Ustadh Tabraze Azam gives a detailed account of the adab or the proprieties of Ramadan.
“The fast is mine, and I shall recompense for it” (Bukhari). This is what Allah Mighty and Majestic instructed the Noble Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, to inform his community (umma). The centrality of Ramadan and the fast is not lost on any of us. Allah Most High says, “Fasting is prescribed for you—as it was for those before you—so perhaps you will become mindful of Allah” (Sura al-Baqara 2:183). A month of seemingly endless mercies, blessings and spiritual joy which returns, by Divine grace, year after year to stir up the believers into performing works of everlasting consequence. The secret to a successful Ramadan is in recognizing that, whilst the blessed month comes and goes, the one who makes it come and go is the All-Generous, Ever-Present. The point of Ramadan is to reorient our lives to Allah Most High. This is what we see in the prophetic example, and this is what we aspire to.
1. Sowing the Seeds & Preparation
Genuine and sincere longing for the blessed month entails preparation, namely, some time to sow the seeds, and then to harvest when the noble guest of Ramadan arrives. The proprieties of true preparation include repentance and seeking forgiveness for wrongs, returning any rights owed to their respective owners, reconciling relationships after having wronged people, refraining from sin, planning ahead to ensure that you will have time to reap your harvest, and making lofty intentions.
On the evening following the twenty-ninth day, it is recommended to seek out the new crescent. If it is seen, the recommendation is to supplicate with the words, “O Allah, make it rise over us with safety and faith, and security and submission. My [Lord] and your Lord is Allah (allahumma ahillahu ‘alayna bi’l yumni wa’l iman wa’s salamati wa’l islam rabbi wa rabbuk Allah)” (Tirmidhi). If the sky is overcast, the thirtieth of Sha‘ban is termed the Day of Doubt (yawm al-shakk). Fasting a voluntary fast on this day is recommended, but not necessary, nor disliked, as long as your intention is unequivocally clear.
2. Recommended Sunnas of the Fast
From amongst the recommended sunnas is to partake in a pre-dawn meal (sahur). The Noble Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, said, “Partake in the pre-dawn meal, for indeed, it has blessing [in it].” (Bukhari) Of course, it isn’t necessary to actually have an entire meal, rather a sip of water or a single date also fulfils the sunna. The proper time for this extends from just after the halfway point of the islamic night right up until dawn. Delaying it until just before dawn is also recommended.
When breaking the fast, the sunna is to hasten it. The Beloved Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said, “Allah Mighty and Majestic said, ‘The most beloved of My servants to Me are those who are quickest to break their fast.’” (Tirmidhi) An excessive or undue delay would be to avoid breaking the fast until the stars become manifest in the sky, which, incidentally, is the entry of the disliked time for the sunset (maghrib) prayer. Moreover, the Beloved Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, would regularly break his fast with fresh dates (rutab) or normal dates (tamr), and in their absence, water. (Abu Dawud) But failing that, anything sweet would also suffice, such as various types of fruit. Needless to say that facilitating the means for others to break their fast is also something tremendous in the sunna.
From the greatest of times for supplication is actually any point during the fasting day, but particularly at day’s end. The Noble Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, would supplicate with the words, “The thirst is gone, the veins have been moistened and the reward is assured, if Allah wills (dhahaba al-zama’ wa ‘btallati ‘l-‘uruq wa thabata al-ajr in sha Allah).” (Abu Dawud) Lastly, and most importantly, the greatest sunna of them all is to fast spiritually by abstaining from all that is displeasing to Allah Most High. The warnings of doing otherwise are plain in the prophetic sunna, “… Allah has no need for him to leave his food and drink.” (Bukhari)
3. Generosity & Charity
Our Master ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas reported that the Supreme Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, was “the most generous of people,” and in the month of Ramadan, he was more generous than “an encompassing, swiftly flowing breeze.” (Muslim) Generosity can be in knowledge, service, charity, assistance or otherwise.
From the wisdoms of the month of Ramadan is that we get to appreciate what those of somewhat lesser means experience much more regularly. With our bellies starved of nourishment, our souls weaken and are humbled before our Lord, and what better way to increase in manifest good in such a state than to pull something out of our pockets to give in the way of Allah Most High.
The lawgiver encourages us to give by stipulating a mandatory requirement of charity. Specifically, this is to pay the end of Ramadan charity (sadaqat al-fitr) whereby we strive to lend a hand on the day of ‘Eid to the poor and needy so that they can be as joyous as others. The amount due is the local monetary value of approximately two kilograms of wheat, but each believer may pay beyond that whatever he likes. In order to meet needs, it is preferable to pay it early enough so that it may reach the poor in good time. There’s also nothing wrong with pooling funds together to give a larger amount to a needy person or family.
4. The Secret of Taqwa
The secret of benefiting from this month is in upholding the spiritual dimensions of the fast. What this means is that you protect your mouth from engaging in lying, slander and the like, your eyes from impermissible gazes, your ears from hearing the unlawful, and the rest of your limbs from succumbing to the self’s weakness in this sensitive time. The Beloved Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, encouraged us to be steadfast when he explained that you should say, “I’m fasting,” (Muslim) to the one provoking you to the unbecoming. He also informed us, Allah bless him and give him peace, “How many a fasting person gets nothing from his fast except hunger.” (Ibn Majah)
As well as being vigilant not to break one’s greater fast, one should strive to avoid making up for lost food in the evenings! Many scholars have expressed the harm and undoing of any spiritual gain which comes about by indulging after sunset. Being a little less nourished is sought, and acting in a manner contrary to that vitiates the very experience one is supposed to have in the blessed month. Similarly, one should be avid with time. Disengage from social media and other forms of gratificatory engagement so that you have time for Allah Most High. Keeping up one’s warm family ties (silat al-rahim) is always encouraged, but strive to decrease in unneeded commentary and entertainment.
5. Recitation of the Qur’an
Allah Most High says, “Ramadan is the month in which the Quran was revealed as a guide for humanity with clear proofs of guidance and the standard to distinguish between right and wrong.” (Sura al-Baqara 2:185) This is the month of reconnecting to the Qur’an, engrossing oneself in its recitation and meanings, and changing one’s life for the better by its blessings. The Noble Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, used to mutually recite and review the Qur’an with our Master, the Archangel Jibril, may Allah give him peace, in this month, and notably, twice in the year he left this world. (Bukhari) The same, incidentally, occurred in his final spiritual retreat where he performed it for twenty days, teaching us, once again, that works of devotion should increase, as the days of our life pass by, and not decrease.
The Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, said, “Recite the Qur’an in every month.” (Bukhari) The best of times you can fulfil this sunna is in this blessed month. If difficult, you can also combine your recitation of the Qur’an with listening sessions where you can focus instead on the meanings of what is being recited. Optimally, you would use the month of Ramadan to understand the actual message of the Qur’an, and how to apply it in your life. There are a handful of useful works in English which may help with this, but the best situation is being able to read a reliable work of exegesis (tafsir), ideally with a teacher.
6. Night Prayer
The Beloved Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, informed us that, “Whosoever stands [in prayer] in the month of Ramadan, out of faith and sincerity, his past sins will be forgiven.” (Bukhari)
The night prayer (qiyam al-layl) of Ramadan is tarawih. These twenty cycles (rak‘as) were originally prayed by the Beloved Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, only later to be institutionalised by the Companions (sahaba). All four canonical schools of Islamic Law hold that the tarawih prayer is twenty cycles, and that they are to be prayed after the nightfall (‘isha) prayer. Praying less doesn’t fulfil the sunna fully, but it is superior to not praying at all, particularly in the presence of a genuine excuse. Ideally, these cycles should take place at the mosque because of the special benefits found therein, but praying individually also minimally fulfils the sunna.
The Lady ‘A’isha, may Allah be well-pleased with her, transmitted to us that Allah’s messenger, Allah bless him and give him peace, used to pray eight cycles of night vigil (tahajjud) both inside and outside of Ramadan. (Bukhari) The takeaway is that the month of Ramadan is about struggle, increase and striving, and not simply using the expected works of devotion as replacements for existing routines of worship. But whatever you can do with sincerity is better than nothing at all, and if one does so, one can be hopeful of attaining unto an enormous windfall from an All-Generous Lord.
7. The Spiritual Retreat (i‘tikaf)
One of the dearest of the sunnas of the month of Ramadan is the spiritual retreat (i‘tikaf). Our Master Abu Huraira, may Allah be well-pleased with him, reported that the Noble Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, used to perform the ten-day retreat every single year. (Bukhari) The jurists explain that it is a communally emphasised sunna (sunna mu’akkada kifaya) to perform retreat, that is to say, the duty is fulfilled if somebody in the community performs the retreat at the local mosque, yet all have committed something blameworthy if entirely omitted without excuse.
The retreat entails spending approximately the last ten days and nights in the mosque, worshipping Allah Most High, intending to rise to angelic levels of obedience and devotion, entirely detached from the world and worldliness altogether. The one in the retreat would eat, drink and sleep in the mosque, leaving only for something essential such as to perform the ritual ablution (wudu) and to use the bathroom. Merely being in the mosque and waiting from prayer to prayer, engrossed in learning, remembrance and sincere adoration of the Divine can be a life-changing experience.
If there is a dignified and safe space in the mosque for women, it would be permitted for them to also perform the retreat in the mosque if there is some otherwise unattainable benefit to be found therein. But the Sacred Law (shari‘a) has also permitted them to perform the retreat at home, and it is usually superior for them to do so, all else being equal, something which men are not permitted to do.
8. The Night of Power (laylat al-qadr)
Allah Most High says, “The Night of Glory is better than a thousand months.” (Sura al-Qadr 97:3)
There are many different narrations and positions amongst the scholars of Islam regarding when the Night of Power actually occurs. But many scholars are inclined towards the odd nights of the last ten days of Ramadan. Needless to say that this is also one of the wisdoms for being in a spiritual retreat in the last days of Ramadan! Incidentally, in the nights which may possibly be this special occasion, it is recommended to bathe, cleanse oneself and adorn oneself with perfume and good clothing. But with that, the scholars explain, outward purity is meaningless if unaccompanied with inward purity, namely, deep repentance.
The Beloved Prophet of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, would strive in Ramadan in a manner greater than other months, and in the last ten days in a manner unlike the others. (Muslim) The Lady ‘A’isha, may Allah be well-pleased with her, said that when the last ten days of Ramadan arrived, the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, “would worship in the night, awaken his family, strive and really dedicate himself to working [righteous deeds].” (Bukhari)
She also reported, may Allah be well-pleased with her, that she asked the Noble Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, “If I know which night the Night of Power is, what should I supplicate in it? He said, ‘Say: O Allah, You are Pardoning and you love pardon, so pardon me (allahumma innaka ‘afuwwun tuhibbu ‘l-‘afwa fa‘fu ‘anni).’” (Tirmidhi)
9. Keeping up the Forward Impetus
The early Muslims (salaf) would supplicate for up to six months after the ending of Ramadan, asking Allah Most High to accept their works. A meaningful Ramadan is a month in which routines of consistent devotion are established, godfearingness (taqwa) settles in the heart and a desire to please Allah Most High covers one’s states and works. Finally, the Beloved Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said, “Whosoever fasts [the month of] Ramadan and follows it up with six [fasts] of Shawwal, it is as if he has fasted the entire year.” (Muslim)
We ask Allah Most High to grant us the ability to become people of deep faith, certitude and godfearingness, solely for His sake, increasing in each and every moment to higher states of Divine Good Pleasure.
And Allah alone gives success.