-tirmidhi.
Ibn ‘Abbas said: “The Prophet of Allah was the most generous of men, especially in the month of Ramadan, when he met the Angel Gabriel with the revelation and taught him the Qur’an. His generosity was uninterrupted like the continuous breath of the beneficial wind,” according to al-Bukhari 1/5; 3/33; 4/137.