Ramadan: A time for self-restraint that purifies the soul | Sunday Observer

Ramadan: A time for self-restraint that purifies the soul

Muslims around the world welcome the start of the blessed month of Ramazan on Friday, May 26, based on the sighting of the crescent moon. It is a month of fasting and not simply about abstaining from food and water for 14 hours or so a day. It’s a month of spiritual journey that helps purify the soul, refocus attention on God and practice self sacrifice. The Sunday Observer interviewed Ash-Sheikh A.C. Agar Mohamed, Vice President, All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), the highest assembly of Sri Lankan Islamic scholars about Ramadan and its significance. Following are excerpts of the interview.

Q. What is Ramadan?

A. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It is the month when Muslims world over observe the fast, which begins upon the sighting of the first moon, for the month and lasts 29 or 30 days, in accordance with the lunar calendar.

Q. Tell us about the history of Ramadan Fasting?

A. “Siyam,”or fasting in the month of Ramadan is one of the main pillars of Islam. “Siyam” was prescribed on the second of “Sha’ban” (8th month of the Islamic lunar calendar), in the second year of “Hijra” (the Prophet Muhammad’s emigration from Makkah to Madinah). It is mentioned in the Holy Quran and “Sunnah” (Sunnah refers to the sayings, deeds or consent of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).

Q. Why do Muslims fast?

A. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five Pillars of Islam, the five activities that shape a Muslim’s life, namely, daily prayers, faith in Allah, charity and pilgrimage to Mecca (Makka). Fasting during Ramadan is an annual observance; Muslims take an entire month out of their lives to observe the fast and rededicate themselves to worship and faith.

Muslims are called upon to use this month to re-evaluate their lives in the light of Islamic guidance. We make peace with those who have wronged us, strengthen ties with family and friends, do away with bad habits, and essentially cleanse our lives, thoughts and feelings. The Arabic word for “fasting” literally means “to refrain,” and it means not only refraining from food and drink, but also from evil actions, thoughts and words.

Prophet Muhammad said: “Fasting is not merely refraining from food and drink. Fasting is refraining from vain talk and indecency. If one slanders you or is aggressive, say I am fasting, I am fasting” ( Al hakim)

The physical effects of the fast are felt by Muslims as a reminder of those who suffer throughout the year - the poor, homeless, refugees and who cannot meet their basic needs. It reminds the Muslims not to be wasteful and to feel empathy for those who face hunger, daily. We should feel gratitude for the bounties of Allah: clean water, sufficient healthy food, the comfort of a home and the health of our family members.

During Ramadan, every part of our body must be restrained. The tongue must be restrained from backbiting and gossip. The eyes must restrain themselves from looking at unlawful things. The hand must give charity and not touch or take anything that does not belong to it. The ears must refrain from listening to idle talk or obscene words. The feet must refrain from going to sinful places. In such a way, every part of the body observes the fast.

Therefore, fasting is not merely physical but rather the total commitment of the person’s body and soul to the spirit of the fast. Ramadan is a time to practice self-restraint; a time to cleanse the body and soul from impurities and re-focus one’s self on the worship of God and charity to mankind.

Q. What is the significance of the month?

A. Like other injunctions of Islam, the benefits of Ramadan are not limited purely to either “spiritual” or “temporal” elements of life. In Islam, the spiritual, social, economic, political and psychological all intermingle in a consistent and cohesive all. Fasting above all is an act of obedience and submission to Allah. This is based on the love of Allah and the earnest effort to gain His pleasure. If this is the only reason for fasting, it surely suffices.

Fasting is an act of atonement for our sins and mistakes. As the Prophet says: “Whoever fasts the month of Ramadan on the basis of Iman (faith) and seeking the pleasure of Allah, his past errors are forgiven.”

Fasting trains the believer in Taqwa (to be mindful of Allah). If one volunteers to refrain from lawful food and sex, he/she will be in a better position to avoid the unlawful things and acts. It enhances the feelings of inner peace, contentment and optimism.

Fasting promotes the spirit of unity and belonging within the Muslims. Millions of Muslims all over the world fast during the same month following the same rules and observances. Fasting promotes the spirit of human equality before Allah.

All Muslims, male and female, rich and poor from all backgrounds go through the same experience of deprivation with no special privileges or favours for any group or class.

Q. How is the beginning and the end of Ramadan determined?

A. The beginning of the month of Siyam (Ramadan) is determined by the sighting of the new moon for Ramadan or by the completion of the 30th day of the month of Sha’ban, the month preceding Ramadan.

Prophet Muhammad said: “Fast when you see it (the moon for Ramadan) and break your fast when you see it (the moon for “Shawwal”, the month following Ramadan). And if weather is cloudy, calculate it as thirty days” (bukhari) Is the sighting of the new moon in one locality binding on all Muslims? Muslim Jurists gave two different interpretations: Some Jurists contended, if the new moon is sighted anywhere, fasting becomes mandatory for all Muslims who have access to this information. They base their interpretation on the fact that the above cited Hadeeth addresses Muslims in general regardless of where they reside. This enhances Muslim unity. Some Jurists contend, however, that the sighting of the new moon in one locality or area is binding only on the residents of that area and its surroundings.

Q. What are the desirable things and religious practices in Ramadan?

A. To make a night meal (called Suhoor) as close to ‘Fajr’ time as possible. Prophet Muhammad said: “partake Suhoor for there is blessing in Suhoor.” (Bukhari, Muslim) The blessings of Suhoor include strengthening the person, enabling him/her to continue to be active during the day, and making fasting tolerable. To break the fast as soon as one is sure the sun has set. Prophet Muhammad said: “If any of you was fasting, let him break the fast with dates. If he cannot find dates let him break the fast with water for water is wholesome.” (Thirmidi).

That first sip of water is the most anticipated moment of the day. After sunset prayers, ‘Iftar’, the first meal is shared with family and friends. Iftar is a social event as much as it is a gastronomical adventure. When breaking the fast, it is recommended to make prayers; observe the supererogatory prayer known as ‘’Taraweeh’’ at nights; spend time reciting and studying the Qur’an; be more generous especially, to the poor; perform more voluntary prayers particularly, during the last ten days of Ramadan; and exchange social visits and intensify humanitarian services.

Q. On whom is fasting compulsory?

A. “Siyam” is mandatory on every Muslim who is sane, adult, able and resident.

Q. Can one be exempted from fasting?

A. Following categories are exempted:

The insane; children who are not adolescent yet; the elderly and the chronically ill for whom fasting is unreasonably strenuous; pregnant women and nursing mothers who fear that fasting may endanger their lives or health or those of their fetuses or infants; those who are ill or travelling provided they make up for the missed days of fasting when they are well; women during the period of menstruation or of post childbirth confinement

Q. What are the health issues and benefits of fasting?

A. A great deal has been written about the medical and health benefits of fasting, both, by Muslims and non-Muslim scientists. These benefits include the elimination of harmful fatty substances from the blood, helping the cure of certain types of intestinal and stomach ailments and renewal of body tissues. Needles to say some ailments may be aggravated by fasting, in which case the person is exempted from fasting.

For those who may be engaged in Islamically and medically undesirable habits, such as over-eating or smoking, the self control and disciplined exercised in Ramadan provide an excellent beginning to ‘kick-out’ these bad habits. In a sense, fasting is an annual physical overhaul of the body.

The Prophet recommended to break the fast with dates. Physicians point out that breaking the fast with such a sweet food helps remove the symptoms of weakness felt at the end of fast since sugar is immediately absorbed by the body. Similarly, one should not overeat so as not to destroy some of the benefits of fasting. It should be reiterated, however, that the main motive in fasting is to obey Allah and seek His pleasure.

Q. How is the end of Ramadan celebrated?

A. One of the most joyous days in the Islamic calendar, Eid al-Fitr, also known as Eid ul-Fitr or Eid, is a celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. To mark the beginning of Eid and in accordance with the practices of Prophet Muhammad, many Muslims wake up early in the morning and recite Salat ul-Fajr, the pre-dawn prayer. After taking a bath and wearing perfume, they have breakfast before heading off to perform special congregational prayers known as Salaat al-Eid.

Many Muslims recite the Takbir, a declaration of faith, on the way to the prayer ground and give special charitable contributions known as Zakat al-Fitr. Eid al-Fitr is a day of great merriment and thanksgiving. Muslims celebrate by gathering with friends and family, preparing sweet delicacies, wearing new clothes, giving each other gifts and putting up lights and other decorations in their homes. A common greeting during this holiday is Eid Mubarak, which means, “Have a blessed Eid!” 

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