Last month, Muslims worldwide celebrated Eid al-Fitr marking the end of Ramadan. Eid al-Fitr is the Muslims’ expression of gratitude to Allah for all the blessings He has bestowed upon us, especially in the month of Ramadan. While not a sacred month, it is a month full of blessings not least because the noble Qur’an was first sent in this month from the Lawhun Mahfooz into its earthly form and then the first few ayats of Surah al-‘Alaq were revealed to the noble Messenger (pbuh) in the solitude of the Cave of Hira.
The purpose of fasting in the month of Ramadan is to acquire taqwa, as Allah outlines for us in the noble Qur’an (2:183). The word taqwa is often translated as ‘piety’. This does not fully reflect the depth of meanings embedded in the word taqwa which is based on the root words waqa or waqayah. These signify protection. It is like a canopy; if we are inside it, we have Allah’s protection and are conscious of His corrective justice that we must guard against at all times. That is the place where every Muslims ought to be.
While Ramadan has ended, our quest for taqwa has not and should not. It is a life-long quest. Taqwa is to our Imaan what oxygen is to our existence. Without taqwa, we cannot get guidance (Surah al-Baqarah:02) nor achieve Allah’s maghfirah (Surah al-Muddaththir:56).
So, what other avenues are open to us to acquire taqwa? In Surah al-Baqarah, Allah (swt) defines virtue (or righteousness) for us which if accompanied by certain actions would lead to taqwa. Let us consider the ayat that outlines these steps.
“Virtue does not mean turning your faces toward the east or the west—but truly virtuous is he who is committed to [the reality of] Allah; and the Last Day, and the malaikah, and scripture; and the prophets; and distributes money, however much he himself may cherish it, upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the deprived, and the homeless, and the beggars, and the freeing of human beings from bondage, and upholds [the standards of] divine communion, and renders the purifying dues [zakah]; and [truly virtuous are] they who keep their promises whenever they promise, and are patient in misfortune and hardship and in time of peril; it is they who have proved themselves true, and it is they who are consciously defensive [vis-à-vis Allah’s power]” (2:177).
This ayat, situated before the ayats relating to Ramadan, outlines another route to achieving taqwa. In fact, the ayat starts with birr (virtue) and ends with taqwa if a Muslim fulfills certain obligations. It clearly indicates that there are several routes to achieving taqwa. Achieving taqwa, however, requires much more than indulging in rituals, important as they are.
The first step along the road to taqwa is to recognize that our errors and sins are far more than our good deeds and that we need to make extra effort to improve our character.
This is what Ramadan was all about but the effort should not stop with the end of this month. We should consider Ramadan as an enhancement program just like IT and other professionals regularly attend courses to improve their knowledge and skills.
Most Muslims are familiar with the Prophetic hadith that says seek knowledge even if you have to go to China for it. China is mentioned in a figurative sense; a far-off place. Let us look at the example of a country close to China: Japan. It has no natural resources but has the third largest economy in the world. How has Japan achieved this?
There are several features that stand out. People are extremely hard working and disciplined. Their punctuality is legendary. Their trains run on time. One could set one’s watch against it. Four years ago, a train arrived 35 seconds late at a station. The management not only apologised profusely but gave every passenger a token for a free ride next time.
Such training starts at a very young age. At the end of the day, children do not leave their classroom until they have picked up all the scrap papers and other items strewn on the floor. Such habits of cleanliness extend to the top.
Every Sunday morning, for instance, adults in Japan —rich and poor, powerful and weak—pick-up brooms and buckets and clean up their neighbourhood streets of refuse, paper, leaves etc. Cleanliness is extremely important in Islam. The Prophetic hadith says: At-Tahuru Shatrul Imaan (Sahih Muslim). Cleanliness is half of our Imaan but go to any Muslim country and there would be piles of rubbish strewn in the streets. In some countries, it is virtually impossible to walk through the streets because of the stench of rotting food and human waste.
Good qualities exist in other societies as well. A manager in Malaysia working for Volvo was invited to Sweden to spend some time at the head office to see its operations. Every morning, his Swedish colleague would pick him up to give him a ride to the office and then drop him off in the evening.
The Malaysian manager noticed that even though the parking lot was empty when they arrived, his Swedish colleague would park his car far away from the main building. They would then walk across the huge parking lot to reach the building. One day the Malaysian asked him why he did not park his car next to the building where parking spots were available.
The Swedish manager responded that they arrive early and it is easy for them to walk for a few minutes to reach the building. Those that arrive late can park their car close to the building and rush in so they are not late for work.
One of the common behaviours of Muslims, at least in North America, is that when they come to the masjid for salat, they park their car right next to the entrance. At every Jumuah in almost every masjid, there are problems of parking. Those that arrive late block other people’s cars and then busy themselves with their long prayers while the person whose car has been blocked and cannot leave to return to work, fumes outside. In some instances, such situations have nearly degenerated into fist-fights.
Shouldn’t Muslims be more considerate toward fellow Muslims? There is a Prophetic hadith about removing a stone from the path so that no one would trip on it. This is considered an act of Ibaadah.
Let us return to our discussion of Ramadan. Together with fasting when we go hungry and thirsty for a certain number of hours, we also have to improve our character. This includes being kind and considerate to others, feeding the needy and poor, avoid speaking ill of others especially back-biting or making false allegations, and maintain cleanliness.
Generally, we must avoid any behavior that we ourselves would find irritating or offensive. Improving our character is a means to achieving taqwa (consciousness of Allah’s power-presence). Only then would we make ourselves worthy of His mercy and grace. End of Ramadan does not mean the end of our quest to improve our character.