Fasting, Prayer, Qur'an, and Spirituality in the Month of Ramadan

Ramadan: A Time for Spiritual Nourishment – Shaykh Seraj Hendricks


Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, a leading and renowned scholar of South Africa, provides scholarly insights and spiritual reflections through a collection of essays on how we can make the most of Ramadan.

The Fellowship of Rayyan

 

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الصِّيَامُ كَمَا كُتِبَ عَلَى الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ

O you who have faith! Fasting is prescribed upon you in as much as it has been prescribed upon those before you, so that perhaps you may learn God-consciousness.” (Q, 2: 183).

This verse makes it quite clear that fasting during the month of Ramadan is an obligation on every Muslim who has reached the age of legal responsibility (taklif/mukallaf). The key phrase in this verse, however, is the one that declares “so that perhaps you may learn God-consciousness”; or, in the original Arabic “la’allakum tattaqun”. This phrase – and similar ones occur with great frequency throughout the Quran – also demonstrates how eminently practical the Quranic commands are. There is no promise that the mere act of fasting would result in taqwa. The reason for this is captured in numerous hadiths that speak about the spirit of Ramadan. While the “letter” is important in the form of the law, there can be little doubt that without an awareness, an understanding and an internalisation of this spirit, that no legal rules would be able to secure the benefits of fasting. While we may argue that knowledge of the legal rulings is a platitudinous necessity; we need to argue with even greater force that knowledge of the spirit of Ramadan is essential to the actualization of ourselves as people who fast.

Amongst the prophetic sayings that clearly point to this are the following:

 “How many a person fasts without gaining anything except hunger and thirst?” (Nisa’i and Ibn Majah).

This hadith is elaborated upon and explained by the following hadith:

“Those who refuse to renounce preaching and spreading falsehood and then acting upon such falsities, Allah has no need of their abandoning their food and drink.” (Bukhari).


In another narration the Prophet (Peace and salutations upon him) said:

“Fasting (siyam) is a fortress. Therefore, if the day of fasting arrives for any of you, then refrain from any obscene behaviour and any acts of rage. And if one is insulted or physically abused then respond with the words ‘Inni Sa’im’ – I am fasting!” (Bukhari and Muslim).

Those who have the capacity to exercise such discipline, patience and restraint while fasting, will certainly be amongst the Companions and Fellowship of Rayyan. Said the Prophet – and narrated by Sa’ad ibn Sahl:

“Indeed in Paradise there is a door called Rayyan. On the Day of Resurrection those who have truly fasted shall qualify to enter that door. None other than them shall enter it. Once they have entered, the door shall be locked and barred, and none shall ever leave it.” (Bukhari, Muslim and Ibn Khuzaymah).

We can only strive and qualify for entry into this illuminated Fellowship of Rayyan if we are able to fulfil the exacting tasks of the moral and spiritual demands of the month of Ramadan.

Sacrifice and Sincerity

 

وَالصَّائِمِينَ وَالصَّائِمَاتِ وَالْحَافِظِينَ فُرُوجَهُمْ وَالْحَافِظَاتِ وَالذَّاكِرِينَ اللَّهَ كَثِيرًا وَالذَّاكِرَاتِ أَعَدَّ اللَّهُ لَهُم مَّغْفِرَةً وَأَجْرًا عَظِيمًا
For men who fast and women who fast; for men who guard their chastity and women who guard their chastity; for men who remember Allah abundantly and women who remember Allah abundantly – for them Allah has set aside forgiveness and a great reward. (Q, 33: 35)

The Prophet (Peace and salutations upon him) said that Allah says:

“‘The reward for every deed of a person is multiplied by ten till seven hundred, except for fasting. Fasting is solely for My sake and I shall personally grant the reward. The fasting person abandons all desire and food for my sake.’ There are two occasions of joy for the one who fasts. The joy one experiences when breaking one’s fast and the joy one will experience when one meets one’s Lord.” (Bukhari, Muslim, Nisai, Ibn Maja, Abu Dawud and Tirmidhi).

Two vital aspects of the condition of the fasting person are highlighted here. The first is the question of sincerity (ikhlas) and the second, that of sacrifice. The first will be dealt with here; the second in the next segment.

Unlike most sacred rituals, such as the salah for example, the act of fasting is not visible to anyone. It is almost impossible to determine whether a person is fasting or not. It is a matter entirely between the individual and Allah. In other words, it is an act of pure renunciation. As an act of pure renunciation, it brings us face-to-face with our basic human limitations and needs. And in exposing these needs – these limitations – we are in fact reminded that the normal and natural human condition ought to be one of humility and sincerity. It is only the Divine Condition that is exclusively and uniquely independent. Allah, stands alone and inimitable in His Lordship. We – as a composition of human beings, and often arrogantly so – are both dependent on and defenceless in the face of Allah’s Rububiyyah (Lordship). Allah is Rabb; the human is ‘abd. In other words, one of our defining conditions is ‘ubudiyyah (bondsmanship) and not Rububiyyah. It is in the recognition and acceptance of this state of ‘ubudiyyah that the paradox of the potential for a merciful coexistence with our fellow human beings reside – the male of us and the female of us. For it is in the recognition of this state of ‘bondsmanship’ that we discover the liberating rhythms of sincerity and humility. Humility is neither slavery nor subservience. It is a deferential state that finds its life in the hearts of the sincere and that bursts into a reverential song that celebrates the humanity, the diversity and the humanness of another. It is in this song – this song of humility and sincerity; this song of the heart – that we come to discover the meaning of respect. Hence the Prophetic command to avoid any form of obscenities (rafath) and raging (sakhab) during the month of Ramadan. No amount of hunger and thirst can either undo or even legitimise the iniquitous results of the latter two conditions.

Severing our ties with the material world during this month is merely an aid to accomplishing these elevated states of spirituality and morality. In essence, fasting is an act of self-extinction. Those, therefore, who fast the month of Ramadan with faith “(imanan) and with selfless anticipation of Allah’s generosity and reward in the hereafter (ihtisaban)” [Bukhari and Muslim] will find their reward inexpressibly immeasurable. It is for this reason – as mentioned earlier – that only Allah as opposed to any other sacred and divine reward – knows the measure of the reward of the one who truly fasts for His sake alone.

Sabr: Patience, Endurance and Perseverance

 

Sabr (patience and endurance) is mentioned in the Quran more than 90 times.

Amongst these verses is the following:

وَأَطِيعُوا اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ وَلَا تَنَازَعُوا فَتَفْشَلُوا وَتَذْهَبَ رِيحُكُمْ ۖ وَاصْبِرُوا ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ مَعَ الصَّابِرِينَ
Obey Allah and His messenger. And do not fall into disputation amongst yourselves; for in such disputation you will lose your strength. So be patient, for indeed, Allah is with those who patiently endure (sabr). (Q, 8: 46).

Apart from the Divine rewards for this sacred human quality there are also earthly rewards. Very few things of worth come without a struggle. The joy a mother feels at giving birth is a result of nine months of patience and endurance. Likewise, the joy of graduating, of having completed a successful assignment at work, of completing a brilliant work of art, and so on, are all the fruits of sabr.

The month of Ramadan is also referred to as the Shahr as-Sabr (The Month of Patience and Endurance). On the other hand, as the Prophet (Peace and salutations upon him) said:

“Clemency is from Allah and haste is from satan.” (Tirmidhi).

Things done in haste, unthinkingly, impulsively and rashly are invariably bereft of barakah (divine grace). Even our struggles against the worst of oppression need to be conducted with wisdom and deliberation. One of the most touching hadiths dealing with the overzealous and reckless nature of haste is the following narrated by Khabbab ibn al-Aratt (May Allah be pleased with him) in Sahih Bukhari. The Companions (May Allah be pleased with them) were distressed by the persecution of Muslims in Makkah and – close to despair – they turned to the Prophet (Peace and salutations upon him) for help.

The narration is as follows:

We raised a complaint with the Messenger of Allah while he was reclining on a shawl spread out in the shade of the Ka’ba. We said: “Do you not seek assistance for us? Do you not pray for us?
The Prophet (saw) then said: “There was a time before you when a man would be taken and partially placed and buried in the earth. They would then approach him with a saw, place it on his head and slice him in two. He would then be lacerated – both flesh and bones – with rakes of steel so that he may stop pursuing his beliefs. But I swear by Allah, that Allah desires your freedom to worship to the point where one may travel from Sana’a to Hadramawt fearing none other than Allah, even while a wolf is stalking his flock. But you…you are impatient!” (Bukhari).

However, to some, the question of sabr can be an elusive matter. What we need to understand first is that this world which we inhabit is a Dar al-Bala’ (An Abode of Appraisal). We will be tested, and our attitudes and responses evaluated. The best of us would be those whose attitudes and responses most closely approximate to that of the Prophetic standard and the Quranic ethos. Allah says:

تَبَارَكَ الَّذِي بِيَدِهِ الْمُلْكُ وَهُوَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ
الَّذِي خَلَقَ الْمَوْتَ وَالْحَيَاةَ لِيَبْلُوَكُمْ أَيُّكُمْ أَحْسَنُ عَمَلًا ۚ وَهُوَ الْعَزِيزُ الْغَفُور
Blessed is He in Whose Hands lie all dominion. And He has power over all things.
The One who has created Death and Life so that He may test those who are best in deeds. (Q, 67: 1-2).

In the sacred order of things, nihilism is absent. In this passage of the Quran, Death and Life are personified aspects of a real existence – aspects through and by which we will be tested. Those who pass this test are the people of ihsan – those whose thoughts, conduct and behaviour are marked by excellence, both outwardly and inwardly.

In three striking passages of the Quran Allah (swt) reveals three blessings of which the sabirin will be the fortunate beneficiaries. Says Allah:

وَلَنَبْلُوَنَّكُم بِشَيْءٍ مِّنَ الْخَوْفِ وَالْجُوعِ وَنَقْصٍ مِّنَ الْأَمْوَالِ وَالْأَنفُسِ وَالثَّمَرَاتِ ۗ وَبَشِّرِ الصَّابِرِينَ

الَّذِينَ إِذَا أَصَابَتْهُم مُّصِيبَةٌ قَالُوا إِنَّا لِلَّهِ وَإِنَّا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ

أُولَٰئِكَ عَلَيْهِمْ صَلَوَاتٌ مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ وَرَحْمَةٌ ۖ وَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُهْتَدُونَ

We shall indeed test you with something of fear and hunger, and some loss in wealth and life and the fruits (of your labour). But give the Good News to those who patiently endure.

Those who say – when afflicted by a calamity – “To Allah we belong, and to Him is our return.”

They are those on whom the blessings of Allah descend and upon whom the Mercy of Allah is; and they are the truly guided. (Q, 2: 155-7)

It is clear from these verses that those who patiently endure are the recipients of the following three unique rewards:
1) The Grace and Blessings of Allah (Salawat)
2) His Mercy (Rahmah) and
3) The beneficiaries and recipients of His direct guidance (Huda).

Nonetheless it is important to understand – as so many mistakenly do – that sabr does not include all forms of tests and hardships, regardless of the nature. This is a seriously incorrect understanding.

Sabr eminently belongs to a domain of testing and suffering that is largely out of our reach. Such as, for example, being diagnosed with a deadly illness, the loss of a loved one or an economic crisis for which there is no immediate solution etc.

Other than the above, such as abusive husbands, tyrannical rulers, discrimination and injustice which are all within our reach to change, these are all conditions that demand, as our Islamic duty, that we attempt to try and change. Said the Prophet (Peace and salutations upon him):

Those of you who witness an abomination, let him change it with his hands; if he is unable to do so, then let him speak out against it; and if he cannot do even that, then let him reject it in his heart – and this latter is the lowest form of Iman. (Muslim).

May Allah cast us all in the mould of those who are able to patiently endure those vicissitudes of life that are often not within our reach to change or alter. But let Allah also provide us with the moral strength and courage to change those forms of unwarranted tyranny, abuse and injustice, all of which are nothing less than a reprehensible slap in the face of Islam.

 


Biography

Shaykh Seraj Hasan Hendricks is an internationally recognised leading scholar of normative Sunni Islam, steeped in the rich legacy of the classical heritage, based in Cape Town, South Africa. He is Resident Shaykh of the Zawiyah Institute in Cape Town, and holder of the Maqasid Chair at the International Peace University of South Africa. Shaykh Seraj studied the Islamic sciences for more than a decade in the holy city of Makka, and was appointed as khalīfa of the aforementioned muaddith of the Ḥijāz, the distinguished al-Sayyid Muhammad b. ʿAlawī al-Mālikī, master of the Ṭarīqa ʿUlamāʿ Makka – the (sufi) path of the Makkan scholars.

Shaykh Seraj Hendricks was a high school English teacher between 1980 and 1982 in Cape Town before leaving for Saudi Arabia in 1983 to study at the Umm al-Qura University in Makka. Before this, he spent many years studying at the feet of his illustrious uncle, the late Shaykh Mahdi Hendricks – erstwhile Life President of the Muslim Judicial Council and widely regarded as one of the foremost scholars of Islam in southern Africa. Shaykh Seraj was actively engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa during the 80’s and early 90’s.

Shaykh Seraj spent three years at the Arabic Language Institute in Makka studying Arabic and related subjects before being accepted for the BA (Hons) Islamic Law degree. He specialised in fiqh and uūl al-fiqh in the Faculty of Sharīʿa and graduated in 1992. During his studies at Umm al-Qura University, he was also a student of the late Sayyid Muhammad ʿAlawī al-Mālikī in Makka for a period of eight years and from whom he obtained a full ijāza in the religious sciences. He also obtained ijāzāt from both the late Sayyid Ahmad Mashur al-Ḥaddād and Sayyid ʿAbd al-Qādir b. Ahmad al-Saqqaf (d. 1431/2010). These scholars are all known as some of the pre-eminent ‘ulama of the ummah in the 20th century, worldwide.

After his return to Cape Town he received an MA (Cum Laude) for his dissertation: “Taawwuf (Sufism) – Its Role and Impact on the Culture of Cape Islam” from the University of South Africa (UNISA). He is currently at the tail-end of completing his PhD at the same institution.

Apart from fiqh and uūl al-fiqh, some of Shaykh Seraj’s primary interests are in Sufism, Islamic civilisation studies, interfaith matters, gender studies, socio-political issues and related ideas of pluralism and identity. He has lectured and presented papers in many countries, sharing platforms with his contemporaries.

He has translated works of Imam al-Ghazālī, and summarised parts of the Revival of the Religious Sciences (Iyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn), most notably in the Travelling Light series, together with Shaykhs ʿAbd al-Hakīm Murad and Yaḥyā Rhodus.

Some of his previous positions included being the head of the Muslim Judicial Council’s Fatwa Committee (which often led to him being described as the ‘Mufti of Cape Town’), lecturer in fiqh at the Islamic College of Southern Africa (ICOSA), and lecturer in the Study of Islam at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). Currently he is a member of the Stanlib Sharīʿa Board, and chief arbitrator (akīm) of the Crescent Observer’s Society, and has been listed consecutively in the Muslim 500 from 2009 to 2018. He was also appointed Dean of the Madina Institute in South Africa, a recognised institution of higher learning in South Africa and part of the world Madina Institute seminaries led by Shaykh Dr Muhammad Ninowy. Shaykh Seraj is also a professor at the International Peace University of South Africa, holding the Maqasid Chair for Graduate Studies.

Shaykh Seraj has also been teaching a variety of Islamic-related subjects at the Zāwiyah Mosque in Cape Town, which together with his brother Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks, he is the current resident Shaykh of. Alongside his brother, he is the representative (khalīfa) of the aforementioned muaddith of the Ḥijāz, the distinguished al-Sayyid Muhammad b. ʿAlawī al-Mālikī, master of the Ṭarīqa ʿUlamāʿ Makka – the (sufi) path of the Makkan scholars.