The month of Ramadan has once again begun. It is a time for Muslims to earn countless rewards and a time to seek forgiveness for past sins. Muslims wait all year long for the arrival of Ramadan. Although Ramadan brings the hardships of fasting, it also brings the pleasure of knowing that the fast itself is for the sole purpose of pleasing Allah.
This fast requires total abstention from food, drink, and sex from dawn to sunset during every day of the month of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, which is based on the lunar year. The body may not partake of anything in any way or contact another of the opposite sex without breaking the fast. Exempted from this duty are children and persons suffering from sickness or undergoing the tremendously heavy burden of desert travel. In such cases, the exempted person is not to forego the fast but to postpone it to another, healthier or more restful time before recurrence of the following Ramadan.
Fasting is an old religious custom. It was practiced by lay persons and clergy in ancient religions, as well as by Jews and Christians. Though its purposes differed from religion to religion, there were general agreements that fasting was a self-preparation for communion with divinity.
Long before Islam, the month of Ramadan was regarded by the Arabs as a holy month. Its occasion imposed upon them the prohibition of war and hunting, and brought about an uninterrupted peace during which travel and movement of goods across the desert were safe from attack. The Arabs reckoned Ramadan as the month of spiritual stocktaking. Throughout its duration, they were especially keen to please, to settle old debts and disputes, to do good to their neighbors. The more morally sensitive among them underwent a retreat to a temple, or into their homes, to avoid disturbing their concentration and meditation. Before his commission as the Prophet, Muhammad (SAW) was in the habit of retreating during Ramadan to Hira', a cave outside Makkah, where he would spend several days in meditation. His wife used to send him daily provisions with a servant, knowing that her husband was devoting himself exclusively to worship.
Islam continued the tradition of dedicating the month of Ramadan to religious pursuits. Besides the fast, the Islamic tradition regarded moral and religious action during Ramadan as especially meritorious, and urged Muslims to increase their service to God during the month. It was during Ramadan that Muhammad received his first revelation.
Islam assigned two purposes to fasting: self-discipline and commiseration with the hungry of the earth. We have seen that Islam repudiates self-mortification and asceticism. Islam does not believe that righteousness requires humankind to deny itself. God wishes people to be free, healthy, fulfilled, and happy. As philosophers might put it, going to the dentist is certainly a painful experience. One does not undergo pain for its own sake unless one assumes that suffering is the end of human life. One endures pain willingly, however, if one believes it will lead to health and well- being which are the opposite of suffering. Accordingly, there is no denying that fasting is a hardship, so to what purpose did Islam impose it? To understand the purpose is to understand Ramadan.
Self-discipline through fasting is a novel religious idea. Hunger and sexual desire are pivotal instincts of life. Their satisfaction is a capital requirement of any social order. But they are precisely two of the most sensitive areas of human life. Prohibition of food and sex constitutes a threat to life, the former to individual life and the latter to group life. Deliberate abstinence from food and sex stirs up the consciousness of imminent death to both the individual and the group, and provides ample opportunity to mobilize consciousness and launch it into combat, in defense of life.
Islam has prescribed total abstinence from food and sex from dawn to sunset precisely for that reason. The threat to individual and group life must be resisted, and the Muslim must be taught and trained in the art of resistance. Patience, forbearance, perseverance, steadfastness in suffering and privation--these are the qualities Islam seeks to cultivate through fasting. Conversely, the areas of food and sex are regarded as two of humanity's weakest spots in regard to morality and righteousness. The Muslim sees them as avenues for vice and immortality to find their way into the world. To learn how to block those avenues of immoral use, fortify the individual against temptation, and make one's moral house impregnable is the purpose of Islamic fasting.
Hence, Islam looks upon fasting as the best exercise in the art of self-mastery. To make the exercise more effective, Islam prescribes that the fast be broken promptly at sunset, even before the performance of the sunset salat. Thus Islam regards every day in Ramadan as a fresh exercise or trial which, if carried successfully to sunset, may be ended with celebration, food, and joy, so that the abstinence and indulgence each day and night is thought to be more forceful and effective.
The second purpose of fasting is commiseration with the hungry and deprived of the earth. Privation is without doubt humanity's constant and greatest affliction. There is no teacher more eloquent or effective than experience. For one to undertake the fast of Ramadan is to be reminded of and to sympathize with the deprived everywhere. To sharpen the lesson, Islam recommends to those who can afford it the voluntary act of feeding a neighbor, especially a poor one, every day of Ramadan, in further emphasis that Ramadan is the month of charity, of altruism, of neighborly love and kindness. It also prescribes, as personal atonement, the feeding of sixty persons for every day of Ramadan on which the fast is broken deliberately in defiance of God, and the feeding of two people (in addition to making up the fast on other days) if the fast is broken for legitimate reasons.
Finally, the zakat al Fitr (charity of fast ending) must be given. Its amount is prescribed to be the equivalent of two meals on behalf of each member of the household. This measure is designed to bring the joys of the feast to the poor and hungry as well.
This philosophy of fasting illustrates Islam's humanism and affirmation of this world. Fasting, the art of world- denial par excellence, practiced by the ascetics of all religions, is here transformed into an instrument of world affirmation. Rather than being a tool of self- denial for ascetics, fasting in Islam has become a tool of self-mastery for the better conduct of human life. The pursuit of this life and of this world is thereby ennobled and brought closer to righteousness through charity and obedience to God.
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