Ramadan must mean more than going hungry or thirsty for 15-17 hours a day. Muslims must strive to build taqwa, the real purpose of Ramadan. Understanding the true meaning of taqwa is the first step.
As the month of Ramadan approaches, there is high probability once again of a manufactured crisis being engineered by Bani Saud and their henchmen worldwide about the start and, therefore, the end of this blessed month. Instead of Muslims concentrating on the essential aspect of Ramadan —the building of taqwa, as the noble Qur’an emphasizes (2:183) — this artificial crisis consumes much Muslim energy. Elaborate iftar parties take up the rest of their time where overindulgence is the norm. The vast majority of other Muslims go through the month engrossed in rituals because that is what is constantly emphasized from most minbars throughout the Muslim world.
How should Muslims view this blessed month that the noble Messenger (pbuh) referred to as the “month of the Ummah”? Ramadan — the month of fasting — is linked with a number of important events in Islamic history, the most important of which is the descent of the noble Qur’an from on high (2:185). Both the descent of the Qur’an from lawh mahfuz (the Well-Guarded Tablet), where it is inscribed till eternity (85:21–22), and the revelation of the first few ayat to the noble Messenger (pbuh) in the solitude of the Cave of Hira’, occurred in Ramadan.
In the Qur’an, Allah (swt) has referred to that night as Laylah al-Qadr (the Night of Proportionality, 97:1–5) and Laylah al-Mubarakah (the Blessed Night, 44:02). Ramadan also registered the victory of the early Muslims in the Battle of Badr in 2ah, as well as the liberation of Makkah, that took place in 8ah. An estimated 10,000 Muslims marched on Makkah to free it from occupation and marginalization by the exclusivist forces represented at that time by the mushrik Quraysh. The Ka‘bah, the Sacred House of Allah (swt) on earth, was cleansed of all idolatrous accretions, in physical form as well as the associated ‘asabiyahs that had polluted its sanctity for centuries because of the jahiliyah that pervaded Arabian society at the time.
In its inimitable style, the noble Qur’an links the building of taqwa — the active self-consciousness of Allah’s (swt) power presence in our lives — with fasting in the month of Ramadan. The command is addressed to the covenant-bearing Muslims, whom the Qur’an refers to as al-ladhina amanu,
O You who are securely committed to Allah! Fasting has been ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, so that you may protect yourselves against Allah’s corrective justice” (2:183).
Ramadan became compulsory in the second year of the Hijrah (migration) of the noble Messenger (pbuh) from Makkah to Madinah. In that momentous first Ramadan, the nascent Muslim community was tested in the Battle of Badr just as it embarked on the arduous task of abstaining from food and drink during the day in conformity with Allah’s (swt) command. Had it not been for their communal taqwa, the early Muslims might have wavered in their commitment to Allah (swt) and His Messenger (pbuh), by giving in to the fears related to worldly odds stacked in favor of the enemy. It was taqwa that enabled them to overcome these confidence-sapping inhibitions as they faced the heavily armed 1,000 fighters of Quraysh — a force three times larger than their own.
The Muslims were equipped with only a few swords and arrows but on the strength of what the mushriks rejected for the sake of special interests, the Prophet’s (pbuh) humble savants achieved a convincing victory against overwhelming odds. Allah (swt) says in the noble Book,
It is He who sent down to His servant [Muhammad] the Furqan [the Qur’an — as the criterion by which right can be distinguished from wrong] on the day [of Badr] when the two parties met” (8:41).
Badr was a model because participation in that great encounter became the hallmark of committed Muslims. The Companions of the Prophet were later categorized as “those who witnessed Badr” and “those who came after.” The battle registered for all times to come the power of the people over the power of tyranny, the power of the street over the power of the palace, the principled power of man against the concentrated power of Satan, and the power of truth over the power of racism, nationalism, tribalism, exclusivism, and narcissism,
It was the month of Ramadan in which the Qur’an was [first] sent down from on high as guidance unto man and a self-evident proof of that guidance, and as the standard by which to discern the true from the false (2:185).
While the Qur’an was first revealed in the month of Ramadan as “guidance unto man,” Allah (swt) also emphasizes that only those who have taqwa will receive guidance (2:02). One way to build taqwa is to fast in the month of Ramadan (2:183). But fasting must mean more than merely abstaining from food and drink for a specified number of hours during the day, even if this may be an arduous task especially when Ramadan falls in the long, hot summer months, as is the case these days. While fasting is meant to develop self-restraint among individual Muslims, it must also arouse the social consciousness of observant Muslims for the plight of those suffering in humanity. The personal conformity of an individual Muslim to Allah (swt) must be linked with his social conformity to Him and His creatures.
The combination of what is personal with what is social teaches us that we cannot separate ourselves from the world around us. Fasting should act as a powerful reminder of this social responsibility failing which our fast will be little more than an exercise in dieting.
The building of taqwa has also been made contingent upon sharing our wealth, even if we cherish it ourselves, with near relatives, orphans, the poor, the homeless, those who deserve pity, and those whose freedom is limited, such as prisoners or indentured laborers (2:177). In our ceaseless effort to achieve taqwa so as to seek guidance from the Qur’an and, therefore, become deserving of Allah’s (swt) grace and mercy, we must be cognizant of the needs of those less fortunate than ourselves. Our voluntary abstinence from food and drink should enable us to empathize with the millions of needy souls that go hungry or even sleep in the street every night because of inbuilt inequalities, despite plenty of food and other resources available to cater to the needs of everyone in the world.
In order to grasp the magnitude of the problem more accurately, let us first consider some statistics relating to the wide disparities that exist in the world today. Of the nearly seven billion people worldwide, nearly one billion do not have enough to eat. Almost all of these people (98%) live in what is referred to as the “developing” world. Nearly half of Afghanistan’s 25 million people live at or below the poverty line subsisting on mere $1.25/day.
Based on the World Bank’s threshold for extreme poverty, 1.4 billion people, or one-fifth of the world’s population, cannot meet the minimum consumption and income level to fulfill their basic needs. The worst cases of hunger are found in Asia and the Pacific and the overwhelming majority of poor reside in Muslim countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. Add to that the poor in India (400 million, again many of them Muslims) and we begin to get a glimpse of the magnitude of the problem in the Muslim world, as well as the world at large.
It is, however, the plight of women and children that should arouse the greatest concern. More than 60% of the world’s hungry are women. Closely related to this is the fact that one out of every six infants is born with a low birth weight in developing countries. According to the British charity, Save the Children, malnutrition is the key factor contributing to more than one-third of all global child deaths resulting in an annual death rate of 2.6 million. In Sub-Saharan Africa, one-third of all child deaths are the direct result of hunger and malnutrition. Globally, a child dies every five seconds from hunger-related diseases. UNICEF, the United Nations body tasked with looking after children’s needs, reports that 22,000 children die each day due to conditions of poverty.
Is it enough to feel bad about these pressing facts in Ramadan (and take it easy the rest of the year)? Certainly, this could be a start, but that does not begin to get at the crux of what we ought to be recognizing in this blessed month. And certainly to some extent the problem of poverty and hunger could be somewhat mitigated by throwing meager sums of aid at the symptomatic outcomes of the public policies that have caused the problem to begin with. What we should get from Ramadan is this: poverty cannot be reversed until riba (usury) institutions are destroyed. If our fasting in Ramadan is to be effective, no association ought to be easier to recognize: riba is the root cause of poverty and endless wars. Riba is not just an illegal transaction; it is an illegal system that institutionalizes the passing of and concentration of unearned wealth into the hands of a few, who use the power of money to create tyranny.
Today, another name for institutional riba is capitalism. If Muslims claim to be concerned for doing something about poverty and displacement as a result of war, then they should be attacking capitalism at every available opportunity and by any principled means necessary. They should not be forming an accommodation with it, as even some well meaning but misguided Muslims do.
Furthermore, in light of these alarming statistics, let us consider the other side of the picture: affluence among Muslims. And let us zero in on the Arabian Peninsula where Allah’s (swt) final message was revealed to His beloved Prophet (pbuh) for the first time in the month of Ramadan. Contrary to Allah’s (swt) command and the Sunnah of the noble Messenger (pbuh), the Arabian Peninsula has been renamed “Saudi” Arabia as if it is a piece of real estate owned by a family (nastaghfir-allah). This amounts to shirk because only Allah (swt) is the Owner, Lord, and Sustainer of everything on earth as well as in the universe and beyond.
Given the extreme poverty and hunger in the world, especially among Muslims, have the Saudi “royals” ever considered what Allah (swt) demands of them while they don the mantle of Khadim al-Haramayn (Custodians of the Two Holy Places) and put on an air of contrived taqwa?
We must assume that these “royals” offer their daily salahs and fast in Ramadan. Why is it, then, that the social consciousness, which fasting is supposed to nurture, is lacking among them? How can they sleep easy when the Prophet (pbuh) said, “…a community breaking its fast while one among them is hungry will not be accepted by Allah”? Are not the Muslims supposed to be one brotherhood in which the needs of the (deprived) one are as important as the satisfaction of the many, or the needs of the many are as necessary to fulfill as that of the (wealthy) one? Where is the brotherhood of Islam and the Ummah of Muhammad (pbuh) that we are supposed to nurture? Why is it that the Saudi “royals” and their ilk have protruding bellies from overeating while the children in Somalia and Yemen have skeletal frames because of extreme malnutrition? And the hunger and starvation in Yemen are caused as a direct result of “Saudi” assault on that already impoverished country.
And so it is in this moment of reflection that Allah’s (swt) concluding ayah of the discourse on Ramadan in the noble Qur’an is particularly poignant, “And devour not one another’s wealth wrongfully, nor approach with it decision makers with a view to devouring sinfully, and knowingly, anything that by right belongs to others” (2:188). Money, especially concentrated wealth, infused into the decision-making process (capitalism/democracy) corrupts public political representation as surely as a truthful criterion ennobles and refines it.
The first generation of Muslims observed only nine Ramadans in the company of the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh). In those nine years, they not only transformed the Arabian Peninsula but also spread its liberating message to lands beyond. And within 50 years of the Prophet’s (pbuh) departure from this earthly abode to join heavenly company, Muslims had spread the message of Islam to most of the known world. This was only possible because Muslims rose above divisions of race, tribe, and nationality by establishing social and economic justice in society. And Ramadan with its taqwa-building imperative played an important role in it.
Today, Muslim rulers and elites have institutionalized racism, inequality, and “national sovereignty” into every facet of life and abandoned the commands of Allah (swt). Is it surprising that Muslims are humiliated and despised almost everywhere? Allah (swt) has made taqwa the criterion for one human being to excel another (49:13). When family, race, tribe, or “nation” becomes the determining feature for establishing class hierarchies and institutionalizing economic disparities between different groups of Muslims, humiliation is sure to follow.
Muslims will have power when they respect Allah’s (swt) power — that is, when they have taqwa. Muslims will be weak and humiliated when their public persona is socialized into conformity to man-made power centers or laws. Fasting in Ramadan offers Muslims the opportunity to break from man-made laws and to conform to the commands of Allah (swt) to achieve a life of dignity and honor that He, the Almighty, has promised to His faithful servants, by achieving taqwa.
This is a slightly modified and abridged version of the Foreword (written by this author) to the book, What we should understand about taqwa in Ramadan by Imam Muhammad al-‘Asi, ICIT, 2012.