When Muslims around the globe begin to fast this Ramadan upon sighting the crescent of the moon, it will be the 1,434th consecutive year that the community has honoured this sacred lunar month.
Ramadan is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith, and commemorates the revelation of the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book. This happened when a young Arab called Muhammad, already recognised as being one of the most trustworthy of his tribe, was practising a spiritual retreat in a mountain cave overlooking Mecca.
On the 27th night the archangel Gibril approached him. Making him recite the first words of the Qur’an, he’d informed Muhammad that he was a prophet. Terrified out of his wits, the young man had fled down the mountain to seek the solace of his wife, Khadijah.
Ramadan is a time when healthy Muslims are encouraged to indulge in physical austerity, soulful introspection and compassion. From just before dawn until dusk, no adult may eat, drink, indulge in profane behaviour or enjoy sexual contact.
Fasting, say Islamic scholars, is a reigning in of the senses to draw closer to God – the only one who knows its spiritual rewards. To this effect, one fasts with one’s eyes, tongue and ears as much as one does with one’s stomach. The foot has to be curbed and the hand has to be restrained.
A person who does not curb all his senses during Ramadan is just going hungry and thirsty, argues Imam al-Ghazali, a famous 12th century Sufi and polymath. He warns that measure has to be taken even when breaking the fast, as “nothing is more repugnant to God than a belly stuffed full of lawful food”.
Ramadan – which is either 29 or 30 days depending upon the moon – is traditionally divided into three phases: the first third represents mercy for those in it, the second signifies forgiveness for those fasting and the third heralds freedom from the fire for those who have been successful.
The pangs of hunger and thirst – the word “Ramada” means to “burn away” – are said to engender a higher God-consciousness, and an elevation of the soul leading to an attitude of tolerance and humility.
Another effect is an empathetic awareness of those around one. A hallmark of Ramadan is its obligatory charity called “fitrah”. This charity, the cost of a meal, has to be disbursed to someone less fortunate by the end of the month.
The prophet Muhammad, who introduced the fitrah, was said to be at his most generous during Ramadan. It is regarded as the most meritorious time for Muslims to feed the poor, clothe the underprivileged and to give to charity.
Whilst Muslims have fasted in Ramadan for over 1,000 years, it’s interesting to note that the tradition of fasting is as old as time. The Qur’an itself intones that fasting has been prescribed for the Islamic faith “as it was prescribed for others before you”.
The Qur’an is not too specific here, but historically, it does clearly indicate that our forefathers used fasting as an instrument of spirituality. Evidence reveals that Aboriginal shamans used to fast before important rituals. Hinduism, whose origins are also ancient, discusses fasting as a deprivation of the sensory organs to achieve divine realisation.
The Buddha fasted on his path to Nirvana, learning important lessons about moderation in the process. Ancient Egyptian priests used to fast 40 days before the festival of Osiris. The Old and New Testaments mention fasting at least 30 times, and Sacred Law surrounding the Islamic fast shares similarities to the Jewish.
Then there is the established tradition that revered Biblical figures such as Jesus, John the Baptist, Moses and Daniel fasted, as did Jonah’s community in the Babylonian city of Nineveh.
Apart from its evident spiritual rewards, medical science has discovered that fasting – if not practiced to extremes – affords great physical benefit too. Physicians say that fasting gives the body time to rest. Vital organs such as the liver and kidneys, the “septic tanks” of the human body, are given time to de-toxify and rejuvenate.
Of course, as Islamic scholars and doctors advise, fasting is only for the healthy. Those with health problems are not permitted to fast. But here even the chronically diabetic, the aged, or those with heart complaints are given the opportunity to pay a compensatory amount – the “fidya”.
Indeed, the unique thing about Ramadan is that it is a global affair observed by 2.2 billion human beings, one-fifth of humanity. One may not know exactly what another person is going through, but the shared understanding acts as a great motivator and unifying experience.
In fact, the biggest dynamic of Ramadan, without doubt, is its social one. Families leave their beds in the early hours of the morning to eat and to pray together; at sunset they gather again at the supper table, often with guests, as there is believed to be great reward in helping others break their fast.
Many will spend the month engrossed in reading the Qur’an’s 114 chapters and over 6,000 verses from cover to cover. Islamic radio stations will be on full volume, and mosques will be ablaze with light as people attend the special evening prayers.
During Ramadan the socially beneficial dynamic is the fitrah. Whilst it is incumbent only on those who can afford it, even if only one billion Muslims disburse their R30 (the recommended fitrah payment for 2013) R30 billion in charity circulates in the space of one month.
Imam al-Ghazali says Ramadan is a special trust between the faster and God, and likens Ramadan to a seed with an external husk and an inner kernel. The Muslim, he writes, has a choice: to be content with mere ritual – the husk – or to embrace its inner dimension – the kernel – and to enjoy the fruits of infinite joy.