On Being Muslim

Ramadan - The Month of the Qur'an

May 16, 2022 Zeyneb Sayilgan Season 1 Episode 3
On Being Muslim
Ramadan - The Month of the Qur'an
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

For more information on Ramadan, please read Chapter 15 of  Exploring Islam: Theology and Practice in America by Salih Sayilgan

Here is a beautiful Ramadan poem that captures a little bit the spirit of Ramadan.

Here are two of my favorite Ramadan songs from Raef “Ramadan is Here” and Maher Zain “Ramadan

Ramadan - The month of the Qur’an

Popular perception of Ramadan

In the popular imagination Ramadan might be perceived as a month of deprivation. People might feel sorry for us Muslims because we are starving ourselves even during hot temperatures. In a society that is so much driven by a consumer mindset, Ramadan feels indeed countercultural. It challenges our thought patterns and our regular rhythm of life. As we as Muslims experience this holy month, yes we do give up on physical things. Every day, from the first light of dawn to sunset after having eaten our pre-dawn meal called suhoor we abstain from food and drink - yes you heard that right - not even a drop of water. Only adult Muslims who are in good health are obligated to fast. Children generally start fasting once they enter puberty, which in Islam is considered the entrance into adulthood. Oftentimes children are excited to fast and parents allow them to join the ritual for a short period. That way they gradually embrace the practice. There might be exceptions for pregnant women or nursing mothers, for those who have certain chronic illnesses or travelers. Islam prioritizes the preservation of health and body and if a medical expert recommends not to fast due to certain medical conditions, the advice should be followed.

The month of Divine revelation

The Muslim experience of Ramadan stands in stark contrast to the popular perception: For Muslims, Ramadan is a month of joy always anticipated with much excitement. It is a special season, a blessed time, to grow and thrive in meaningful ways. What do we really gain as we give up on certain existential needs? What are our hopes as we observe this important ritual that is considered one of the five important pillars of Islam? First and foremost, Ramadan is the month of the Qur’an, the month of Divine revelation, the month of God’s Scripture and God’s Word. The Qur’an itself describes Ramadan in the following words, “The month of Ramadan is that in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for humankind and clear proofs of guidance and the criterion. So whoever sights the new moon of the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey - then an equal number of other days. God intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and wants for you to complete the period and to glorify God for that to which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful. (Qur’an 2:185)

So, in the own words of the Qur’an, Ramadan is the month in which the first verse of the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through the archangel Gabriel. According to a Prophetic narration, not only the Qur’an but all divine Scriptures like the Torah and the Gospel were also revealed during the month of Ramadan. As such, the observance of Ramadan is a celebration of God’s universal compassionate guidance to humankind (Hadith Musnad Aḥmad 16536, Grade: Hasan). But there is more to the universal spirit of Ramadan. The Qur’an declares,”O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous or God-conscious,” (Q 2:183). The practice of fasting is one that has been embraced by other religious communities as well. 

Imagine, you are invited to a major presidential speech, into a royal audience in which an important address to the nation will be delivered. A royal speech that will determine the fate of all beings on this planet. You feel honored and extremely grateful that you have been chosen to be a member of this audience, all selected people. Not only that, you have been invited to sit in the front row, up close to the President and listen to him. Your eyes and ears are fully engaged, your heart completely attentive, and you are hyper mindful of your behavior. Cameras are everywhere and on you. This makes you nervous. You definitely want to display the best version of yourself. I am asking - How inappropriate would it be to start eating, drinking, making disturbing noises in the midst of all the dignitaries, right in the middle of that Presidential speech? How disrespectful would it be to occupy yourself with trivial things or distract yourself and others by looking around or fiddling with your phone? 

Ramadan is an invitation to be part of this sacred audience in which the whole of creation is addressed directly by their Compassionate and Merciful Creator. Ramadan is this special moment to be fully present, to engage all our senses and spiritual faculties as we listen to that original divine voice. We listen, hear and engage actively and attentively with God’s message. Fresh and new do we center on the Qur’an as if we hear God’s speech for the first time. We return to this original departure point. The moment of revelation during which God addressed all humanity. As Muslims, we return to what is most important in life. Our relationship with God. The Qur’an tells us that humans tend to be forgetful and heedless about what is most essential in life. We can get distracted and even get lost in the busyness of our schedules. Ramadan is therefore a month in which even the most existential things - like food and drink which in themselves are divine blessings - are put aside for a moment in order to cultivate a heightened spiritual awareness. To pause, to slow down, to reassess and review our life and to return to the basic questions: Where did I come from, why am I here? Where am I going? What are my priorities? Do I cultivate a life that brings me closer to God?

Ramadan as Self-Improvement 

The highest manner of fasting, as the Prophetic traditions teaches us, is to fast with all of our human senses - not only to abstain from food and drink. More than ever, Muslims strive to abstain from negative or impure thoughts, destructive emotions, harmful actions and distracting behavior. Related to this is a narration by Prophet Muhammad who said, “Whoever does not leave evil words and deeds while fasting, God does not need him to leave food and drink” (Sahih Bukhari) It is to enter an almost angelic state and spend as much time as possible in meditation, prayer and deep self-reflection. In the process, the believers are filled with hope as they discover a better version of themselves during this month. There is potential to be more and to excel on our spiritual journey to God. As we leave aside food and drink for a moment, other spiritual aspects of our being come to the forefront and are lifted up. Yes, as human beings we do experience physical fatigue and weakness. However, in the process of fasting we understand how utterly dependent we are on God and His blessings. Not even a drop of water can we create. And in order for this drop of water to come down to nourish us - to be sent down to us by God - the universe needs to be positioned into a delicate state and degree - otherwise rain wouldn’t even come into existence. This realization leads us to give up claims on self-sufficiency and independence. It should cultivate humility and distance the believer from arrogance - one of the sins that is mentioned so many times by the Qur’an. We cannot do it on our own in this world. The human being is not simply an entity to him or herself. To give up on the false notion that we are absolutely free. God is Our Sustainer, the Generous Giver, the Provider, The Most Merciful - we however are needy and dependent on Him and the causes in the universe that He creates in the first place. The human body and spirit in unity and the global Muslim community at large declare collectively through the ritual of fasting the existence and Oneness of God. Fasting facilitates the process of adopting Qur’anic virtues and embody Qur’anic teachings.   

What is more, at the end of the day, when you sit down to break your fast you realize that you do not need much to sustain yourself and you do not need much to be satisfied and happy. You not only cultivate patience but also contentment and gratitude. A piece of dry bread can taste so good. The whole body with all its limbs engages in an act of gratitude towards God as it rejoices in breaking the fast. It is a deeper appreciation and manifestation of gratitude. Ramadan is an invitation to live a simple life devoid of excess and extravagance which Islam does not endorse anyway. To live a minimal and simple life far from wastefulness leads to true liberation. The human being is not chained to the idea to consume constantly but to enjoy life in moderate and balanced ways.

Community Aspect

The experience of the fast also results in greater solidarity and charity with fellow human beings who might be less fortunate. It comes therefore as no surprise that many Muslims are more charitable during the month of Ramadan - a practice that has been established by Prophet Muhammad. Experiencing hunger for a while puts things in perspective. It cultivates empathy and compassion. There are so countless charity initiatives during Ramadan feeding countless people. Volunteers tirelessly working for the good. Ramadan empowers them to become agents of compassion, justice and peace. It is often through our own pain and suffering that we become more caring and attentive to others. Ramadan brings out our full humanity in serving those who are less fortunate.

 Ramadan in this light becomes a training ground for self-improvement, self-purification and self-development. It also is an invitation to improve our relationships with one another as fellow human beings - to be more caring, compassionate and more charitable with one another. To understand our interconnectedness and our shared human nature. We discover our existential need for God, our many shortcomings and flaws and pray for Divine forgiveness and guidance because we can fall into ignorance. We seek reconciliation with people we might have hurt or harmed and try to let go of grudges. We try to forgive one another. We aspire to gain God’s love by engaging in those acts that are pleasing to Him. The literal meaning for Ramadan comes from the Arabic word “ramad” which means “intense scorching heat.” It refers to the spiritual heat, that sweet challenge and healthy stress and pressure that molds you into a better human being. Ramadan is called the month of mercy - a month in which good actions are multiplied and God rewards in abundance. Observed with sincerity and full of hope for God’s mercy, it is also a month of rebirth in which all past sins will be forgiven as promised by God. “Whoever fasts in the month of Ramadan out of sincere faith, and hoping for a reward from God, then all his previous sins will be forgiven" states one Prophetic narration (Hadith Bukhari).

Sacred Connection with Creation

What I also appreciate about Ramadan and about Islam in general is the connection with the creation - the larger cosmic community that sustains us. Since Muslims follow a lunar calendar, Ramadan begins with the sighting of the new moon and ends with the sighting of the new moon. The day of fast is regulated by the movement of the sun - Muslims begin fasting by dawn and end with sunset. We are in a relationship with the moon and the sun and the cosmic order, reminded so ever that we are part of a larger community. Creation is sacred and needs to be cared for responsibly. Ramadan travels through the seasons because of the lunar cycle and so every year the experience of Ramadan is slightly different and one that connects you to the cycle of the creational order. In an average human life, the Muslim will fast in every season and stay in this sacred relationship with the seasonal changes.

Again, for us as Muslims Ramadan is the most beautiful, most exciting, most joyous season of the entire year. Many Islamic poems and songs describe Ramadan in a personified way. Ramadan is the much anticipated guest who will visit us in our hearts and homes for 30 days and every year its departure fills us with much sadness and grief. Will we receive the blessing of experiencing it all again next year? Only God knows. Here is a beautiful Ramadan poem that captures a little bit the spirit of Ramadan.

For more information on Ramadan, please read Chapter 15 of  Exploring Islam: Theology and Practice in America by Salih Sayilgan

Here are two of my favorite Ramadan songs from Raef “Ramadan is Here” and Maher Zain “Ramadan

Ramadan in Popular Perception
Ramadan - Month of Revelation
Ramadan and Self-Improvement
Ramadan and the Community Aspect
Ramadan and Sacred Connection with Creation