Meaning and Customs of Ramadan
I would like to have an explanation about what Ramadan exactly is. Inform me of its meaning and its customs.
The Islamic (lunar) calendar, like the solar calendar, is divided into twelve months. Ramadan is the name of the ninth month of this lunar calendar. The significance of this month in Muslim history is that the revelation of the final book of God (according to the Muslim belief) – the Qur’an – was initiated in the month of Ramadan. Though, according to the Qur’an, fasting was also prescribed for the followers of those prophets of God, who came before Mohammad (pbuh), yet God selected Ramadan as the month of fasting for Muslims because of its particular significance with reference to the revelation of the Qur’an .
An explanation of fasting, in my opinion, should entail answers to the following questions:
- What are the rules that a Muslim has to abide by while in a state of fasting?
- What is the reason for which fasting is prescribed in the Divine law? and
- What is the reason for the selection of Ramadan as a month of fasting for Muslims?
These three aspects are briefly explained in the following paragraphs:
As far as the rules relating to fasting are concerned, they are quite simple. A fast is observed from dawn to sunset. A Muslim, while in a state of fasting, has to refrain from eating, drinking and sexual relations with his/her spouse. A person who is ill or on a journey, due to which it may be inconvenient for him to fast during the prescribed days of Ramadan, may miss the number of fasts during which he is not feeling well or is on a journey. Later on, when he recovers from his ailment or returns from his journey, he should complete the number of fasts missed during the prescribed month of Ramadan. A person who suffers from a permanent ailment, due to which he is permanently incapacitated from fasting, may as a compensation for each fast missed feed a poor person.
As stated earlier, a fast is observed from dawn to sunset. Thus, all restrictions regarding eating, drinking and sexual relations are observed during the stipulated time from dawn to sunset. In other words, after sunset or before dawn, there is no restriction on any of these activities.
As far as the reason for which fasting has been prescribed in the Divine law, it is clearly mentioned in the Qur’an that it is to inculcate the quality of “Taqwa” in the individuals. “Taqwa” is an Arabic word, which implies the ability and the quality to strictly adhere to God’s laws. The Islamic Shari`ah includes a number of directives, which under varying circumstances may become quite difficult to follow. Fasting, according to the Qur’an is a training period, during which for a limited number of days, Muslims are required to follow a stricter daily schedule than is the case in normal days. During Ramadan, for the purpose of this training of inculcating Taqwa, even things (like eating, drinking and having sexual relations with one’s spouse) that are normally allowed for a Muslim are disallowed/prohibited for a stipulated time. This exercise is expected not only to develop the ability of self-control in the individual – which in turn helps in abiding by the divine directives in normal days – but is also expected to develop the quality of patience and steadfastness in following the divine directives and the ability to face any difficulties that one may have to encounter in following these directives.
This training period, for the purpose of better understanding and appreciation, may be compared to the training period that a newly recruited military cadet is put through during the initial stages of his service. This training period is to develop in the cadet the ability to face the contingent hard times that he may have to go through during his tenure of service. In the same way, a Muslim, is put through a stricter schedule of a training period for one month during a year for the purpose of developing in him the ability and the quality of “Taqwa” (adhering to divine directives) in his normal course of life.
As far as the reason for the selection of the month of Ramadan for the purpose of fasting is concerned, the Qur’an itself tells us that the selection is made to celebrate the revelation of the Qur’an . It was during this month of Ramadan that, according to the Muslim faith, God revealed to man his final guidance. Fasting has been prescribed during this month to remind all Muslims of their responsibilities toward this final guidance of God – namely adhering to its directives in letter and spirit. What could have been a more appropriate way of celebrating the anniversary of the revelation of the Qur’an than reminding ourselves of our prime duties toward it – i.e. submitting to its directives with patience, perseverance and steadfastness and to thank God for bestowing upon man His guidance to the path of promised and everlasting salvation.
The True Spirit of Fasting
Is it haraam for one who is fasting in Ramadan to be bad such as swear and start a fight?
Fasting, according to the Qur’an, has been prescribed upon the Muslims as a training program for the elevation of their level of piety and obedience to the Lord of the worlds in their normal daily routines. Thus, during the month of Ramadan, a Muslim is ordained to refrain even from things, which are, generally, lawful for him. During these days, from sunrise to sunset, a Muslim is directed to refrain from drinking even water to quench his thirst, from eating even the lawful food to satisfy his hunger and from having sexual contact even with his/her spouse. During these days, a Muslim adheres to these restrictions, on the fulfillment of his natural requirements and desires, only in obedience to the directives of God. Therefore, even though from a purely juristic point of view, it is only eating, drinking and sexual contact, during the daytime that breaks a fast; yet if we keep the true spirit of fasting in perspective, we can easily derive that all such other things which a Muslim should generally refrain from, should be more strictly and more consciously avoided during these days. It is, in fact, based on this spirit of fasting that the Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said: “Whoever is not willing to refrain from lying and from doing bad deeds; God does not require from him to refrain from eating and drinking” (as reported by Bukhari). Teaching the same spirit of fasting, the Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said: “Fasting is like a shield against bad deeds. Therefore, [while fasting,] a person should neither involve himself in lewdness nor lose his temper. If someone tries to get him involved in a fight, he should say: ‘I am fasting’ [and, thus, avoid fighting]” (as reported by Bukhari).
Fasting is, in fact, a strenuous training program for Muslims with the target to strengthen their spirit to avoid involving themselves in any actions or deeds, which are not approved by their Lord. This is the true spirit of fasting. With this true spirit of fasting in mind, it is clear that a person should strictly refrain from involving himself in all such deeds, activities and discussions, which are clearly against the likings of our Lord.
Things Related to Ramadan
It has become tradition for Muslims to pray Taraweeh prayers after Isha. After reading some of your articles I have come to realize that the Prophet NEVER prayed Taraweeh, he NEVER prayed Witr prayers and he only prayed Tahajjud prayers. Am I correct in my understanding? If I am, can you please explain how one performs the Tahajjud prayers as did the Prophet? Detail would be much appreciated (such as groups of two rak’ats to a certain number of times etc…).
I was told that the Tahajjud prayers are only to be prayed during the last 10 days of Ramadan. Also, praying Taraweeh on whatever day Lailatul’Qadr lands on is as if you’ve prayed a 1000 months of prayers (or something to that affect). This relates obviously to the surah in the Qur’an. Is this accurate and what was intended in the verse?
I may be asking too much of you but I would request that if you could inform me of the things that are Fard and Sunnah during Ramadan. There may be many misconceptions and I don’t know they are misconceptions so I’m basically asking you to weed out somethings. Ramadan is important to me and I would like to fulfill my obligations and additionally commit voluntary deeds and actions.
I know you have written quite extensively but I believe some of the queries I have posed are not mentioned in those articles.
It is not very accurate to say that the Prophet (pbuh) never offered Witr prayers. A more accurate statement would be that the Prophet (pbuh) is not reported to have offered Witr prayers with the Ishaa prayers. On the contrary, the Prophet (pbuh) offered Witr prayers as a part of the Tahajjud prayers, which he regularly offered throughout his life.
As for the various methods in which the Prophet (pbuh) offered Tahajjud prayers, please refer to one of my earlier response to a related question titled: “How to Offer Witr Prayers?”.
I was told that the Tahajjud prayers are only to be prayed during the last 10 days of Ramadan. Also, praying Taraweeh on whatever day Lailatul’Qadr lands on is as if you’ve prayed a 1000 months of prayers (or something to that affect).
The referred idea is completely unfounded and has no basis in the primary sources of Islam. Not only did the Prophet (pbuh) offer Tahajjud prayer during the whole of the month of Ramadan, but also during all the other nights of the year.
As for the special reward of deeds – including offering supererogatory prayers like tahajjud prayers etc. – it is reported in a few narratives ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh) and, as you have mentioned, the idea seems to be based on the referred verse of the Qur’an.
I would request that if you could inform me of the things that are Fard and Sunnah during Ramadan.
The Fard practices during Ramadan are the same as during other days of the year, except for those obligatory practices, which are specifically related to the practice of fasting. As for the supererogatory practices, there is no limit or specification of these practices. One should try to involve oneself in all kinds of pious deeds, specially those related to God’s worship – as in supererogatory prayers and memorizing the supplications taught by the Qur’an and those reported in narratives ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh) – understanding God’s guidance – as in reciting the Qur’an – or helping other human beings – as in spending out of one’s wealth over and above the obligatory Zaka’h. The essence of one’s life during the month of Ramadan, specially, and during the other days of the year, generally, should be to live a life that is as much in compliance and coherence with the recommendations of the Shari`ah as possible.
I hope this helps.
 Also included in this booklet in section ‘Regarding Taraweeh Prayers
Observing Ramadan in a Muslim and a non-Muslim Country
I am a Christian student taking a class entitled Muslim Faith and Feeling to learn more about your life and faith. I am doing a paper on Ramadan. Since I am from the US, my question is:
- How is it different celebrating Ramadan in a predominately non-Muslim country, like the USA?
- How is it easier in a predominately Muslim country?
- What are the unique difficulties celebrating it in the USA?
- Whatever insights and understandings you can give me would be extremely helpful and appreciated.
Thank you for this site and for your input!
Observing the obligatory fasts of Ramadan, in its essence, is not any different whether the individual is residing in a predominantly Muslim or a non-Muslim country. Obviously, certain differences do arise due to the participation/non-participation of the general collectivity in which the individual is residing. However, these differences only make it more or less convenient in fulfilling the obligation.
For instance, while living in a pre-dominantly Muslim country, it is very unlikely that a person be invited at a social gathering in which edibles are to be served, while in a state of fasting. While such inconveniences may have to be encountered while living in a pre-dominantly non-Muslim society. In the same way, the participation of the collectivity in this form of worship may in a number of other ways, support and prompt the individual in fulfilling his obligation. For instance, in most Muslim countries, the beginning and the closing times for fasts are officially announced, there is generally a restriction on eating and drinking in public places during the fasting time etc. All these factors may, in a way, help the individual in fasting. In short, the difference between fasting in a pre-dominantly Muslim and a non-Muslim country may be explained in terms of a social backing of the worship at a macro level.
However, it should be kept in mind that this difference only effects the convenience for the individual in fulfilling his obligation. It does not in any way effect the nature of the obligation itself. That is, all Muslims, irrespective of their place of residence are obliged to fast during the month of Ramadan.
How Can the Differences regarding Prayer Timing and Ramadan Dates be Resolved?
I live in the United States and every year I observe Ramadan. It drives me insane that as Muslims we cannot agree as to the date of when it begins. I get highly upset that this simple issue has not been overcome yet. If Allah created everything in due measure then it must be that scientifically we can know in the most accurate way when Ramadan begins, without having to see it. My dilemma is this: Who do I follow as to the beginning of Ramadan? Who is best versed at knowing when Ramadan begins?
Even our prayer times differ. Here’s an example, say I am looking up prayer times in my area, I get questions such as “is your prayer method: Umm Al-Qura, Muslim World League, Egyptian General Authority of Survey, University Of Islamic Sciences Karachi, ISNA” etc… The other question is “Jurist Method: Standard or Hanfi…” Another is if we observe day-light savings time… I understand there are different schools but I am a Muslim and that’s it. I don’t belong to any of the major schools of thought and I don’t even want to be distinguished as Sunni or otherwise. I am a Muslim because Allah has asked/told us not to divide. So who do I follow? The Saudis, the Egyptians, etc… Who? When is the accurate prayer time? When does Ramadan begin and end (especially in the U.S.)? It is in the nature of mankind to disagree with one another but I just want the truth, it is the only thing that makes me closer to my Creator.
Any help in my decision making would be of great value, especially for prayer times and Ramadan.
Jazak Allah Khair
As a principle, a Muslim, in his individual capacity, may ascribe to and follow the opinion of any of the schools of thoughts, which he considers to be more understandable and in keeping with the spirit of the Qur’an and the Sunnah. In this sphere, no one has a right to force the individual to an opinion, which he – the individual – is himself not comfortable with. However, in contrast to matters relating to the individuals, which may be decided by each individual in question, matters relating to the collectivity of the Muslims may not be as simple to deal with. It is because of this reason that the Qur’an has recommended the principle of deciding such matters on the basis of consultation between the Muslims or their representatives.
In view of the recommended principle of the Qur’an, all decisions relating to the collectivity of the Muslims – whether it is the timings of the congregational prayers, the beginning or the end of Ramadan or any other matter – should be taken on the basis of consultation. This really implies that in case of a difference of opinion among the Muslims, the opinion ascribed to by the majority of the Muslims should be accepted and implemented.
As an application of the foregoing principle, in the Muslim countries, it would indeed be recommended that the timings for the congregational prayers should be decided by the respective governments of these countries, through consultation between the representatives of the Muslims of these countries, within the allowable range of time for each prayer specified by the Prophet (pbuh). In case of a difference of opinion, the opinion of the majority of the representatives should prevail and be implemented. The same principle would apply in deciding about Ramadan.
In non-Muslim countries, it would be advisable for Muslims living in those countries to form informal consultative forums to facilitate decision-making in religious matters relating to these Muslim collectivities. These forums may be formed at various levels. For instance, to decide about the timings of congregational prayers and to look after the upkeep and administration of the mosques, a more localized forum may be formed, while to decide about the more universal issues, like the beginning of Ramadan, it would be advisable to form a council at a state or a national level. Common Muslims should be encouraged to adhere to the decisions of these forums.
As for using technological means of predetermining the dates of Ramadan, there would be no harm in doing so, provided such a determination can be made on a reliable basis.
I hope this helps.
On the Verses on Fasting – First Question
Hi, could you send me the translation for the verses 186 to 188 of the second Surah. Also explain the meaning of these verses. It seems that initially it was not permitted, in the month of Ramadan, for the men to sleep with their wives even in the nighttime; later on the prohibition was removed. Is that right?
As far as your question regarding the Ramadan Ayah (verse) is concerned, I shall try to explain the issue very briefly.
As I understand it, the first part of the revelation regarding fasting in Ramadan, was from Al-Baqarah 2: 183 to 184. A simple translation of these verses follows:
“O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may learn to live according to the commands of Allah. (183) A few numbered days. However, if anyone of you is ill or on a journey then the prescribed number should then be completed in other days. And for those who can bear it, feeding of an indigent, shall be a ransom. And he that gives more (than this) of his own freewill, it is better for him. And that you fast (and thus complete the number) is better for you, if only you knew. (184).”
Later on, Al-Baqarah 2: 185 – 187 were revealed. In these verses:
- The reason for prescribing Ramadan as the month of fasting was given.
- The allowance of “fidyah” or ransom for any missed fast, (feeding of one indigent) was removed. As it was only a temporary allowance, to train the people, as obligatory fasting was quite a tough proposition. (185)
- Questions asked about maintaining the sanctity of Ramadan were answered. (186-187)
Keeping the above explanation in perspective, I think that when Ramadan was initially prescribed as a month of fasting, people became overly cautious about maintaining the sanctity of this month. They thought it was better to completely abandon sexual relationships with their wives, even during the nights, throughout the sacred month of Ramadan. This restriction was never mentioned in the first revelation (or even later ones). It was only an overly cautious assumption of the Muslims. Thus, later on, when a question regarding the issue was put to the prophet, the verses that you have referred in your letter were then revealed.
On the Verses on Fasting – Second Question
Here is the translation by NJD (N.J. Dawood) for the verses 186 and 187 of the second Surah:
“If My servants question you about Me, tell them that I am near, I answer the prayer of the suppliant when he calls to Me; therefore let them answer My call and put their trust in Me, that they may be rightly guided.It is now lawful for you to lie with your wives on the night of the fast; they are a comfort to you as you are to them. God knew that you were deceiving yourselves. He has relented towards you and pardoned you. Therefore you may now lie with them and seek what God has ordained for you. Eat and drink until you can tell a white thread from a black one in the light of the coming dawn. Then resume the fast till nightfall and do not approach them, but stay at your prayers in the mosques.These are the bounds set by God: do not approach them. Thus He makes known His revelations to mankind that they may guard themselves against evil.”
What I understand from the above is that do not approach your wives while fasting but stay at your prayers in the mosques. You and the other translation refer to ‘aitikaf’ (which I believe is something like staying at the mosque during night saying your prayers). By the way what is meant by “… what God has ordained for you.”
As far as the text is concerned, you will most definitely see the words “wa antum `aakifuna fil masaajid” (Al-Baqarah 2: 187) in these words, the word “`aakifun” is given to mean the same as “Mu`takif” which in turn has been translated as: “secluded, isolated, withdrawn, solitary, recluse, remaining, staying, abiding” (Al-Mawrid, Arabic to English Dictionary, dar al ilm lilmalayeen)
Now, in the Qur’an , the word “`aakifun” is used as a term just like the word “Sala’h”. It means a “complete temporary seclusion for concentrated praying”.
I think that NJD’s translation over here is not a very accurate one. I would think that the word “`aakifun” (because it is a term) should not be translated at all. It could be something like this: “and do not approach them, when you are in `aitikaaf in mosques” and then this word could have been explained in a footnote; “but stay at your prayers in the mosques” is not a good translation of “wa antum `aakifuna fil masaajid”. I really do not know what should be the correct English Translation for the words which are translated as: “… what God has ordained for you”. The meaning, as I see it, are the outcomes of sexual relations.
Clarification of a Narrative Regarding Ramadan…
The common understanding of Muslims is that when Ramadan begins the devils are chained and the gates of heaven are opened. However, this does not seem to make sense because if the devils are chained then how is it possible to do evil during Ramadan? Is the suggestion then that during Ramadan no human beings are being enticed to do evil, but rather it is from within them? This does not seem to make sense either since one could argue that evil continues to exist with the same vigor during Ramadan as it does outside of it.
Before presenting my comments on the referred concept of the Muslims, it may be clarified that it is based on a narrative ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh). According to the reporting of Bukhari, the Prophet (pbuh) is ascribed to have said:
When the month of Ramadan approaches, the doors of heaven are cast open, while the doors of Hell are shut down and the forces of evil are tied in chains.
The correct implication of this narrative, in my opinion, is close to what Ibn Abd al-Burr has mentioned in his commentary on the Mu’atta of Imam Maalik – Al-Tamheed. The narrative, in my opinion, implies that during the days of Ramadan, God protects all those who faithfully and sincerely intend to fast and earn for themselves the mercy, forgiveness and protection of their Lord. This implication of the narrative is coherent with the declaration of the Qur’an that when a person resolves to do good and to follow the path prescribed by his Lord, God helps him in doing good and makes the path of piety easier for him to tread. In Surah
Al-Ankaboot, the Qur’an promises:
Those, who strive in our ways, We shall definitely guide them to Our paths. (29: 69)
Then again in Surah Al-Layl, the Qur’an promises:
For him, who gave [in charity], feared God [abiding by His limits] and testified the good [end], We shall, indeed, make the path of bliss easier for him [to tread]. (92: 5 – 7)
In keeping with the cited promise of the Qur’an, the Prophet (pbuh), in the referred narrative, is reported to have said that when Ramadan approaches, God opens the doors for heaven and shuts down the doors to hell and enchains all evil forces for all those who have a sincere resolve to piety and to live their lives in a manner which is prescribed by their Lord. In this way, God protects the faithful and the obedient among people from the attacks of evil forces and makes the treading of the path of piety easier for them.
 Even though this rule would hold good under ordinary circumstances, yet because of the general attitude towards piety in the month of Ramadan, it has been specifically mentioned in the narrative under consideration, with special reference to the sacred month of Ramadan.