Taqwa, Ramadan and the Quran: The Triangular Link of Our Ethical System
Most of us have encountered many months of Ramadan in our life. Unfortunately, it is a reality that our lives most often have not been touched or affected by this month of fasting, even though every ceremonial aspect of Islam – that is, Ibadah in a limited sense – has special purpose and significance. Indeed, there is no aspect of Islam that is without a purpose or significance. It is either the lack of understanding or negligence to understand that renders our Ibadah into mere rituals. One reason that explains the stagnation of our individual and collective Muslim life is our weakness in building our life in light of the “purpose and significance” of Ibadah.
There is purpose behind every single act of creation of God. “Not without purpose did We create heaven and earth and all between!” [Quran 38:27]. In the context of this purposeful creation, God desires to see the entire human life on the foundation of Ibadah. “I have only created Jinns and human beings, that they may offer their Ibadah (to Me).” [Quran 51:56] If this purpose or goal-orientation does not affect our lives, then stagnation is unavoidable.
Ibadah is for the entire life of a human being. It is critical to our understanding that there are five pillars of Islam – Shahadah (witnessing), Salat (prayer), Zakat, Siyam (fasting) and Hajj. It is on these pillars the Islamic way of life rests. This way of life derives its dynamism from these five pillars. Whenever these five pillars are alienated from the overall context of human life and its purpose, Ibadah is bound to be nothing more than rituals.
Such Ibadah does not carry the golden touch. The hue of such Ibadah cannot help the environment to bloom in its full color. One does not hear through such Ibadah the inspiring melody of the Aakhirah-bound life.
The main theme of this article is Taqwa (God-consciousness) – a theme that has a triangular connection in terms of our ethical and moral system.
First, God has sent the final revelation – the Quran – for the guidance of humankind. Hence, the Quran is the guidance (Huda’) for us. “This is the Book – in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who are (Muttaqoon) God-conscious.” [Quran 2:2]. Therefore, the Quran is not merely for accumulating bits of rewards (thawab), but for using as comprehensive guidance for human life and for solving the problems in our Aakhirah-bound life in this world. But to make use of the Quran as guidance, one needs some basic capital, and that capital is Taqwa (God-consciousness). That is why the Quran is the guidance, but effectively only for those who are (Muttoqoon) (God-conscious).
Secondly, God has not only revealed to us His expectation about us, but He has also informed us about how to fulfill His expectation. It is for this reason God has not only required a minimum level of Taqwa, but also has shown us the way to attain and improve our Taqwa. The five pillars of Islam have five distinctive, but complementary roles. Achieving Taqwa is intimately related to one of those five pillars: Siyam (fasting). “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may attain Taqwa (God-consciousness).” [Quran 2:183]
Thirdly, As fasting is not merely a ritual, attaining Taqwa is not also a pursuit without a purpose. Thus, the third of the triangular link of ethical/moral system is the special month of Ramadan, which God has designated for the prescribed month of fasting. The significance of this link has been clearly identified in the Quran. “Ramadan is the (month) in which we sent down the Quran, as a guide to humankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (between right and wrong). Se every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting….” [Quran 2:185]
The above-quoted verse helps establish the triangular link. God has revealed the Quran for our guidance. A basic prerequisite of benefiting from the divine revelation in the Quran is a minimum level of Taqwa. As a means and method of attaining Taqwa, God has chosen fasting as one of the five pillars of Islam, and He has chosen that very month as the month of fasting which is intimately related to the revelation of the Quran.
Therefore, to be a Muslim or to believe in Islam inevitably implies that, upon due inquiry and due diligence, we should accept the Quran as a complete, indivisible, final and balanced source of guidance for our life and sincerely endeavor to subject our entire life to this source of guidance. Also, to effectively benefit from the Quran, we have to have consistently increasing Taqwa. Hence, we should welcome this month of fasting, Ramadan, as a means to attaining and improving our Taqwa.
How fasting enhances Taqwa will be a subject of another article. However, the noble Prophet has clearly and beautifully explained the significance of fasting in numerous Hadith, such as: “God has no interest in any person’s abstention from eating and drinking, if that person does not give up lying and dishonest/indecent actions” [narrated by Hadhrat Abu Hurrah in Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 3, #127]. One should note that the benefit of such avoidance of lying and dishonest actions is not limited to Muslims alone. In another Hadith, we have been warned about the possible ritualization of Salat (prayer) and Siyam (fasting). Hadhrat Abu Hurairah narrated: “There are some people who fast, but their fasting is nothing more than abstention from food, and there are many who pray (at night), but whose praying is no more than being awake at night” [Musnad Ahmad, Vol. 2, #9698].
Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that the teachings of Islam are so unambiguous and that every aspect of Islam has a purpose within a unified and comprehensive way of life, our Muslim identity and life are so deviated. That is why the month of fasting comes and goes in our life, yet the purpose for which God has made fasting incumbent in the month of Ramadan – the link between our Ibadah and life, on one hand, and that purpose of fasting, on the other – does not develop. The resulting condition in our individual lives then is reflected in our collective life as well.
As Muslims, not every one of us but, many do fast. However, for even those who fast, it seems that the critical connection between our life and ever-increasing Taqwa rarely is made. Often a gap remains even in the life of those who sincerely and meticulously perform the ritualistic aspects of Ramadan. This gap is in terms of our failure, both at the individual and collective level, to utilize the Quran as Huda (guide) in our life and to embrace the month of fasting as a period to build and improve our commitment to take this guide and use it to channel our Aakhirah-bound life to a dynamic, constructive, and practical direction.
The Quran has not been revealed because people will believe without due diligence and then believe in it and show their reverence by printing it in the form of a decorative artwork, and then wrapping in velvet fabric would place it in an unreachable shelf close to the roof, and occasionally recite without understanding the meaning to search the key to heaven. The real purpose of recitation is to read, learn, and understand that should lead to implementation of the teachings of the Quran in our full spectrum of life.
The time that is especially important for us to intimately understand the above-mentioned connection is the month of fasting. It is to materialize and practice the divine guidance we need Taqwa. Yet, most of us are either not aware or caring about the link between fasting and Taqwa. Even many of among us who are conscious of this connection neglect our responsibility to recognize and accept Taqwa as the foundation of building our entire life in light of the Quran. Those who understand the triangular connection can also easily understand the consequence of ignorance about and negligence toward this connection.
In the context of the breakdown of moral and ethical fabric of the contemporary Muslim society, it is important for us to recognize that the solution is intimately related to the functional link between Taqwa and our moral and practical values. There is no hope for our true liberation, both at the individual and the collective level, until we can bridge the gap between our words and action and solve our problem of lack of integrity of purpose and behavior. We need a fundamental overhaul of our values. It is not that we as Muslims are not familiar with such values. However, a great deal of ignorance and misunderstanding exists in regard to the proper place of such values in our life.
It is also a basic failure of those among us who are educated and/or scholars, especially from the religious viewpoint, to present this importance of the value and ethical system to our masses. This is evidenced by the fact that one can observe the contents and focus of the Jumuah Khutbah (Friday Prayer Sermon) where so much is mentioned about prayer and other aspects of Islam, but in my life I haven’t heard one Friday sermon emphasizing the importance literacy or developing good relationship with everyone including non-Muslims.
Let us ignore the case of those who are secular (in some cases, anti-religion). Ignorance of or negligence toward religion in general on their part is understandable. In different societies there are many types of people who are secular or even anti-religion. Even in our Muslim societies, there are “secular Muslims” – that is, essentially “anti-religion Muslims.” It is such a ridiculous as well as pathetic situation. But we will deal with this aspect on another occasion.
The reality is that secularism, atheism, agnosticism, nationalism, socialism, or capitalism does not give us such as an effective, balanced, comprehensive, and coherent framework of moral and ethical standard that in aggregate is beneficial for us. One can’t escape in this context the question that how in the world then the Muslim societies are so messed up. Some may also raise the question, what then is the secret of the dazzling success of the West? Is their ethical foundation and moral values ineffective or useless? We have to analyze these questions at two levels.
At one level we have to deal with those who either are not fanatical against a central role of religion in human life or do not have a strong position on this issue one way or another. They generally have a different perspective about religion. Then there are those who would like to see religion as central to human life, among whom Muslims are supposed to be included. The discussion at the first level is important, but its scope is different. Our focus in this article is the second group of people.
Those who identify themselves as Muslims have a well-defined set of ideals and principles as well as a framework of moral and ethical standard. There is no need for or room of blind faith in Islam. Islam doesn’t recognize or dignify blind faith and that is why it educates us in no ambiguous terms that to believe in Islam means that we should embrace Islam based on knowledge and understand and in its totality – that is, its philosophy, vision, values and laws. And if we do accept Islam, we should make a sincere and committed effort to organize our entire life according to Islam. We may have doubts or vacillation about it. Islam fully recognizes our liberty and invites us to the same effect to work toward removing such doubts or vacillation. If such doubts or vacillation cannot be overcome or resolved, why should we accept Islam? What is really then the need to believe in Islam? What is the reason or benefit of such faith and identity? What is the meaning and value of being a Muslim with such doubt, hesitation or ambivalence?
Therefore, we need to be clear and honest to ourselves that those who have such ambivalence about Islam neither they will benefit from Islam, nor will they benefit the Muslims or humanity at large. Let us now briefly discuss the case of those who sincerely believe in Islam.
What is the reason behind the moral breakdown of our society, the majority of which are intimately identified with Islam. What is the explanation of the fragility and decadence of such society?
Whatever views we hold about the Western societies and whether we have any interest or not in engaging ourselves in a comparative analysis, there is a clear criteria for us as Muslims to evaluate our problems, and that criteria is Islam.
Let us ask ourselves a few more pertinent questions? Why has our society become so unstable? Is there any solution of this in Islam? As Muslims are we facilitators or hindrance in this situation? What is the reason behind widespread poverty, deprivation, exploitation and oppression in our society? Is Islam a failure in this case; or, do we have these problems due to Islam; or, is it that it is because of us these problems persist? Why corruption, bribery and violent conflict so rampant in our society? Should we place the blame for these as well on Islam? Should we ignore our worldly problems and cherish our success in the life hereafter by attributing these problems to destiny?
Why the control and authority in our societies in the hands of individuals, parties, or groups that have absolutely no integrity? Is Islam’s teaching unambiguous in these regards? Why the precious infants in various parts of the Muslim world have to die prematurely due to malnutrition or diseases? Why do we still bear the curse of illiteracy? In the context of all these, what really is the power and benefit of our Iman (belief), Amal (action), and Taqwa (God-consciousness)? Does Islam then teach us to abandon this world in favor the life hereafter? Do we really expect to represent Islam to the humanity while we are humiliated, subjugated, dependent, or problem-ridden on one hand, and a laughing stock of the world as we seek the aid, recognition, and status from the West? Let us ignore others, but is there really any effective answer from the vast number of pious Muslims – who devoutly perform prayer and fasting – to all these problems?
Only God knows as to which month of Ramadan will be the last one in our life. Yet, if we are to deal with the problems mentioned above, it is vitally important that we understand Taqwa’s triangular connection based on the month of Ramadan, fasting, and the Quran as the guidance. This connection should help us understand and motivate better that Taqwa, Ramadan, and the Quran are not for a ritual-oriented life, but a value-based, action-oriented life for us, which is also for the betterment of the humanity. Let us welcome this blessed month of Ramadan with that spirit and awareness, and channel this Aakhirah-bound life to the desired direction by enhancing our Taqwa that would help us build a dynamic Islamic life.
Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq is an associate professor of economics and finance at Upper Iowa University.
The author welcomes volunteers who would like to translate this piece into their native language.