The holy Ramadhan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, occupies a unique place in the annals of history. It was in this glorious month that Hazrat Ibrahim (AS) was blessed with the divine Sahifa. It was in this month of divine majesty that the Holy Taurat reached mankind through Hazrat Musa (AS). It was again in this month of sublime excellence that the sacred Zabur saw the light of day through Hazrat Daud (AS). Hazrat Isa (AS) had the privilege and honour of receiving the divine revelation of the Holy Injil in this auspicious month of Ramadhan. And last but not the least, it was in this month, whose excellence was much extolled by no less a person than the holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) himself, that the Revelation of the Holy Quran commenced on the sacred night of Lailat-ul-Qadr. Sura Baqara testifies to the sanctity and excellence of this sacred month when it declares: “Ramadhan is the (month) in which was sent down the Quran, as a guide to mankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (between right and wrong)” (2 : 185). Ramadhan is derived from the word Ramz which means “to burn,” “to scorch.” The root meaning of Ramadhan is excessiveness of heat; the month was so called because “when they changed the names of the months from the ancient language they named them according to the seasons in which they fell, and this month agreed with the days of excessive heat.”
Roza is a Persian word. Its equivalent in Arabic is al-Siyam. Although 'fasting' and Roza are synonymous, Roza or al-Siyam must not be equated with normal fasting. There is a gulf of difference between Roza in Ramadhan and mere abstention from food and drinks. Al-Siyam is something much sublime, much nobler, more exalted and majestic. “It is an armour,” declares the holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), “with which one protects oneself” (Bukhari). It calls for full exercise of self-restraint on all the senses and limbs -- a total and absolute control on all evil acts and desires, control of not only wrath, malice, arrogance, greed, jealousy, hatred and enmity, but of all indecent and unholy dreams and desires. The holy Prophet (pbuh) ordains: “So let not him (who fasts) utter immodest (or foul) speech, nor let him act in an ignorant manner; and if a man quarrels with him or abuses him, he should say twice: “I am fasting” (Bukhari). Abu Huraira (RA) testifies that the holy Prophet (pbuh) said: “He who does not give up uttering falsehood and acting according to it, Allah has no need of his giving up of his food and his drinks” (Bukhari).
Allah ordains in the Holy Quran: “O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint” (2:183).
Al-Siyam or Roza during the holy month of Ramadhan, one of the five pillars of Islam, is obligatory for every Muslim provided he or she is in full possession of his or her faculties. There are, however, exemptions for temporary causes such as menstruation or child-birth bleeding and persons in sick-bed or on a journey. The exemptions clearly signify that Allah never wants His bandas to suffer and undergo self-torture. The Holy Quran testifies: “Allah does not want to put you to difficulties. (He wants you) to complete prescribed period and to glorify Him in that He has guided you: and perchance ye shall be grateful” (2:185).
Al-Siyam or the fasting is indeed an ancient form of worship, prescribed for the Muslims as well as other nations which preceded us, ever since the time of Hazrat Adam (AS). According to the commentaries of Al-Manar, “Fasting is an ancient form of worship recognised by previous religions -- even heathen ones. It constituted an essential part of every religion. It was known to the ancient Egyptians, from whom it passed on to the ancient Greeks, who used to enforce it principally upon their women. The Romans also observed Fast and the Pagans in India and elsewhere practise Fasting to this day. Fasting in different forms was also in vogue among the Hindus and the Buddhists, the Christians and the Jews. According to Al-Manar, “The best-known and oldest of Christian Fasts is that of Lent, which precedes Easter. It is the same Fasting period as observed by Moses and Jesus (peace be upon them) and his apostles.” The Christians were categorically commanded by their Prophet to fast: “Moreover, when ye fast, be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance……… But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head and wash thy face” (Matt. 6: 16,17). Again, when the Pharisees objected to Jesus' disciples not keeping the fast as often as John's, his only answer was that when he would be taken away “then shall they fast in those days” (Luke 5: 33-35). Moses (pbuh) himself fasted for forty days to qualify himself to receive the Divine Revelation. Jesus (pbuh) also fasted for forty days in the desert and commanded his disciples to do the same.
Islam introduced a new meaning, a new vision, a new idea, a new spirit into the institution of Fasting. Fasting was blessed with a systematic regulation, a scientific method, a noble justification. In the days before the holy Prophet (pbuh) Fasting meant the suffering of some privation in the hours of mourning and sorrow. Islam introduced a revolutionary innovation -- Siyam stood not for mere suffering or abstinence but an institution for the moral uplift and spiritual elevation of the human soul. A Muslim Fast is undoubtedly stricter than other systems of Fasting, but it provides alleviations for special circumstances. The restraint from the animal instincts for food, drink and sex enables the attention of a man or a woman to be directed to higher or nobler aspects. Fasting in the light of Islam helps him or her to overcome lusts and thereby sets us at the mouth of the road leading to perfection -- perfection to be achieved through prayers and penance, Taqwa and Tarawwih, contemplation and acts of charity, total restraint and abstinence from all evil acts and thoughts. The self-restraint or Taqwa indeed has to be a voluntary effort comprising the elements of caution, alertness and fear of Allah. Benign Providence himself loves this glorious and voluntary effort and attempt at self-restraint by His banda. In the words of the holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh): “By He, in Whose hands Muhammad's soul rests, Allah prefers the bad breath of one who fasts to the fragrance of musk” (Bukhari and Muslim).
Al-Siyam is indeed something unique. It enjoys, in the eyes of Allah, a divine grace unparalleled by any other act of piety and worship. According to a Qudsi Hadith (utterances attributed to Allah outside the Holy Quran), the Most Gracious and the Most Merciful Allah, in His infinite Mercy, declares: “A man's work belongs to him. A good deed is repaid from tenfold to seven hundred times. Fasting belongs to Me and I repay”(Bukhari and Muslim).
Salman al-Farisi (RA) told of Allah's Messenger (pbuh) saying in a sermon which he delivered to them on the last day of Sha'ban : “A great month, a blessed month, a month containing a night which is better than a thousand nights has approached you people. God has appointed the observance of fasting during it as an obligatory duty, and the passing of its night in prayer as a voluntary practice. If someone draws near to God during it with some good act he will be like one who fulfils an obligatory duty in another month, and he who fulfils an obligatory duty in it will be like one who fulfils seventy obligatory duties in another month. It is the month of endurance, and the reward of endurance is paradise. It is the month of sharing with others, and a month in which the believer's provision is increased. If someone gives one who has been fasting something with which to break his fast it will provide forgiveness of his sins and save him from hell, and he will have a reward equal to his without his reward being diminished in any respect. ……………It is a month whose beginning is Mercy, whose middle is Forgiveness, and whose end is Freedom from hell” (Baihaqi in Shu'ab al-iman).
Ramadhan has come back once again with all its pristine glory and spiritual excellence to teach us self-restraint, to temper us in the kiln of Taqwa, to provide us with a unique opportunity to receive Divine Mercy directly from Allah. Let us rise to the occasion and celebrate it in all sobriety in a befitting way, not through extravagance and prodigality, not through sumptuous iftar parties and delicious sehri dishes, but through prayers and penance, self-restraint and meditation, acts of charity and benevolence.
The writer is a former Director General, Islamic Foundation Bangladesh.