It was the month of Ramadan in which the Qur’an was [first] bestowed from on high as guidance onto humanity and a self-evident proof from that guidance, as the standard with which to discern the true from the false. Hence, whoever of you lives to see this month shall fast through it…(Qur’an, 2: 185, M. Asad tr.)
The fast of Ramadan is one of the pillars of Islam. Like others pillars of Islam, it is a multifaceted act, with profound implications for all aspects of our lives, personal, social and ethical. It rejuvenates our relationship to our Merciful Creator, as well as our relations with other human beings. It helps us to be witnesses to God’s glory, to be mindful of and thankful for bounties of God, as well as to discipline our ego. In what follows, we will explore some of these aspects of Ramadan fast.
1. Ramadan Fast as a Witness to Our Sustainer Ramadan is a time to refresh the way we view the world. Fasting in Ramadan helps realize that the “simple” things we take for granted that are in fact awesome gifts. Even a cup tea is not as cheap as we often regard it to be. For the growth of a tea leaf the existence of whole universe is involved: the sun, the ordered rotation of earth, rain, soil, bacteria and so on are all brought together in harmony. Let us just try to count the kinds of fruits, vegetables, plants that “come out” of soil, is it a simple process at all? Indeed, Glorious Creator has made the whole world like a feast table; showing His perfect art, generosity and mercy. Yet, in daily life we often forget to respond appropriately to these glorious acts of the Creator. It is in Ramadan that we can wake up to a greater consciousness of this merciful and magnificent sustaining of the world. And, we turn all together, as a unified body of hundreds of millions –even more- believers on the globe, to acknowledge our gratitude to our Lord. We remember once more that we are guests of God on earth, and we show a palpable sign of this by actually participating in the fast of Ramadan. Indeed, in Ramadan, we become like a great assembly of royal guests waiting the command of their host in the dining hall to start enjoying the royal feast. All the Muslims over the globe become one united body, respectfully waiting in front of the dinner tables, for the Glorious Host’s invitation to start eating. The fast of Ramadan helps us remember our relationship to the Glorious Creator, as servants in awe and with gratitude.
2. Ramadan Fast as Enhancing our Gratitude to the Creator More specifically, Ramadan is a time to recover our gratitude to God. If a dear friend of yours sent you precious gifts in the mail, would you contend by thanking the deliverer? Would it be fair for you to forget to thank the sender, while thanking and tipping the mailman? Yet, we frequently behave like that. When we receive gifts from God, such as life, health, food, drink or love, we contend ourselves by thanking only (or mainly) the ‘deliverers’ of these gifts—parents, friends, or nature—forgetting the Real Giver of these gifts. For instance, let’s say we buy some bananas or a box of strawberries from the grocery store. As long as we pay several dollars for each, we think we really paid for these. While in fact we only paid for the cultivation and transportation of these fruits. We never pay for its amazing creation from a mixture of mud, or our capacity to taste, enjoy and digest these fruits. Do any of us, for instance, pay for the sun to shine; or for the taste buds in our tongue to work?
Indeed, we need some boost in our recognition of the real Sender. One of the wisdoms in Ramadan fast is to get this boost. By being banned from eating till the time determined by the Creator, we realize that what we thought as ours is not really ours. Experiencing the fact that we may not start eating even a minute before the sunset prayer call, we see the truth of our lives. The discipline of Ramadan helps us to tangibly see this: “here it is, the vegetables I bought with my money and cooked with my own hands in my own oven heat. Yet, this food is really not mine, for I cannot eat it whenever I want. I have to wait for the permission of their Real Owner.” This concrete realization that all that we take for granted are gifts from God encourages us to be more thankful to Him. Of course, while doing this we need not decrease our thanks to the ‘deliverers,’ who are also created by God.
In order to be thankful to God we not only need to remember that all is gifted by Him (rather than being our property), but also need to recognize the value of what is gifted. We quite often underestimate the value of a glass of water or a piece of bread- until we give up the daytime meals and snacks in the month of Ramadan. Thus, Ramadan becomes a powerful way of recovering our gratitude to our Merciful Sustainer.
3. Ramadan Fast as a Means of Getting to Know who we are. Be not like those who are forgetful of God, and whom therefore [God] causes to forget themselves.(59:19). O People! It is you who stand in need of God, whereas He alone is self-sufficient, the One to whom all praise is due. (35:15)
“I am not trying to absolve myself; for verily the soul (nafs) does incite to evil,” said Prophet Joseph (upon him be peace), concerning his nafs, or ego. (See Qur’an, 12:53) He was right and our ego is no less problematic than his! Our ego wants to pretend as if it is independent of God; it does not want to admit its full dependence on its Creator, and wants to ignore the fact that it is a recipient and not the owner of the bounties of God. In short, we have a part in us that simply does not want to be grateful and humble before the Creator. Add economic affluence and worldly power to this innate inclination of our ego, we may easily end up with a life based on forgetfulness of our true nature and our God who sustains us at every second.
The good news is that this ego is not what we are all about; it is just a part in us, it is not our real identity. The ego’s innate duty is to encourage us to forget God, and our innate duty is to say “no” to it. Ramadan fast is a time for us to do our job of honesty, when it is palpably manifest that we are all needy recipients of God’s sustenance. We realize in Ramadan more profoundly that we are neither self-sufficient nor immortal as our ego suggests us. Our ego wants to overlook the fact that we are indeed weak and perishable created beings on earth. Our ego often wants to pretend that we are immortals on earth; it wants to overlook the fact that we are only transient passengers on this world, destined for an eternal life in the hereafter (and therefore need to prepare for it.) Fasting becomes a good discipline for our ego’s illusions, by showing how our batteries fall low and our bodies become weak after hours of no ingestion. In Ramadan, the ego’s tendency to play God like a Pharaoh vanishes and our human reality becomes manifest: we are all poor creatures before God, with perishable bodies, and we should honestly and happily admit this before our Creator. For if we are poor and needy, our Creator is rich and merciful.
Ramadan is also a time to draw closer to Our Creator, for it is a special time He chooses to open His extra doors of mercy. It is a special festival of the King of the Universe! Ramadan fast also helps spiritual growth by disciplining the “stomach,” and enabling an environment in which we can listen to the message of the Qur’an more attentively. Finally, as is well-known, Ramadan has social implications; it reminds us that an important component of being grateful for what God gave is to share it with our fellow human beings. Addressing all these other aspects would require another essay. For now, let us end with a prayer for a blessed Ramadan: Ramadan Mubarak!
Written on the basis of the Treatise on Ramadan, authored by the twentieth century Muslim scholar, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Letters, 29th Letter, tr. S. Vahide, (Istanbul: Sozler, 2000) & study circles led by Dr. Yamina Bouguenaya and Dr. Ali Mermer, by Isra Yazicioglu.