Ramadan and Purification

By Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

The month of Ramadan is a special time for purifying oneself, the greatest opportunity to implement the discussions and cures with regard to the heart. In fact, this is the purpose, blessing, and secret of the month. It is a remarkable event when the new moon of Ramadan is sighted, when eyes aim toward the horizon shortly after sunset and wait until suddenly a small sliver appears. Qadi Abu Bakr ibn al-Arabi said in his commentary that the secret of Muslims following a lunar calendar as opposed to a solar calendar is that the sun is used for worldly benefits while the moon is used for other-worldly benefits. Witnessing the new moon is seeing emergence, as it is known in philosophy. The crescent suddenly emerges in the sky seemingly out of nothing. The reason the moon is not visible at first is because the sunlight is too strong. But as sunset progresses, the light diminishes on the horizon and the sunlight against the crescent itself becomes distinguished from the surrounding crimson sky. So what we actually see of the moon is the sun’s light reflected against the lunar sliver. In fact, anything that we see in creation is due to reflected light. And all light comes from God. Witnessing the birth of the new moon is pregnant with metaphor. The word hilal (crescent) is closely related to an Arabic word that refers to birth (istihlal). So what we see is actually the birth of reflected light.

Witnessing the emergence of the new moon is a movement from ‘ilm al-yaqin (sure knowledge) to ‘ayn al-yaqin (direct sure knowledge). The former corresponds to hearing a report from another, instead of witnessing the event in person. Imam al-Ghazali gives the example of a trustworthy person reporting that there is a fire in the forest. This is different from seeing the fire itself, which is ‘ayn al-yaqin, a higher sense of awareness, a direct witnessing that requires no report. But to actually touch the fire, thus affirming its reality and precluding visual illusion, this augments one’s level of cognizance. This is known as haqq al-yaqin (true sure knowledge). It is related by Imam al-Hakim that the Prophet said, “The best of God’s ser­vants are those who are vigilant about the new moon and shadows to determine the prayer times, as a way of remembering God.”

In his poem, Imam Mawlud went through many of the diseases of the heart. He spoke first about miserliness (bukhl). And what bet­ter time than Ramadan to shed this malady! It is well known that the Prophet was the most generous of people, and in Ramadan he was even more generous. His Companions described him as a wind that bears gifts. Then there is batar, being gleeful and overjoyed with the fleeting things of this world. The person who fasts during Ramadan experiences an ever greater joy, one related to this world (the happiness of breaking the fast at dusk) and one related to the Hereafter (the ultimate joy of meeting God and receiving lasting bliss of Paradise). We know from sound tradition that God keeps secret the great reward that awaits those who dutifully fast and do so with excellence. There is great disparity between joy in material things and joy in the everlasting acts that survive one’s death and accompany them in the next life.

Bughq (dislike or hatred) is something more easily eliminated in Ramadan than at other times. The Prophet said that the best charity in Ramadan is setting things right between people who are in conflict, even those who harbour hatred for each other. Oppressing or wronging others (baghi) is anathema to the ethic and spirit of this great month. Ramadan is about gaining position and status with God the Exalted. Moreover, fasting is an act of worship that out­wardly cannot be seen in a person.

Love of the world is a disease that we wean ourselves of during Ramadan, for we voluntarily deprive ourselves of the pleasures of food, drink, and sexual intimacy. Love of praise is likewise struck down because Ramadan is a time in which we examine our short­comings and build resolve and momentum to rectify them. For example, if we are remiss with regard to certain rites of worship, like the Night Prayer vigil (Qiyam al-Layl), we ride the momentum of the devotional prayers of Tarawih and convert them to Qiyam after Ramadan passes. The same applies with paying charity, which is especially meritorious during Ramadan.

It is difficult to have ostentation (riya) in Ramadan for a number of good reasons. Ritual prayer is a conspicuous act, as is the Pilgrimage and even paying Charity (Zakat). Fasting, however, because it involves abstinence, is invisible. One can stare a per­son in the face and not know whether or not he or she is fast­ing, which makes fasting an impossible act to flaunt before others. Also, because many people attend the mosque in Ramadan to per­form extra devotional prayers, a person prone to ostentation no lon­ger feels so significant. You are one face among hundreds of faces. Ramadan is a time to break habits, which we do when it comes to breaking from consuming food and drink.

Being displeased with the qadr (divine decree) of God is a disease fuelled by a lack of iman, that is, trust and faith in God. Ramadan is a time in which one grows his or her iman through the power of volun­tary deprivation and patience. When one’s iman grows, so too does one’s understanding and acceptance of what God has decreed.

Rapidly, months pass before our eyes until again Ramadan is upon us. The first days may seem stretched, but thereafter they dash by. Having realization of the movement of time is part of the Ramadan project. To believe that one has a lot of time left in life is what Imam Mawlud refers to as long hopes, foolishly investing all of one’s hopes for salvation for some distant date, as if we are guaranteed to live that long.

Bad omens and superstitions can be found in all societies and cultures. It is amazing how millions of people throughout the world make decisions based on what they perceive to be bad omens. Imam Mawlud mentioned that the cure for this is simply to ignore these superstitions and, in fact, confront them without giving any thought about their ascribed powers. Hunger has a way of dropping the veils on a lot of things, including superstitions. When one experiences hunger, he realizes his utter dependency on God the Exalted and that only He provides and withholds; nothing can bring harm or benefit except by His leave.

Harbouring suspicion, rancour, or negative opinions about other people is especially noxious in Ramadan. The same goes for all forms of cheating, vanity, and irrational anger. Ramadan is a month of remembrance, for we stand long in prayer listening to the Quran. As such, heedlessness (ghafla) has little refuge in one’s mind and heart, which are busy with the remembrance of God. Being mindful of God and His awareness of what moves in and out of one’s thoughts and heart removes negative feelings.

Boasting and arrogance are starved in this month. How can they survive, while we admit our abject need of God and His generous provision? Who can engage in self-aggrandizing when it becomes plain that all that we have is from God the Exalted and is not some mystic result of our own talents and privilege? Profound dislike or being blamed, the fear of death, and other vices spoken of by Imam Mawlud rise to the surface during Ramadan so that they can be more easily skimmed off and discarded.

All of these blessings of Ramadan come with the obvious cave­at: nothing is automatic. This is not the system that God set in place in our lives and the world in which we live. Without effort and sinceret rust, Ramadan can easily be just another 30 days in a year, no special moment. Even for those who fast, who mechani­cally deprive themselves without striving to reach deep into their souls for spiritual lessons, replenishment, and climbing, the month comes and goes with only the sense of inconvenience and then a cel­ebration at the end. Then life goes on as it did the months of the year before. One cannot help but notice a tragedy in this: God so generously opens portals in time, truly special opportunities for us to grow, learn, and build for our Hereafter, yet people turn away from it with casual notice and perfunctory interest.

Imam al-Ghazali speaks much about fasting in Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din the chapter “The Secrets of Fasting.” He says that one of the greatest blessings God has given humanity to protect itself from the plots and clever machination of Satan is the fortress of fasting. It is a believer’s shield. We have been shown in many verses of the Quran and hadith of the Prophet If:, that Satan makes inroads into one’s soul through hidden gates. There are two of them by which the human being may be destroyed: shahawat and shubuhat. The former is sensory, relating to excessive pleasure (the stomach, the geni­tals, and all the corollary things that go with that). Shubuhat relates to the heart, which is where Satan works first to create doubt and scepticism about what God has revealed and, in fact, about God Himself.

To lure the believer into doubt is Satan’s game. To protect one­self from this is a personal responsibility. We are explicitly told that Satan’s guile is weak (QURAN, 4:76) and that he has no authority except over those who choose to make themselves vulnerable and who are deluded (QURAN, 15:22, 16:99). So to shield against Satan’s whisperings, one must guard one’s creed and sound belief, and shun shady devices. This entails conforming one’s worship with the sunnah or established practice of the Prophet. It requires deepening one’s knowledge in Islam and its various sciences.

If Satan sees that he cannot assail one in matters of creed and belief, he then comes through the door of shahawat, lust and desire. Our desires are integral parts of normal creation and function. But when they evolve into masters that we consciously or unconsciously serve, this is a problem that can become severe enough to drag us outside the fold of guidance. For Satan, this door can be lucrative, especially with consumers of media who receive a steady stream of messages that make licentiousness and excessiveness appear nor­mal. The Prophet told his Companions to be wary of Satan and his designs, for he flows in man’s veins. Just as alcohol flows in the blood delivering its debilitating effects to the brain, liver, and other organs, so too do Satan’s machinations and enticements.

The Prophet said that fasting is half of patience, and patience is a quality indispensable for a successful life and Afterlife. Satan traffics impatience and despair, while fasting exposes the folly of both. The scholars of spiritual purification advise this: be patient with regard to food, which is the primary urge, and with regard to sex, which is the secondary urge. Conquer these two, the rest becomes easy. There is another hadith stating that patience is half of iman (faith). So fasting is a quarter of iman. There is yet another hadith stating that God the Exalted multiplies the reward for a good action ten to 700 times, except for fasting, “Fasting is My own and I shall reward it,” which indicates the enormity of the reward for proper fasting. God says, Those who are patient shall be rewarded without measure  (QURAN, 39:10). Fasting and patience are deeply related; patience too is an important key to the opening of favours from God.

The Messenger of God swore that the breath of a fasting person is more pleasing to God than the fragrance of musk. This is enough to know the expanse of the treasure-house of fasting. It is said that the sleep of a fasting person is worship; this is because his fast continues whether he is awake or asleep. This, obviously, does not apply to any other act of worship. Also, when Ramadan comes, the gates of Paradise are open, the doors of Hell are closed, the devils are locked up, and a caller calls from the angelic realm, “O seeker of good, come in this month, and O seeker of evil, cease.”

With regard to the verse, Eat and drink [in Paradise] with full con­tent for what you had done in the days gone by (QURAN, 69:24), Imam al ­Shafi says that these bygone days refer to those spent fasting. This is, perhaps, the great lesson of Ramadan, training the soul to for­sake temporary sacrifice for a reward that far exceeds the measure of what we do. The sign of sound rational strength is putting off short-term pleasure for a greater long-term pleasure.

It is important to realize also that taking control of our desires defeats Satan. More than a dozen times the Quran gives notice that Satan is an avowed and open enemy to humanity who seeks to divert people from God’s path and send them spiralling down to debasement in this life and the next. One very important armament against Satan is fasting, which shuts a door through which Satan attacks men and women. And God says, If you help God, He will help you and make your foothold firm (QURAN, 47:7). Of course, God the Exalted is not in need of any help per se. What “help” here means is actually helping oneself through such immensely beneficial acts as fasting, which vanquish one’s caprice and control one’s desires. Fasting for religious purposes is becoming increasingly alien in “pleasure societies,” where the pursuit of worldly pleasure is so inordinately emphasized.

In a well-known hadith, the Prophet said that during Ramadan devils are locked up. Why, then, do we still have bad thoughts? It is a common question. Scholars say that these thoughts originate from our own souls battered by satanic whisperings and devices implanted in us. Another blessing of Ramadan now becomes apparent. It is a time to see what has happened to our soul, what condition it is in, and take notice of our shortcomings: jealousy, envy, overzealous competition, love of gossip, and the rest. During Ramadan, these traits become clear, and a clear enemy is easier to defeat than a slinking one.

Imam al-Ghazali says that there is an outward and inward fasting. The outward pertains to making sure that the basics are observed, namely, abstaining from consuming anything or having sexual intimacy with one’s spouse. The inward is about making sure that the fast is acceptable to God. The Prophet ~ said that there are many people who fast but gain nothing from it except hunger and thirst. Outwardly, their fast seems fine, but inwardly they break their fast with such things as backbiting, lustful glances, lies, and other violations of the inward fast.

There are three types of fasting: the general fast, elect fasting, and fasting of the elect of the elect. The general fast involves pre­venting the stomach and genitals from fulfillment from dawn until dusk. This is something any Muslim can do. Fasting of the elect involves protecting the eyes, ears, tongue, hands, stomach, genitals, and feet against sin, small or large. Ibn al-Qayyirn said that the body of the human being is like a country, whose capital is the heart and whose frontiers are the seven limbs. Satan reaches the heart through one or more of these appendages. Fasting guards the boundaries and trains its sentinels so the heart has a greater chance of drawing near to God.

The word mu’min (believer) comes from the same root as amana, which signifies trustworthiness, in which one fulfills a trust he has been given. It is said that one has no iman (faith) if he has no amana, that is, if he cannot keep trusts. God Himself, however, has given us trusts: our sight, hearing, and the heart itself, which generates the actions of the other limbs, are all trusts for which we are responsible (QURAN, 17:36). It has also been revealed that on the Day of Resurrection the only currency accepted will be a sound heart – not wealth or sons (QURAN, 26:89). A sound heart is one protected and nurtured. Likewise, whoever pollutes [the soul] has failed (QURAN, 91:10). We know that the soul and the heart are trusts given to each human being. In fasting, God the Exalted is teaching us how to honour our trusts. Our tongues should be free of slander, lies, backbiting, abominations, and the like; our ears free of hearing the forbidden; our eyes free of lustful glances and other forbidden matters; our hands free of doing anything illicit, like stealing; our feet free from going anywhere prohibited; our genitals free from penetrating or receiving what is not permissible; and our stomachs free from imbibing or consuming forbidden and unwholesome food or drink or consuming in excess. These are trusts’ we must protect, and an indispensable method of protecting them is through fasting.

Imam al-Ghazali says the higher form of fasting-the fasting of the elect of the elect-is the fasting of the heart from low aspirations or from worldly thoughts or gains. Ramadan is known as the month for spending for the sake of God-divesting oneself from material assets for the purpose of investing in the Hereafter. In the other months, we are busy acquiring wealth, while in Ramadan we are in the Hereafter-mode of thinking.

One of the scholars of Andalusia said the first degree of walaya (saintliness) with God is to take one’s thoughts into account, that is, to measure one’s thoughts according to the scale of the Sharia (Islamic Sacred Law). Ramadan is the perfect time to take account of the lingering whisperings of the heart and mind. In Arabic, ‘amiy (pl, ‘awam) refers to someone whose concern is in such things as the marketplace, which is a metaphor for worldly attachment. It is important to rise above that, to transcend. There are scholars who think that because they are learned, they are not among these ‘awam. But this is not always true. There are street sweepers who know only the minimum of their religious obligations and only a few passages from the Quran, but their hearts are with God, while there are learned people who are worldly in their ambitions.

Imam al-Ghazali said, “How many people are not fasting, but with God they are fasting? And how many people are fasting, but with God they are not fasting?” In other words, there are people who, throughout the year, guard their eyes, ears, tongues, genitals, feet, hands, and stomach from corruption. In reality, they are fulfilling the purpose of fasting. Yet there are people who fast physically but with God they are not fasting in that they are not vigilant regarding the unseen aspects of their character and thoughts. So when Imam al-Ghazali speaks about the elect worshippers, he does not merely mean those who are known for their learnedness.

Imam Muhammad ibn Sahnun conducted regular teaching sessions. One day a man came to one of his sessions, walked through the gathering, whispered in the Imam’s ear, and then departed. He did this for many days straight, to the point that the Imam asked his students to leave a path for this man to make his way to him. One day the man stopped coming, and Imam Sahnun asked about his whereabouts. But the students had no idea why the man stopped coming and why he had been coming in the first place. The Imam then asked someone to find him. When he was brought to the Imam, he asked, “You stopped visiting me. Why?” The man said, “I am a poor man with daughters to marry. Some people who envy you offered me money if i would disturb you every day. And if I were able to make you angry and humiliate you in front of your students, they would reward me so that I can marry my daughters. But when I saw that I. had no effect on you, I gave up.” The Imam told him, “Why didn’t you just ask me for some money?” This is the training of fasting, patience even in the face of insult.

The Companion Salman al-Farisi once was a Zoroastrian. He saw the elders of that faith lighting their sacred fire whenever it became extinguished. In fact, Salman’s father was one of the men in charge of keeping the flame. The elders would tell the flock that the flame miraculously kept ablaze no matter what. But Salman knew of the hoax. He went out searching for the truth and came upon a Christian monk with whom he spent some time. He saw him, however, stealing public money and burying it in his yard. So Salman left and came across another monk, who he found to be quite honest. The monk told Salman that the time had come for a prophet to appear in Yathrib and that he should migrate there. Salman was a seeker imbued with great patience, which is key to spiritual wayfaring.

The patience of the Prophet was peerless, given all that he had gone through, all the tribulation that he faced. If we do not learn patience from the act of fasting, then we have missed some­thing about this great rite of worship.

Scholars throughout the ages recommended that in order to get the most from Ramadan one should not engage in excessive speech. This is an Islamic ethic that should be practiced in general. But in Ramadan, it is especially advised to be vigilant about what we say, since higher fasting involves guarding the tongue. Also, it is important to utilize our time well. This is a month that our righteous forebears would beg God to let them witness the month six months before it came. And for six months after Ramadan, they would beseech God to accept the worship they performed during the month. This is how they viewed this great month. They wept when it passed, which is hardly the popular reaction of our cur­rent day. Ramadan is a merciful portal of time that opens and then closes. And none of us knows whether or not we will see another Ramadan. So seize the moment to gain God’s mercy, forgiveness, and salvation. There is no capital more worthy of our concern and effort than this.

Imam al-Ghazali said that the greatest proof of human deficiency is the fact that when a person does something, shortly thereafter he realizes he could have done better. The scholars say use the time, especially the night. Reserve a portion of it to read the Quran and stand in prayer. This is, of course, in addition to the Tarawih Prayers. The Night Prayer vigil, even if short, is packed with good­ness. If it is at the end of the night, then perhaps it is better to recite the shorter suras, especially those that are associated with special benefits, like the closing verses of Surat al- Baqara (sura 2), Surat al ­Zalzala (sura 99), and others. Also perform the Midmorning Prayer (Duha), which is performed after the full rising of the sun and before the sun reaches its zenith. One may pray two, four, six, or eight rak’as. This is a prayer that the Prophet did regularly. If one establishes these additional acts of worship during Ramadan, they may be carried over throughout the year, spreading the benefit of Ramadan through the other months.

Also, performing the prayers on time is considered a very important aspect in “establishing prayers” as the Quran reminds several times. We all know how tempting it is to delay the prayer to its last possible moment. The obvious problem with this is that it can easily lead to neglecting the prayer altogether. Imam Malik in his Muwatta said, “The most important of all your affairs are your prayers. Whoever guards it and is vigilant about its times, he has guarded his religion. And whoever is negligent therein, he is negligent about ail the other affairs in his life.” It is reported that near his death, the Prophet said, “The prayer. The prayer.” So prayer is everything. There is no spiritual life without it.

Also know that the time between late afternoon and sunset is a special time for dhikr’ (remembrance of God). Asr time (when the sun starts its decline) is the signalling of the end of yet another day we have been blessed-to see. It is a time of contemplation of the metaphor it represents, the decline of our lives, with sunset signifying the end of a lifetime. So it is a time to remember God and reach out for His mercy. In this culture, however, people see the end of the day as an opportunity for entertainment. Taverns call it “happy hour,” when people go to drink and willfully become oblivious of life’s purpose.

As the Prophet stated, there are two joys associated with fasting. One is the joy of breaking the fast, and the other is when one meets his Lord. Scholars make the analogy that breaking the fast is like meeting our Lord.

It is best to break one’s fast as soon as the sun sets. A date, milk, or sip of water would be sufficient. One should then pray the Sunset Prayer (Maghrib) before the meal. The time for Maghrib is short and goes by quickly. When sunset arrives, break the fast and make the special supplication: “O God, for You I have Fasted, and in You have I placed my faith. And I break my fast on Your provision. So forgive me what I have advanced and what I have done, O Lord of the Worlds.” Also, “Gone is the thirst. Moist are the veins. And, God willing, the reward is assured.” If you eat at another person’s home, offer the following supplication: “May those fasting break their Fasts with you, and may the virtuous eat of your food, and may the angels pray for you.”

It is also meritorious to pray in the mosque and to observe the etiquette of being in a place dedicated to worship. One important etiquette is not to engage in idle talk that can deaden the heart. Unfortunately, many people are afflicted with this and do not see their affliction. After the prayer, they linger around and take up senseless conversations. This is not to say that one should not speak at all. It is good to ask one another about health and other matters that show concern and keep love and brotherhood alive. But there should be something meaningful in the discourse.

If we are able to conquer afflictions, such as idle talk and other excesses, we should never belittle people who have yet to do so. We should not don the mantle of a judge and make sententious declarations about others. Instead, thank God for what He has given us. When the Prophet saw an affliction in another person, he said quietly, “All praise is for God who granted me well being from what He has tested you with and has favoured me above many in creation.” It is not arrogance that one recognize a blessing that God has given him or her. Arrogance is when a person feels that he or she especially deserved this blessing. Know that God can take a blessing away and elevate others in rank and honour, even those toward whom people aim their condescension. Once a man falsely accused Muadh ibn Jabal of wrongdoing. Mu’adh made supplication against this man. When the man reached old age, he was seen doing unbecoming things himself and his eyebrows sagged over his eyes. That was a great trial God gave him in his old age for falsely condemning Muadh without right.

As mentioned previously, recitation of the Quran during Ramadan is especially effective in reviving one’s relationship with the Book of God. Imam Abu Hanifa said that reading the Quran at least twice a year ensures that one is not estranged from the Quran or withdrawn from it. There is a verse in the Quran in which the Prophet complained that the people have neglected the Quran (25:30), that is, they say what is untrue about it or dismiss it. Imam al-Qurtubi says with regard to this verse that on the Day of Resurrection the Quran will bear witness against those who neglect it, even those who have learned it but who stopped giving it proper attention. If one is unable to recite, then one should listen to a recording of the Quran. For those who are up to it, there is a seven-day litany of completing the Quran: the first day, one reads the first three suras; the second day, the next five suras: the third day, the next seven suras: the fourth day, the next nine suras: the fifth day, the next eleven suras: the sixth day, the next thirteen suras; and the seventh day, the remaining suras.

Throughout the centuries, scholars have written much about Ramadan. It truly is an exceptional opportunity to cleanse our hearts of the diseases presented in this volume. Of course, the remedies Imam Mawlud speaks of can be applied any time. But during the month of miracles-when the Quran itself was revealed-small good deeds are magnified and large deeds multiplied over and over again.