FOR the 40-year old son of Abdullah, a member of the noble Quraish tribe, his annual month-long retreat in a mountain cave outside the city of Mecca had been a puzzling one. During his meditative sojourn on this lonely desert peak he’d heard voices saying: “peace upon you, O Exalted One.”
Now it was even more confusing. It was the middle of the night, and a man – who’d appeared from nowhere – had gripped him in an overwhelming embrace and told him to “recite”.
His protestations that he was illiterate had been ignored. The man had just gripped him more tightly, and repeated: “Recite!”
On the third time the man had said: “Recite in the name of Your Lord who created you; who created mankind …who taught man that which he knew not.”
Frightened, and thinking that a jinn – a ghostly being – had bewitched him, the son of Abdullah had fled from the cave. He was half-way down the mountain when a voice had cried out from above: “You are the messenger of God, and I am Gabriel.”
The son of Abdullah, who was none other than Muhammad, had then seen a magnificent being. Whichever way he looked, Gabriel’s presence had filled the sky.
Now terrified, he ran home. He sought the comfort of his wife, Khadijah, asking her to cover him with a blanket. Only when the intensity of his awe had abated, was he able to tell her of the events.
After comforting her husband, Khadijah approached Waraqah, the son of Nawfal. Waraqah, her cousin, was a Christian scholar whom she hoped would be able to interpret what had happened.
Waraqah’s response was to proclaim Muhammad a prophet, a son of Ishmael whose coming had been predicted in the holy books. “By him in whose hand is the soul of Waraqah…verily, Muhammad is the prophet…” he’d told Khadijah.
This happened in 610 CE during the month of Ramadan, a time when the pre-Islamic Ishmaelite tribes of Arabia would practice tahannuth, or seclusion. Muhammad’s experience with Gabriel had occurred on the 27th night.
For the Arabian prophet, a man of medium stature, handsome features and black, shoulder-length hair, reassurance would come with the second revelation. The first had been entitled Recite, and now the second one would be called The Pen.
“By the pen, and that which is written by it, you are not a madman,” Gabriel would inform Muhammad.
Islam would be revealed to Muhammad via Gabriel for the next 23 years. Fasting in Ramadan would be introduced as one of the five pillars of faith. Muslims would have to abstain from food, drink and marital conjugality from dawn until sunset.
Ramadan was destined to induce moderation, but for the seeker there were also spiritual dimensions. This would be discovering, in the last ten days through extra devotion, the esoteric “Night of Power”, a night with a reward “worth more than a thousand months”.
Prophet Muhammad told his followers that the Ramadan was a month so special that even the devil was restrained for the month. Ramadan also signified a time of compassion, a time when each Muslim – experiencing the hunger pangs of the downtrodden – would have to pay a fitrah, a special charity, to the poor.
As Islam’s holiest month when Mercy is said to descend to earth, Ramadan primarily commemorates the revelation of Qur’an. Its verses – which have not been altered in any way since their original revelation – are recited on a nightly basis in Ramadan throughout the Islamic world.
With Ramadan celebrating the Qur’an it is, most significantly, an injunction to human literacy. This is because its first revelation, “recite”, has a wide import in classical Arabic. “Recite” here means repeating words, but repeating them with full knowledge and awareness of exactly what they mean.
The revelation of the The Pen reinforced this invocation to knowledge. According to Muhammad, the Divine Pen had been writing its acquaintance of God’s Creation since the beginning of time, and God wanted mankind to know Him through the Pen.
Islamic scholars have commented that this is why one of the most mentioned terms in the Qur’an is “knowledge”, and why Muhammad once told his companions to seek knowledge, “even unto China”.
For Islam’s early forbears Ramadan was not only a time of intense introspection, but a period spent reading the Qur’an in search of knowledge. Fasting was regarded as a unique form of worship due it being non-visible.
For scholars such as Imam Ghazali, a genius polymath of the 12th century, fasting was equivalent to one-fourth of belief. The Prophet also reported that Ramadan bestowed unseen rewards upon the community.
For each day of fasting, he said, 600,000 souls would be released from hell, and on the Night of Power the amount of souls released until then would be released in one night. And on the day of celebration after Ramadan, ‘Eid ul-Fitrah, the amount of souls released from perdition during the whole month would be released in 24 hours.
The Prophet Muhammad added that fasting was an intimate act between God and the person involved, and that its reward – known only to God – “would not be by measure”. So if a person fasted with all their senses for the month, or at least with good intention to learn from the experience, the reward would certainly be Paradise.