The lunar month of Ramadan has come. It is the blessed month in which the Qur'an - the Muslim Holy Scripture -- was revealed:
"The month of Ramadan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur'an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey - then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful." (Qur'an 2:185)
As can be seen from the above Qur'anic verse, all able-bodied Muslims who are either not sick or on a journey are required to fast in this holy month.
The word "Ramadan" comes from the Arabic root word for "parched thirst" and "sun-baked ground." This year, for many Muslims living either in the territories that are located around the equator or north of the equator, Ramadan has fallen in the spring, thus allowing them to experience hunger and thirst like so many others that have so little to feed and drink on a daily basis. Such a firsthand experience is bound to teach him/her to become more humble and charitable. Through increased charity, Muslims develop feelings of generosity and good-will toward others. He/she also learns to be thankful for the bounties of God that he/she has been able to enjoy all these years.
The Qur'an makes it also very clear that the main purpose of fasting is to make the person pious or righteous: 'O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you so that you may become al-Muttaqun (or attain Taqwa).'' (Qur'an 2:183)
The Arabic word Taqwa has multiple meanings - e.g., piety, righteousness, guarding against evil, warding off evil, and self-restraint. As to the characteristics of a pious person (Muttaqi) the Qur'an says that beside believing in Oneness of God (Allah) and performing prayer, the person must fulfill his/her social obligations by spending money and honoring his/her trust. (Qur'an 2: 2-3)
The word Taqwa is also used synonymously with the word al-Birr, meaning righteousness. Consider, for instance, the Qur'anic verse: 'It is not righteousness (al-birr) that ye turn your faces towards east or west; but it is righteousness - to believe in God and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfill the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the muttaqun (the pious).' (Qur'an 2:177)
Righteousness leads to God-consciousness which endows the person (the Muttaqi) to become aware of the presence of Allah (God) in every moment of his/her life.
In his famous book Kimiya-e Sa'dat, Imam al-Ghazzali (r) tells the story of a certain Shaykh [Junayd al-Baghdadi (r)] who favored one of his disciples over others because of the latter's God-consciousness. Other disciples obviously were jealous about the Shaykh's favoritism. One day to prove the point, the Shaykh gave each disciple a fowl to kill it in a place where no one could see him. All the disciples returned after killing their fowls, except the favored disciple. The Shaykh inquired why he had returned with the live fowl. The disciple replied, "I could not find a place where Allah would not see me." His God-consciousness (Taqwa) did not allow him to be heedless of Allah's presence. The Shaykh then told his other disciples: "Now you know this youth's real rank; he has attained to the constant remembrance of Allah."
Fasting increases devotion, and brings a Muslim closer to the Creator. It creates the recognition that everything we have in this life is a blessing from Him. It teaches self-control or -restraint, and thereby, good manners, good speech, and good habits.
Great merits and rewards - both physical and spiritual - can be drawn from fasting. As noted by Dr. Shahid Athar, M.D., "The physiological effect of fasting includes lowering of blood sugar, lowering of cholesterol and lowering of the systolic blood pressure. In fact, Ramadan fasting would be an ideal recommendation for the treatment of mild to moderate, stable, non-insulin diabetes, obesity, and essential hypertension."
As stated in the Qur'an (33:35), Allah promises forgiveness and vast reward for a fasting person. In a well-known hadith, Muhammad (S), the Messenger of Allah, said, "Allah, the Almighty and Master of Honor, says: 'All actions of a person are for himself, except the case of his fasting which is exclusively for Me and I shall pay (recompense) for him for the same.' The fast is a shield (against vice and the fire of Hell). Therefore when anyone of you is fasting he should abstain from loose talk and avoid verbosity and noisy exchange of words." [Bukhari and Muslim: Abu Hurayrah]
And when one combines such meritorious deeds like prayer, fasting and charity (three of the five pillars of Islam) during the month of Ramadan, Allah promises immense rewards. Muhammad (S) said: "Whoever establishes prayers during the nights of Ramadan faithfully out of sincere faith and hoping to attain Allah's rewards (not for showing off), all his past sins will be forgiven." [Bukhari: Abu Hurayrah]
To a Muslim, it is this state of God-consciousness, attainable through fasting -- for surely, the evils of the nafs (ego, evil-self, etc.) cannot be tamed without fasting, which is learned in the blessed month of Ramadan. It is at this stage that a person truly becomes Allah's servant ('abd) for whom He says in the Qur'an: 'When My servants ask thee (Muhammad) concerning Me, I am indeed close (to them): I listen to the prayer of every suppliant when he calleth on Me: Let them also, with a will, Listen to My call, and believe in Me: That they may walk in the right way.' (Quran 2: 186)
May this Ramadan lay the foundation stone for all of us to attain righteousness!
Dr Habib Siddiqui has authored 10 books. His latest book - Devotional Stories - is now available from A.S. Noordeen, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.