With the approach of Ramadan (expected to start on April 13 in North America), there is heightened sense of anticipation. Last year, Muslims had a very different experience due to the pandemic. Mosques, Islamic Centers and Musallahs were closed to prevent spread of the virus. What this meant was Muslims were unable to offer the five-daily salat (prayers) in congregation. For “Sunni” Muslims, the inability to offer taraweeh prayers at night and listen to the melodious recitation of the noble Qur’an was also a huge disappointment.
While not fard (compulsory), taraweeh prayers provide a nightly opportunity for communal gatherings and interaction in an ambience of spirituality. This is heightened by the melodious recitation of the noble Qur’an. Those Muslims that understand the noble Qur’an or have even some basic understanding of it, are often moved to tears listening to the divine Words.
Let us recall the purpose of Ramadan. In the very first ayah that prescribes fasting for Muslims, it also specifies the purpose: to achieve taqwa. “Fasting has been prescribed for you as it was prescribed for people before you so that you may achieve taqwa” (2:183). Taqwa is an exclusively Qur’anic/Islamic term that has no equivalent in the English language. Often mistranslated as “piety”, it does not come even close. Taqwa is derived from the root word waqa meaning protection. The message being conveyed is that a person who has taqwa is under Allah’s protection. It can be expressed another way: taqwa means to be where Allah wants us to be, and to not be where Allah does not want us to be. In other words, conformity to Allah’s commands means taqwa.
Fasting in the month of Ramadan is more than going without food or water or other bodily pleasures for 15-16 hours. True, even this may be difficult for some people especially in countries where daytime temperatures soar to 45 or even 50 degrees centigrade. Daily wage earners working in back-breaking conditions in the scorching sun face extreme difficulties yet they endure these challenges for the pleasure of and in conformity to Allah’s commands.
Quite aside from its health benefits—and there are many—fasting in Ramadan is meant to improve our character. We must become better human beings, more considered toward others. Our patience at abstaining from food and drink during daylight hours must translate into patience in the face of adversities. It is also meant to inculcate in us a spirit of empathy for the plight of those that are poor, destitute and in need. That is why Muslims give their zakat (the purifying of wealth) in the month of Ramadan.
Allah has also provided provisions for those that are unable to fast in Ramadan. For people with health issues that necessitate taking medication at regular intervals, pregnant or lactating mothers and travelers are exempt from fasting. They must either make up for missed days later or pay the fidya if their health condition prohibits them from fasting (the equivalent of feeding one needy person daily. In today’s terms, it would be about $10/day).
One final point is in order. Some Muslims over-indulge in food, especially at iftar time (breaking of fast). This defeats the purpose and spirit of fasting. Fasting is supposed to teach us discipline and self-restraint. It helps melt the fat in our body to remove the toxins that have accumulated over the year. While fasting is not a dieting fad, if done properly, a person should lose weight in Ramadan. If a person puts on weight in Ramadan, then he/she has definitely gone about it the wrong way.
Restraining our physical needs would enable us to enhance our spiritual awareness and get us closer to Allah. This is what fasting—and taqwa—are about.