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 many avoidable mundane compulsions, helping them remember the poor, give up bad habits and get closer to their faith. The most prominent among these spiritual fasting customs is Ramadan. Fasting is practiced in most faiths within their own unique contexts.
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 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
Fasting during Ramadan is obligatory for all able-bodied Muslims from when they reach the age of religious observance. Those exempt from fasting are those who are sick, the elderly, those suffering from a mental illness, those who are travelling long distance and women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or menstruating. However, the exemption has a caveat that those who skip the fast have to make up for the lost equivalent 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, in Ramadan the word of supplicants goes up to God, more vigorously and efficaciously than at any other time.
The most significant hallmark of the month of Ramadan is the Night of Destiny, Night of Measure or Night of Value: 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 a 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 fast is a reminder of the fragility of human life and is meant to foster a relationship with God.
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.
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.
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. Think of the uprooted who have become refugees traveling through Eastern Africa, walking for miles on foot in brutal temperatures with hot, dust-filled wind blowing in their faces. She’ll thank God if they all make it alive to the feeding center. The baby she is carrying no longer gets milk from her breast; she feels him shrinking in her arms as she walks. The little hands of her other small children clutch at her as they patiently trail 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 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 exquisite tasty food, 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.
Ramadan Kareem! Ramadan Mubarak!
(The author is a regular contributor to this newspaper and can be reached at: [email protected])