1st November 2003
Credo by Inayat Bunglawala
The blessed month of Ramadan, in which the revelation of the Koran to the Prophet Muhammad first began, is upon us again. In a widely observed practice, Muslim adults around the world – excepting the sick, infirm and those on a journey – are required to abstain from food, water and sexual relations during daylight hours throughout this month. They will do so in honour and compliance of the Koran directive: “O believers! Fasting is ordained for you, as it was ordained for those before you, that you may increase in Taqwa.” (ii, 183) Taqwa is a key Koranic term denoting piety, upright behaviour and consciousness of God. Taqwa requires patience and perseverance, and fasting is widely believed to help in cultivating these qualities.
Moreover, the knowledge that hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world, of diverse nationalities and ethnic identities, are participating in the same exercise creates a sense of global unity, a potent reminder to Muslims of their constituting a single faith community.
The Koranic passage cited above reminds mankind that Islam (submission to God’s will) is not a novel doctrine. Rather, it is the message that was promulgated by all the previous prophets of God. Fasting, as the verse enunciates, is not a new practice or one exclusive to today’s Muslims, but was promoted by those same prophets to their respective communities.
In the Old Testament we find that the Day of Atonement was instituted as the day of a great national fast for the children of Israel (Leviticus xvi, 29-34) while other passages recognise fasting when mourning the dead (1 Samuel xxxi, 13); as an expression of penitence (Nehemiah ix, 1); and an aid when seeking God’s help (Judges xx, 26).
The Ramadan fast is on a different scale from some of the other injunctions of the Islamic Sharia. For example, the five prescribed daily prayers take only a few minutes each to perform, while the zakah (poor-due) is paid once a year and the haj to Mecca needs only to be performed once in a lifetime, and even then only by those who can afford to do so. The Ramadan fast on the other hand is a whole month long and constitutes a rigorous test of character.
In addition, as Muslims follow a lunar calendar (which is around 11 days shorter than its solar equivalent) and are not allowed to adjust their year by adding an extra month — as the Jews do — to keep their calendar synchronous with the seasons, so Ramadan like all other months, progresses around the solar year. It may be easier or more difficult to fast depending on the season in which Ramadan falls.
As a child growing up in Bolton in the late 1970s, I recall waking up day after day with my family during Ramadan for the predawn meals, when the long summer days were at their height, in the fervent expectation that this time I would manage to complete the whole day’s fast.
The Pakistani Islamic thinker Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi (1903-79) compared the month-long discipline that Ramadan requires of Muslims to a training camp for soldiers, who for the subsequent 11 months are required to resume normal civic duties in order to see if the training they received during the course of the month has been translated into improved conduct. If any deficiencies are found, then they have to be looked at again during the following year’s training. With the passing of each successive Ramadan the Muslim character ought to develop, mature and enhance.
Ramadan should therefore be seen as an opportunity to renew and strengthen oneself. The challenge is not only to curb one’s appetite for basic needs (food, water, sex) but also to rein in negative emotional conditions, especially anger, greed, intolerance, arrogance and dishonesty.
In the New Testament, Christ explained the need for those fasting to pay attention to their inner development and to beware of fasting for the wrong reasons (Matthew vi, 16-18). When asked by his disciples how to cast away evil spirits Jesus is said to have replied, “This kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew xvii, 21). Muhammad urged Muslims to avail themselves of the opportunity presented by Ramadan to try to improve themselves and to guard against their abstinence proving futile: “If one does not give up speaking falsehood and promoting falsehoods, God does not require him to give up eating and drinking.”
In Muslim countries it can often seem as though the month of Ramadan has imbued the whole environment with a spirit of kindness and generosity. Mawdudi remarked: “As flowers blossom in spring, so does goodness during Ramadan.”
The Prophet Muhammad used to retire to the mosque for the last ten days and nights of Ramadan to devote himself to contemplation and prayer in a practice known as I’tikaf. Even today, despite the quickened pace of everyday life — indeed, perhaps partly because of it — many Muslims will try to follow in the Prophet’s footsteps ever mindful of his warning: “Two hungry wolves sent against a herd of sheep will not do more damage to them than a man ’s eagerness for wealth and prestige does to his religion.”
Inayat Bunglawala is media secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain