Ramadan: A Time for Spiritual Nourishment

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

“O believers! Fasting is prescribed for you—as it was for those before you—so perhaps you will become mindful (of Allah).” [Quran, 2:183]

This verse makes it quite clear that fasting during the month of Ramadan is an obligation for 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 perhaps you will become mindful (of Allah)” or, in the original Arabic, “la‘allakum tattaqun.” This phrase – and similar ones that occur frequently 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 internalization 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 times does a person fast 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 (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:

“Fasting (siyam) is a fortress. Therefore, if the day of fasting arrives for any of you, then refrain from any obscene behavior and any acts of rage. And if one is insulted or physically abused, then respond with the words— I am fasting!” [Bukhari; 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; Ibn Khuzayma]

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

Sacrifice and Sincerity

“For fasting men and women, men and women who guard their chastity, and men and women who remember Allah often—for (all of) them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.” [Quran, 33:35]

The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) 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; Nisa’i; Ibn Majah; Abu Dawud; 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 is 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 (Most High) stands alone and inimitable in His Lordship. We, as a composition of human beings, and often arrogantly so – are both dependent on and defenseless in the face of Allah’s Rububiyyah (Lordship). Allah is Rabb; the human is ‘abd.

In other words, our defining conditions are ‘Ubudiyyah (bondsmanship) and not Rububiyya. In recognizing and accepting this state of ‘Ubudiyyah, the paradox of the potential for a merciful coexistence with our fellow human beings resides – the male of us and the female of us. In recognizing this state of “bondsmanship,” 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 is 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 legitimize the iniquitous results of the latter two conditions.

Severing our ties with the material world during this month merely aids in 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 and with selfless anticipation of Allah’s generosity and reward in the hereafter 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 are the following:

“Obey Allah and His Messenger and do not dispute with one another, or you would be discouraged and weakened. Persevere! Surely Allah is with those who persevere.” [Quran, 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 al-Sabr (The Month of Patience and Endurance). On the other hand, as the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:

“Clemency is from Allah and haste is from satan.” [Tirmidhi]

Things done in haste, unthinkingly, impulsively, and rashly are invariably bereft of baraka (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 (Allah be pleased with him) in Bukhari. The Companions (Allah be pleased with them) were distressed by the persecution of Muslims in Makkah (close to despair), so 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 (Allah bless him and give him peace) 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’ 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 elusive. First, we need to understand that this world we inhabit is a Dar al-Bala’ (An Abode of Appraisal). We will be tested, and our attitudes and responses will be 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 (Most High) says:

“Blessed is the One in Whose Hands rests all authority. And He is Most Capable of everything. (He is the One) Who created death and life in order to test which of you is best in deeds. And He is the Almighty, All-Forgiving.” [Quran 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 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 behavior are marked by excellence, both outwardly and inwardly.

In three striking passages of the Quran, Allah (Most High) reveals three blessings of which the sabirin will be the fortunate beneficiaries. Allah (Most High) says:

“We will certainly test you with a touch of fear and famine and loss of property, life, and crops. Give good news to those who patiently endure—who say, when struck by a disaster, “Surely to Allah we belong and to Him we will (all) return.” They are the ones who will receive Allah’s blessings and mercy. And it is they who are (rightly) guided.” [Quran, 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;
  2. His Mercy (Rahma); 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 their 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. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:

“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.

[Shaykh] Seraj Hendricks