TODAY over a billion Muslims around the globe, having sighted the first crescent of the moon, will begin to fast in the Holy Month of Ramadan.
From just before the first thread of dawn to just after sunset, they will be compelled to abstain from food, drink, sex, vainglorious talk and gossip. At the same time, they will be obliged to remember those less fortunate than themselves.
The Ramadan charity – or fitrah – is an essential component of the lunar month, and those who’ve fasted will have to ensure that a poor person will be given enough alms to eat for a day.
Those unable to fast – such as diabetics, heart patients, the elderly and the ill – will have to pay a fidya, or compensation.
For those who cannot pay fitrah or fidya, a payment of what they can afford suffices. This is based on an Islamic maxim says that faith is judged according to intention, and also that believers should not be taxed beyond their endurance.
Apart from the known physical benefits of fasting, Ramadan is regarded as the most spiritual month of the Muslim calendar. Fasting was practised by all the Biblical prophets, and it was institutionalised as a pillar of Islamic belief by Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century.
Ramadan is derived from the ancient Arabic word “Ramada”, which refers to the scorching heat of the Arabian Desert. According to classical scholars, the hunger and the thirst of Ramadan burns away ego, pride and arrogance.
But what Ramadan commemorates more than anything else is the arrival of the Qur’an, the divine constitution of Islam. This was when a young Muhammad, enjoying a solitary retreat in a mountain cave above the city of Mecca, was visited by the Archangel Gabriel in the form of a man.
It was the 27th night of the month of Ramadan, and already spooked by mysterious voices addressing him in the name of peace, Muhammad was embraced by Gabriel. The Prophet was to later relate that he felt as if the air was being crushed out of his body.
“Read! Read in the name of Your Lord,” said Gabriel to an astounded Muhammad, an unlettered man. This would be Islam’s first Revelation. Later on, as the Qur’an’s 114 chapters began to flow from his tongue, it would become his unique prophetic miracle.
But for the Prophet Muhammad, an already overpowering moment would become even more emotionally overwhelming when Gabriel would transform into his heavenly shape after the Revelation.
Traditions relate that Gabriel’s luminescent, jewel-studded wings covered the skies, stretching from one horizon to the other. Terrified out of his wits, a quaking Muhammad ran down the mountain into the arms of his wife, Khadijah, and asked her to cover him with a blanket.
Khadijah – who was Muhammad’s single partner for over 20 years – was destined to become not only his first convert, but the Prophet’s greatest comforter and Islam’s most celebrated matriarch.
Further significance is added to Ramadan because in its last ten nights, on odd dates, there is the hidden secret of the “Night of Power”, a night that promises spiritual insight and munificence for those who can discover it.
“The Night of Power is better than a thousand months,” says the Qur’an.
As Ramadan is the month of the Qur’an, mosques from east to west, and from north to south, will be reciting it during special evening – or tarawih – prayers.
The recital of the Qur’an from cover to cover in Ramadan, its text unchanged since its words fell on the Prophet’s tongue, is probably one of the greatest acts of collective remembrance on the face of the earth.
The Holy Month, as we’ve already said, imposes social responsibility upon the Muslim. During Ramadan a Muslim’s conduct towards others has to be beyond reproach; fasting is regarded as an act of devotion for which the Creator has reserved his own special rewards.
It is said that one of the Creator’s greatest joys is watching his subjects break their daily fast; and it is also said that those will gain spiritual benefit who offer food to guests, travellers, orphans and the underprivileged.
Imam Ghazali, a great 12th century scholar, once proclaimed that if a fasting man did not modify his behaviour, his soul would be as good as unconscious. His abstention from food and drink would be mere hunger – in other words, his fasting would be worthless.
Fasting in Ramadan, which is ordained to move a Muslim towards compassion, is a collective activity based on family, community and an optimism that one’s fast will be accepted by the Creator.
It is precisely this communal activity, this mass introspection as it were, that gives Ramadan its devotional impetus. And in Africa, a continent which is over 60% Muslim, there are many things for South African Muslims to consider.
In sub-Saharan Africa we are undeniably the basement people of the world; poverty, exploitation, famine, climate change and conflict are our daily realities. And very frequently – not even a stone’s throw from our groaning tables – there are hungry, cold people shivering in unheated shacks.
And as the first pangs of hunger and thirst gnaw at our stomachs this month, it will be the moral duty of us all to empathise – even if for 12 hours – the lot of those millions in Africa who have to survive on less than a dollar a day.
Ramadan is indeed a fleeting, but frightening, reminder of our human frailty on the face of this earth.