Mahfouz A. Adedimeji, Ph.D.
Since fasting in Ramadhan was made obligatory in the second year of Hijrah, generations of Muslims have maximized the gains and benefits of this holy month. It has been observed in our part of the world since Islam reached the savannah region of West Africa in the eighth century, the date that the history of West Africa began, when Umme Jilmi (1097-1150) accepted faith from the great scholar, Hamed Muhammad Mani. In Qur’an Chapter 2 (al-Baqarah) verse 183, Allah says, “Fasting has been prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those who were before you so that you might attain piety.” The language used by Allah is “prescribe”, the way a medical doctor prescribes medicine to the sick and the benefits of fasting range from the physical and medical to the psychological.
This year (1435 A.H.), Ramadhan coincides with the period of the World Cup organized by FIFA. However, FIFA is just not about football now; Muslims should be aware that FIFA, for our purpose, is also “Fasting Is For Allah” and the holy month of fasting should not be spent on watching adults running after some round leather in Brazil. The month is here with us and we should use it maximally for its intended purpose. We are lucky in Nigeria that we are not in Iceland, where the longest fasting will be observed this year (21 hours). The shortest period of fasting will be observed in Argentina (9 hours), yes, Argentina that Nigeria beat 3 – 2 last Wednesday! India will be fasting for 15 hours and for us in Nigeria, it is 14 hours, from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00p.m. on the average.
Ramadhan is a period of social cohesion/order when the gulf between the rich and the poor is bridged by abstention and it is ultimately the period of spiritual rejuvenation or taqwa. The essence of Ramadhan lies in its spiritual content; a fasting Muslim deprived of spiritual uplift now is not more than an activist embarking on a hunger strike – no divine reward.
Fasting or siyam in Islam means abstention from food and drink from dawn to dusk, basically. I say basically because other things are involved. A fasting Muslim does not engage in sexual intercourse with his wife; he does not tell lies; he does not engage in idle talk; he does not slander people or engage in back-biting; and he does not speak angrily. Fasting in Ramadhan has its do’s and don’ts all tailored to achieve its most important lesson and pristine teaching: piety or reformation of character.
Thus, it is not only the mouth of a Muslim that fasts, his eyes, his ears, his tongue, in fact all his senses and entire body are involved in the spiritual exercise. Abu Hurairah reported that the Prophet (SAW) said, “Whoever does not give up bad speech and evil actions, Allah is not in need of his abstention from food and drink, meaning that Allah will not accept his fasting” (Bukhari Vol. 3, No 127).
One unique feature of fasting as a form of worship is that it is singled out by Allah as essentially belonging to him. “This is because it is a pure performance that cannot be blemished by hypocrisy” (Fathul Baari Vol.5.p.10). The Prophet, Muhammad, (SAW) also said, “The month of Ramadhan, the month of blessings has come upon you, wherein Allah turns towards you and sends down to you His special Mercy, forgives your faults, accepts prayers, appreciates your competing for the greatest good and boasts to the angels about you. So show to Allah your righteousness; for verily, the most pitiable and unfortunate one is he who is deprived of Allah’ s Mercy in this month”.
Ramadhan as an acronym, a morphological or word formation process by which a word is derived from the combination of the initial letters of a group of words, entails all the benefits we ought to derive from it so as to attain beatitude. Ramadhan is all about Repentance, Appreciation, Manners, Activeness, Discipline, Honesty, Adhkaar and Negation to Shaitan. What do all these mean and how can you transform yourself through Ramadhan?
The first letter of Ramadhan teaches the need for repentance. Have you repented from your sins and iniquities yet? When the Prophet (SAW) said that whoever observes Ramadhan fasting faithfully and accordingly (expecting Allah’s reward), all his past sins would be forgiven, the entailment therein is that the person would have sought repentance. “All the children of Adam are sinners”, the Prophet (SAW) was reported to have said in another tradition, “and the best of sinners are the penitent/repentant ones.”
One lesson of Ramadhan is repentance since the Prophet (SAW) told us that whoever observes it faithfully and accountably would be forgiven all his past sins. Imam Anas (R.A.) said: “You that are in the present generation do certain deeds for which you are proud and happy. But we looked at such during the time of the Prophet as deeds that could fetch Allah’s punishment.”
There are many things/sins like that which the present-day Muslims have taken for granted. Enormities such as voyeurism (looking with pleasure at the opposite sex whether physically or in pictures or films), shaking hands with the opposite sex, telling ‘small lies,’ delaying Salat, refraining from congregational prayers, back-biting, slander, envy, wickedness, bribery, corruption, etc. are some of them. That a good number of Muslims take those vices as ‘normal’, ‘ordinary’, ‘trendy’ or ‘modern’ is an open sore on our collective conscience. We are all involved, though some are more involved than the others. This is why we must not take repentance in this glorious month, in this auspicious period of forgiveness, with a pinch of salt.
The Prophet (SAW) further warned you and me regarding the so-called petty sins that we deliberately commit: “Beware of under-estimating sins because those trivial sins in your view are analogous to a group that assembles at a particular place. They fetch sticks little by little until the wood are great enough to prepare their meal. This is the similitude of the petty sins in your eyes, they will destroy their accumulator instalmentally on the Day of Reckoning”. The tendency to trivialize sins in an index of wrong-doing and hypocrisy. According to Abdullah bin Mas’ud, “when a believer remembers his past sins, he sees himself as if he is under a suspended heavy rock under which he sits and fears that the rock does not fall on him. But a wrong-doer (a faasiq) sees his sins/past misdeeds as an ordinary fly on his nose which he drives off with his finger.”
However, for repentance to be valid, its four conditions have to be met. A Muslim who seeks repentance must shun sins with immediate effect. Whatever he does that is sinful must be abandoned. Then, he has to be truly remorseful for his past sins. He should be sad and regretful on account of the sins he had committed against his own soul. The third condition is the determination not to return to sins again. A truly contrite person does not commit the offence for which he seeks pardon again. And above all, a penitent and repentant person must return people’s rights (that he had wrongly taken) to them and seek their forgiveness. One does not repent to Allah except by seeking the forgiveness of those who he wronged on account of whom he offended Allah.
The second letter represents appreciation. According to the Qur’an, Allah has endowed us with all what nature offers so that we may offer thanks. The root of disbelief is ingratitude. The meaning of a Kaafir literally is an ingrate. Allah expects us to thank Him always; He requires us to appreciate Him. The reason is that none is worth appreciating than Allah, if we think deeply. It is only those that appreciate Allah that are submissive to Him. We have many things to thank Allah for and we should be grateful.
In the month of Ramadan, the rich suffer the pangs of hunger that the poor perpetually undergo. Those that are privileged to be economically viable should therefore be grateful, and by extension, be compassionate to those who are not. Every period like this deserves unquantifiable appreciation to Him who makes everything possible. It is part of Allah’s grace that you, for example, are not dead. Many have died since the beginning of this year and they didn’t know they would not live up to this point and many more are still dying till now.
Since the beginning of reading this article alone, some two thousand five hundred people have died throughout the world. One of the reasons for which Allah does not answer His servants’ prayers is ingratitude, as given by Ibrahim bin Adham. The best prayer one can ever say is ‘Alhamdu lillahi rabbil ‘aalamin’ (praise/thanks be to Allah, the Lord of the worlds). We always have every reason to thank Allah but we have always often been ungrateful to Him. Why will you and I remain ungrateful while all other creatures celebrate His praise? “The seven heavens extol His limitless glory, and the earth, and whatever is in them; and there is not a single thing but which glorifies Him with His praise, but you do not understand their glorification. Surely, He is All-forbearing, All-forgiving” (Q.Al-Israi 17:44).
The next letter represents manners. What made the Prophet (SAW) distinctive? It was his manners. According to him (SAWS), “I have been sent only for the perfection of good morals(manners)” (Al-Mu’atta). Thus, Muslims must make him their model if their claim to Islam is not just a lip-service. Allah was so impressed by the Prophet’s character that He told him “And you indeed are of an exalted standard of character” (Q. Al-Qalam 68:4). In another part of the Qur’an, Allah says: “Indeed in the Messenger of Allah (Muhammad, SAWS) you have a good example to follow, for him who hopes for (the meeting with) Allah and the Last Day, and remembers Allah much (Q. Al-Ahzaab 33:21).
Many people had embraced Islam by dint of the Prophet’s manners. The examples are innumerable. Do we talk of the old woman who had been misinformed about the Prophet but who later had a personal encounter with him, the basis of which made her to profess shahaadah? Do we talk of the uncultured Bedouin who was courteously attended to by the Prophet to the surprise of the companions, despite the Bedouin’s impudent manners? Do we talk of the person who urinated in the mosque and the countenance of the Prophet? Indeed, we cannot be Muslims until we behave as the Prophet behaved, in private and public life. An important lesson Ramadhan teaches us is to reform our character and imbibe manners of Muhammad.
The next letter stands for activeness. In Ramadhan, there are many Islamic/religious activities aimed at uplifting our faith. Many Muslims would be active by reading the Qur’an, listening to tafsir (Quranic exegesis), observing night prayers, giving charity and doing many other meritorious activities. The spirit of activeness that characterizes Ramadhan should be allowed to permeate all our life especially on the part of our mothers. Muslim women observe Tahajjud, prepare sahuur, take care of the family, attend Islamic programmes, recite the Qu’ran and still prepare iftar.
Ramadhan is worth nothing to those that are passive. A Muslim is expected to be active for that is the purpose of his life. All his activities must appertain to the goal of attaining Allah’s pleasure. “O you who believe, bow down and prostrate yourselves, and serve only your Lord, and do good, so that you might attain well-being. And struggle in the way of Allah, as ought to be struggled in His way … “(Q.Al-Hajj 22:77 -8). “ Believers are those who (truly) believe in Allah and His Messenger, then hesitate not, and strive hard with their possessions and their selves in the way of Allah; it is they who are the truthful ones “(Q.Al-Hujarat 49:15). A Muslim avoids the temptation of using all the days of Ramadhan watching football matches and movies or playing games or sleeping heavily to waste the time away. That is spiritually suicidal, an antithesis of the letter and spirit of Ramadhan! Be careful.
The following letter represents discipline. A Muslim has to devote his time to Allah during this month through discipline. The essence of fasting lies in discipline. If you can discipline yourself not to be angry, not to eat in the day, not to cast lustful glances at the opposite sex, not engage in idle talk and obscene speech, not to do what is morally wrong or socially reprehensible, you will have more control over yourself than a person who does not. The more one is able to exercise discipline, the better the society is becomes for it. To be disciplined is to be pious and to be pious is to be God-conscious, which the goal of fasting. This discipline with devotion then animates a person’s life. He devotes good time to reading and memorizing the Qu’ran.
The month of Ramadhan is a period to improve on one’s good standing before Allah. That is why it is highly meritorious for a Muslim to observe the obligatory and the superogatory prayers. One’s devotion to taraawih, to sadaqah, to nawaafil of the day and the night ultimately separates those who Ramadhan passes through from those who just ordinarily pass through Ramadhan. Without discipline and devotion to religious activities, without commitment to the pursuit of good abundantly, Ramadhan loses its essence in us. Therefore, you must be disciplined!
Then, honesty, which the next letter represents, is said to be the best legacy and a fasting Muslim is expected to be honest and sincere in his actions and interactions with people always, especially in the month of Ramadhan. The Prophet (SAW) told us, “Whoever does not give up forged speech and evil actions, Allah is not in need of his leaving his food and drink (i.e. Allah will not accept his fasting) (Bukhari Vo. 3. Book 31, No127). In the Glorious Qu’ran, Allah tells us to be honest: “O you who believe! Keep your duty to Allah and fear Him, and speak (always) the truth” (Q. Al-Ahazaab 33:70). A fasting Muslim who is not honest in speech and actions knows that his fasting is defective. It is this honesty that one carries along with one through the other months after Ramadhan.
The penultimate letter is A and it signifies adhkaar or remembrance of Allah. A fasting Muslim remembers Allah much during the period of fasting or during the whole month of Ramadhan. This lesson is not meant for Ramadhan alone but it is expected to percolate the entire years of a believer. Whatever Sunnatic awraad or litanies that one adopts should be multiplied in this holy month. At designated periods in the day and at night, one seeks Allah’s forgiveness (Astagfirullah), offers one’s thanks (Alhamdu liLlah), praises His name (SubhaanaLlahi wa bihamdihi subhaanaLlaahil Azeem), bears witness to His oneness (Laa illaaha illa Allah) blesses the Prophet (SAW, Allahumma salli ‘alaa Muhammadin wa sallim) and says others many times in line with the tradition of Muhammad (SAW). This is very important because it is the remembrance of Allah that grants satisfaction to the hearts. (Q. Ar-Ra’ad 13:28).
Allah says further: “And establish regular prayer, for prayer prevents unlawful conduct and unjust deeds; and the remembrance of Allah is greater indeed…” (Q. Al-Ankabuut, 29:45). A conscious Muslim always occupies himself with the thought of Allah throughout the period of fasting. His endless soliloquy is the remembrance of Allah, thanking Him, praising Him, glorifying Him and seeking His favours. He also remembers Allah by reciting His book and reflecting on His message to mankind. Ramadhan is the month of the Qu’ran and reciting the book many times is a form of dhikr. It is through these activities that adh-kaar engender(s) that one forges a strong alliance with Allah. We should all aspire to be Allah’s allies through unconditional allegiance to Him.
Negation to Shaitan
The last letter or lesson is negation to Shaitan or saying NO to all temptations and deviation from the Straight Path. A Muslim must learn to say “no” because as Allah tells us in the Qu’ran, following the majority is not always right. “And if you obey most of those on earth, they will mislead you far away from Allah’s Path. They follow nothing but conjectures, and they do nothing but lie” (Q. Al-An’aam, 6:116). This means that a fasting Muslim must avoid sins, which are now very common and trendy. The wish of Shaitan is always to mislead human beings but we must always try to resist him.
According to the Prophet (SAW), “Fasting is a shield (or screen or shelter from committing sins). So, the person observing fasting should avoid sexual relation with his wife and should not behave foolishly and impudently, and if somebody fights with him or abuses him, he should tell him twice, ‘I am fasting’…” (Bukhari Vol. 3 Book 31, No 118). So, one must guard against any form of misconduct while fasting in order to reap its full rewards. One must negate Shaitan in order to be a true servant of Allah. As Allah reminds us, “O you who believe! Enter perfectly in Islam (by obeying all the rules and regulations of the religion) and follow not the footsteps of Shaitan. Verily! He is to you a plain enemy.” (Q. al-Baqrah.2:208).
Generally, fasting is for Allah (FIFA) and it is only Allah that rewards it. The lessons of fasting in Ramadhan lie in piety, humility, discipline, obedience, contentment, unity, brotherhood, patience and goodness. When the month is over, these lessons should continue to define and shape our everyday life because Ramadhan is a training period. The training is for the entire year and one does not go to a military training for instance and forgets the skills he acquired on the battlefield. If one trains for six years to be a medical doctor, he training is meant to serve him throughout his life as a medical doctor. So the lessons of Ramadhan have more relevance after the holy month and when the period last, we should uphold the lessons inherent in it to maximize its benefits.
Dr Adedimeji is the Secretary-General of the University of Ilorin Muslim Community.