Most people, when they think about Ramadan, ponder on the fact that it is a month when Muslims neither eat nor drink nor enjoy sexual intimacy from the first moment of dawn until sunset.
I made a terrible mistake in my very first Ramadan as a new Muslim – I started off OK, but thought that the fast finished when it became too dark to see, and as it was in June that year, I had a fearful time trying not to eat or drink. It didn’t get dark until well after 10pm, and was light again by 2am! In fact, I became quite ill and gave up after the first week. Luckily, an experienced Muslim informed me of the correct finishing time, and the fact that sick people are not required to fast, so I need not have felt quite so guilty and disappointed with myself.
Years later, when I was a teacher in a boy’s school, I met young Muslim men who were struggling to succeed, not even allowing themselves to swallow their own saliva – and I was able to tell them that since it was in the body already and had not past their lips, it was not forbidden at all. I don’t know if they believed me, though, as their parents had always ‘done it that way’, and they would be embarrassed to let them down.
Some of these lads got quite uptight about the whole thing, and soon enough one of the young experts came to inform me that it was me who had got it all wrong, and therefore my fast was not valid. So, once again I ended up quite upset.
It all got me thinking, though. What is Ramadan all about? What does Allah make of us when we do not enjoy keeping His rules and find it all such a business? Does He know when we get turned off and bored by the whole thing, and resent all the extra prayers and so on, even though we keep our thoughts secret? What does He do about all the people who trip up and miss fasts, who are then told by pious superiors that they are supposed to fast for 80 extra days as a punishment, or pay for meals for other people, and so on? Because they never actually seem to do these things, do they? What is the fate of the boys who swallow their saliva?
Why on earth should Allah want to put us through all this? What does it tell us about the ‘character’ of Allah, laying all these burdens and chores on us – and for what? So that we can share the feelings of the poor about being hungry? To put ourselves through self-discipline tests, even though He promised elsewhere that there would be ‘no compulsion in religion’? No wonder you hear so many Muslims talking about ‘fearing’ Allah, and living in dread of His punishments – while on the other hand, others just give up.
Hmmm. Something doesn’t seem quite right about this, does it? There’s something fishy going on here…… Maybe we need to go back to the drawing-board and rethink this situation. Because as sure as eggs are eggs, Allah doesn’t want us to fear Him but to love Him, and to serve Him with joy and a sense of fulfilment – not like a slave being made to do things because they have to, or they’ll get a nasty punishment. If Allah was really like that, and I was His fearful slave getting into stress for fear of not doing all the right things and making Him mad with me, I think I’d soon be looking for ways to run away. I certainly wouldn’t love Him.
It doesn’t feel right. Now, whenever I get that funny feeling that something is not quite right, my ‘detective brain’ gets going.
Why do Muslims keep Ramadan? Well, they were requested to by Allah. It is one of the five compulsory (fard) things, one of the pillars of the faith. One of the things that matters.
Why does it matter? Because it is one of the things that draws all Muslims together, almost like a ‘secret society’ only it’s not very secret – if you are keeping Ramadan, then you are one of a very special community of people all trying hard to do special things for the sake of Allah, for a whole month. Even before the revelation of Islam, the Arabs used to have special months, dedicated to their idol-gods. They used to have four of them, and in those months no Arab with any sense of honour would attack another, or threaten, or steal, or bully, or cheat, or lie. They would not go to war, or hassle wealthy caravans carrying merchandise, or behave dishonestly in business. Arabs felt so secure in these months that people could carry all sorts of valuable treasures about without any security guards, quite convinced that nobody would stoop so low as to break the sacred truce.
With the coming of Islam, these months were no longer counted as sacred, but the month of Ramadan became the special month for believers instead. Nevertheless, the old traditions hung around for a long time, and the first time Muslims ever attacked non-Muslims it caused a scandal because without the Prophet’s (pbuh) permission the attack took place in the last fading moments of one of those old sacred months! They had missed the end of it by a few moments. The Arabs were outraged and appalled – and Allah had to give a special revelation to forgive the Muslims who had done it, excusing them by pointing out that those months were not sacred any longer to Muslims. It did not stop the non-Muslims being furious, however, and the Prophet (pbuh) being somewhat embarrassed.
So, you can see the tradition of sacred months was very ancient, and taken most seriously – and non-Muslims obviously did not see why they should change their months; they resisted all the new things about Islam. Miraculously, there soon came a time when virtually all the people who lived in Arabia accepted Islam, although they did not have to. Alhamdu lillah.
So, what was new about the special month of Ramadan? The Muslim sacred month had some special rules. It became a time of fasting – the business of not letting anything pass the lips from dawn to sunset, not smoking cigarettes (once they were invented!), not making love to one’s husband or wife (or anyone else, of course!). These are the rules fasting people try to keep. You might think this would create a very miserable time, and people getting thinner and bed-tempered.
Actually, no – Muslims can do all those things during the hours of darkness, which consequently become times of hospitality and lovely meals and happiness with one’s beloved partner. Ramadan is not a miserable month at all, but one of eating and praying and meeting up with family and friends and guests in a lovely and very special way. If the cook forgot the rule and took a little taste of food it didn’t matter, she had not broken her intention to fast, and that was what counted. If Grandad couldn’t do it because of his ‘waterworks’, it didn’t matter – he still shared in the prayers and happy communal spirit.
What really mattered was keeping the real spirit of the sacred month – and that meant giving special hospitality for the month to a very special guest indeed, one who is actually present all the rest of the time too, but whose Presence is realised and felt in a much more amazing way during this time.
Who is this Unseen Guest at every meal? Why, Allah Himself. We cannot see Him or touch Him, or hear Him directly, but if we really open our hearts and decide to make our very best efforts to do His will and live in the way He would be proud of, then we gradually become more and more aware that He really is with us, loving us, comforting us, helping us never to feel alone when we are suffering or going through some really tough times. He is not just a Friend, He is our BEST Friend. We don’t need to tell Him our secrets – He knows them already, and how we are struggling even before we tell Him in our prayers. It is such a comfort. He knows every time we get knocked back and decide to get up again; He sees every little thing we do for His sake, even if nobody else knows we have done it. He forgives everything we do wrong – maybe simply because we need more practice, or more experience, or even if we just let fly because we were so fed up. He knows each time we get tempted to do something we know we shouldn’t – and is thrilled when we do the right thing, simply because we love Him.
That’s what makes Ramadan special. Sometimes we get so busy in our everyday lives, doing all the things we have to do, playing around, coping with everything, that we forget Allah is with us, and His angels are our protecting friends. Of course, the angels will never stop things from happening to us or hurting us if they are results of the processes of natural law, unless Allah specifically orders them to – and He doesn’t usually interfere but leaves us to cope and learn. But the more we feel aware of Allah’s presence and love, and the helpers He sends to strengthen us and open up our consciences, the more happy and confident and ‘grounded’ we shall become. We become people who can help, rather than people who need help. We become lovers and carers (khalifahs) rather than welfare cases, even if we have nothing. We become peacemakers rather than troublemakers, designers rather than wreckers, shelterers rather than attackers, clear-minded rather than drugged and senseless, street-wise rather than stupid, guardians of the law and other people’s welfare rather than thieves and crooks.
This is what Ramadan is all about. Aishah once reported what the Prophet (pbuh) said about some people who were still telling lies, even in Ramadan. ‘If you cannot give up telling lies, then Allah has no need of you giving up food and drink!’ if you think about it, Allah is probably not the least bit bothered if you miss a fast (although He could obviously see that you weren’t trying very hard at that aspect of it); but He would care a lot if you were breaking one of the Ten Top Commandments He revealed centuries before our Prophet (pbuh) to the Prophet Musa (Moses, pbuh) – ‘You must not lie.’ If you broke a fast by secretly eating something, it would hurt no-one else, and it would be a matter between you and Allah alone. But if you lied, or stole, or slandered, or flew into a rage, or gave in to lust or jealousy or peevishness, then it would hurt Allah, you, and the person you aimed it all at, and would probably have effects over and over again on others as the chain spread.
So, once a year it comes round again – the special month. It’s like nature in a way – even if you never looked after your garden and it got all neglected and overgrown, along comes winter and everything dies down and the year starts all over again. So, if the weeds in your character and life have become overgrown and rampant, and your ‘patch’ is neglected and in a sorry state, start thinking about making a new start now, and let Allah work His blessings in your life. Give to Him, and He will give to you. Actually, He gives to you chance after chance, blessing after blessing, even if you do not ask Him. But this Ramadan month gives us a chance to stop and think, and become AWARE of Him again, and to start loving Him all over again. Let’s open up the doors of our hearts and welcome the special Guest, and make our fresh vows of love to Him, that we will always do our best for Him, and try never to let Him down, if He will help us. And He will.
God bless you, wasalaam, Sr. Ruqaiyyah.
(Acknowledgements to Reflect Magazine)