Since the word Ramadh means intense heat, in pre Islamic period the month that fell during the dead of summer was called Ramadan. But since the lunar year is shorter than the solar year by 11 days, the same month would come in all seasons. The Arabs did not like this. They wanted each month to come in the same season, particularly the month of the festival of Hajj. Taking a cue from the Jewish community, they added a month to their calendar every three years thus ensuring that every year the lunar months fell in the same season.
The Quran put a stop to this system of intercalation by declaring in Surah (9) al-Tauba (v 36) “The number of months in the sight of Allah is twelve in a year…..” Thus now the month of Ramadan falls in all seasons, shifting by about 10-11 days each year.
Instructions about fasting in this month are found in Surah (2) al-Baqara, which was revealed in the early years of the Prophet’s sojourn in Medina: “……so every one of you who is present (at his home) during this month should spend it in fasting…..”(v.185).
Fasting was not something new. This principle and practice of self denial, in pre-Islamic times, were to be found among the Christians, the Hindus, the Jews and even some Pagans, (but each of them had different prohibitions and different durations of the fast). The Quran mentions this in Surah (2) al-Baqara, (v 183) where it says: “O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may learn self restraint –”.
Fasting trains the believer to gain control over his self. Initially, it is the physical aspect that is addressed. The believers are expected to abstain from food, drink and smoking, use of profane language and from sexual intercourse from first light (before the break of dawn) until sunset. (Exempted from fasting are those who are travelling and those who are sick, with the clause that they make up the lost days later. But if even that cannot be done, they will feed at least one indigent against each fast missed.)
Besides the control of the physical appetites, the believer is expected to exercise control over his emotions. Negative emotions like anger, jealousy, hatred, selfishness etc are to be avoided, whereas positive emotions like unconditional love, kindness and empathy for the deprived and the needy are to be developed and practiced.
Once the control over his self is achieved and the believer is able to get a grip over his physical appetites and his emotions, he is ready for the development of his spirituality; the ability to connect with Allah. And the route to Allah is through serving His creation, (because he is Rabb ul Aalimeen), hence the payment of zakaat in this month.
So, to conclude, the purpose of the fast is to train the believer to be a responsible member of the community, fully committed to the welfare of the people around him. The vision of the Prophet was to build a healthy successful Ummah, which could only be achieved through highly trained personnel…. All the five pillars of Islam,(toheed, salaat, saum, zakaat and haj) train the believers towards this ultimate goal.
Sadly, today, the Muslim Ummah has lost sight of the agenda set by Allah and His Prophet (PBUH). The month of Ramadan now has become a month of self indulgence, where kitchen expenditures skyrocket (instead of diminishing) and the concept of sharing is translated into entertaining relatives and friends rather than with feeding the poor and needy.
Ms Nazli Saiyid is a scholar of Islam. She has been studying, researching and teaching the Holy Quran for over twenty years. Currently she is engaged in research for the MPhil degree with focus on Islamic History.
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